Fundamental shifts in the world of work are eroding traditional social safety nets. Could a universal basic income be the solution?

It’s already happening in Finland and the Canadian province of Ontario, while other states and cities across the world are considering the idea. The Economist’s Tamzin Booth heads up a discussion among global and political experts to talk through the case for a basic universal income.

UBI isn’t a new idea, according to Guy Standing of the Basic Income Earth Network. He says it was originally ignored, but growing fears surrounding job automation have stoked an interest in basic income. Standing suggests that basic income will exist as a form of social justice. “It’s a means of basic security”, he says. “It won’t eradicate poverty, but it will handle uncertainty”.

Defining the context of universal basic income

Former Dutch politician Neelie Kroes points out that universal basic income is a flexible concept because it draws interest from both ends of the political spectrum. Factors remain at play, however. At the moment, the future of work is rooted in speculation and Kroes suggests that job automation would need to develop further before universal basic income were implemented. “We also need to be specific to what market we are talking about when it comes to introducing UBI”, she says. For example, in the UK, the numbers alone suggest it would equate to a third of GDP to give everyone universal basic income.

Cannibalising inefficiency

Indian politician Amitabh Kant is in favour of the notion of UBI in his home country, but only under certain conditions. He says it would work much more efficiently than other schemes currently in place, such as the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Continuing to cannibalise inefficient government schemes could help bring it into effect in India, he adds.

Harvard University’s Michael Sandel agrees with this idea. He argues in favour of universal basic income, on the similar caveat that it shouldn’t exist as a substitute to labour. “We have an obligation to contribute to the common good through work”, he says.

Finding the funding

One of the issues inherent in UBI is identifying the source of funding. Guy Standing takes a different line of argument to Kant insofar as he believes it should be a repayable loan. Having witnessed a trial scheme in India, he says that relationships within communities improved, as did public health, schooling and nutrition. He says, “I would be against the case of turning it into a loan. It will increase inequality, as many will not be able to pay it back”.

According to Standing, the way in which we understand the funding of universal basic income needs to be reframed. It isn’t taxpayers’ money, but fossil fuel subsidies and rentier capitalism that should fund UBI. At the moment revenues from IP and property are only going to a tiny minority.

In summary

Amitabh Kant mentions that one of the greatest concerns is to introduce UBI for those living in poverty. This is a pressing problem in India, where ⅓ of children are affected by lack of nutrition. The specific context of universal basic income is important, and varies from nation to nation Kroes points out.

Sandel believes that a UBI can be created off the back of some kind of national service. “That way you couple a sense of mutual indebtedness with contributing to the public good”, he says.

Tamzin Booth draws attention to the fact that both the left and right of politics have an interest in basic income, so it would take a while to bring a coherent UBI framework into effect.