To judge from my Facebook news feed and Twitter updates, the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) is gaining traction on the political left and centre-left. The extraordinary measures being undertaken by governments to prop up economies hit by Coronavirus and associated lockdowns somehow make it look less outlandish. In Britain the idea is getting closer and closer to being official policy for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats; it is already there for the Greens. I have always been a sceptic, and I still am.
The attraction is easy to see, and the crisis has highlighted its virtues. It is one answer to the massive information gap that lies between governments and the citizens they serve. This makes it impossible to target aid accurately to those in need. Government schemes like the furlough scheme leave many gaps, are subject to administration delays or injustices, and doubtless pay lots of money to those who don’t really need it, including fraudsters. On the other hand, attempts to target better involve humiliating procedures to verify need, which are often administered by officials that seem to take pleasure in the exercise of petty power for its own sake – and who are not empowered with discretion to use common sense nor accountable for the human results of their work.
This information gap has two main causes. The first is privacy, whereby we deliberately limit the information we make available to the authorities, or anybody else. The is one of the core aspects of what we understand by freedom, and all psychological benefits that come with empowerment and autonomy. But there is also the sheer scale and complexity of the information problem. Even in countries unworried by the idea of privacy, like China, face colossal problems trying to understand individual people’s needs, and often resort to arbitrary rules.
UBI is income that everybody is entitled to, on the minimum possible qualifications (such as nationality; there would likely be some form of age-based entitlement too). This would eliminate the need to provide targeted help in most cases, its advocates argue. In particular it would not depend on whether the citizen is working, and could replace unemployment benefit, or, in the UK, Universal Credit. There is no need for the state to gather data on income and work status in order to check entitlement.
Some support for this idea has recently come from Finland, where a randomised trial was carried out between UBI and unemployment pay. It was found that UBI did not reduce the incentive to look for work, while significantly improving the wellbeing of those receiving it. One worry about UBI, especially if it is substantial enough to replace entitlements to benefits, is that a significant number of people would give up the search for work, because they would not need it. But advocates point out that the incentive to work is improved because people keep all the extra earnings (subject to taxes), rather than having benefits withdrawn. The Finnish study provides some interesting evidence here.
But if the incentives argument falls away, there remains the question of how the state manages to pay for it. There is a dilemma here. The higher the rate of UBI, the more it can replace other benefits, and so deliver the advantages advocates want to see. In the UK Universal Credit is an obvious target, and so is the basic state pension. And yet as soon as it reaches this sort of level, the state outlays required to cover it become massive. Of course there are savings. Since the state pension is already a more or less universal entitlement, there may not be much extra outlay. Tax free allowances on pay could be withdrawn. But the gap remains massive.
Some on the left wave all this away, based on the insights offered by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which basically suggests that budget deficits can be funded by borrowing or printing money, and so traditional ideas of balancing budgets are old hat. Now I’m not as rude about MMT as most conventional economists seem to be, but it does seem to have encouraged the sort of magical thinking I last remember being widespread at the time of the tech boom in the late 1990s (“losses are the new profits”). The problem is that UBI would potentially unleash a wave of extra consumer demand across the economy, which could lead it to overheat and break down, through inflation or a debt crisis (because of the need to borrow foreign currency to buy imports sucked in by the excess demands). That is unless demand could be dampened down in some way, i.e. taxes raised. This is not a question of just taxing wealth, and top pay either. This may be a good idea anyway, but it is not likely to have a big enough impact on demand to head off trouble. Some combination of increases in basic income tax, national insurance and VAT will be needed too. This needs to be discussed more openly by the idea’s advocates.
But my reservation goes deeper. To me UBI seems to be trying to shortcut the sort of interventions that our society needs. It is an attempt to give people money in the hope that their problems will go away. That may work for a lot of people, but we will still be left with a vast residue of people with more complex needs, which a basic UBI does not begin to solve. I prefer solutions based on a highly devolved interventions by empowered professionals, able to tailor solutions across the whole range of public services from health, to housing, to law enforcement. The way to bridge the information gap is through people intelligently examining individual needs and crafting complex solutions. This will entail a judicious mixture of conditional and unconditional benefits. Our public services have been going in the opposite direction for two decades or more, as successive governments have sought to take the humanity out of public services and replace it with targets that turn out to be meaningless. By focusing so much on UBI, we are distracting attention away from the real crisis in public services.
The craze over UBI illustrates one of the biggest failings in a our politics. The search for simple, if radical, ideas instead of trying to understand the humanity of our society, and going about the messy and painful business of adjusting to this reality.