Swiss basic income advocates dump 8 million coins in a public square to celebrate the 125,000 signatures that forced the government to hold a referendum on the proposal in 2016.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

What is Basic Income?

The idea of a universal basic income has been in the news a lot lately. But what exactly is it?

What’s the big idea?

Imagine that everyone, no matter what their background, whatever their job, how much money they had (or didn’t have) in the bank, was given an amount of money from the government every month. You wouldn’t have to work or exchange anything for this money, you wouldn’t have to be seeking work or unable to work. Equally, this wouldn’t mean you couldn’t work, invest, or earn any amount on top of this. We’d all receive the money, unconditionally. And that’s the basic idea behind basic income.

Why should I care?

Free cash, yay! Well yes, but it’s not quite that simple. If basic income was adopted it would mean a very serious change to the way society works, and it would affect each and every one of us. Current welfare systems would need to be replaced entirely, which supporters feel would get rid of the expensive administration of benefits. It could mean a shift in the way we think about work. Governments would also need to rethink policies in a whole host of areas, from immigration to education to housing.

Prominent Economists Erik Brynjolfsson, Christopher Pissarides (Nobel Laureate) and neuroscience researcher Dileep George discuss the idea of a universal basic income at a World Economic Forum panel in Davos, 2016.

A little history…

The idea of a minimum income goes right back to the 16th century. But it really got going, as we now understand it, in the mid-19th century when French philosopher Charles Fourier added the ‘unconditional’ bit. By 1918, British philosopher Bertrand Russell had taken up the cause. He wrote: “When education is finished, no one should be compelled to work, and those who choose not to work should receive a bare livelihood and be left completely free.” More support came later from both sides of the political spectrum, and the idea is championed by right-wing libertarians like the Adam Smith Institute (with a few caveats) and social progressives like the UK's Green Party.

So how does it actually work?

It’s actually pretty simple. The precise details do vary from country to country, but the basic idea is the same. Paid to individuals, not households, basic income is a monthly unconditional payment made to everyone, irrespective of any income from other sources, and your overall financial system. That’s about it.

basic income sign
Image: Unconditional Basic Income © Mister Higgs

For and against…

Opinion is divided. It’s regarded as a very radical policy by many. Some see it as a naive fantasy, entirely unpractical, which would encourage people not to work. The result would be a detrimental effect on the economy and on society. Others think it would do away with a nanny-state welfare system, and mean that everyone would be able to feed, clothe and house themselves. Those on the right like it because it necessarily reduces the size of the state, while those on the left like it because they see it as a way to ensure social justice. Critics tend to offer concerns regarding the cost of such a scheme, and that it might make bring about a laziness epidemic...

Who’s talking about it?

Basic income has been in the news recently because both Switzerland and Finland are considering trying it out. The Finnish government will be conducting a trial to see if such a scheme could work in the country, while the Swiss will be holding a vote on whether to give every citizen a monthly income of £1,700 a month.

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