I’m old enough to remember the levels of unemployment in the 1980s – in excess of 3 million people out of work as the Thatcher-led Conservative government totally changed (some would say brutalised) the economy of the UK. This pandemic has the power to do even more damage. We may look back at the 3 million unemployed figures of the 1980s as the halcyon days … 4 or even 5 million unemployed once the government support schemes have been wound down is a distinct possibility. At the sharp end of this will be our fellow citizens who are the lowest paid and with the least transferable skills – but they aren’t the only ones in danger. Our country cannot afford the societal changes another economic collapse would bring and new, brave ideas need to be adopted. Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one such idea.
A couple of years ago I attended an event where ex-Green party leader, Natalie Bennett made a convincing case for UBI. Rutger Bregman in his excellent book “Utopia for Realists” has written about UBI. The COVID-19 crisis has brought this idea more into the mainstream with Lib Dem leadership hopeful Layla Moran talking about implementing some form of UBI.
In its purest form, UBI is often seen as ‘free money’ – essentially giving money to every citizen with a legal right to live and work in the country. This money would have no strings attached to it. It isn’t means tested and there are no restrictions on how you would be able to spend it. It should be enough to cover the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter.
I know what you are thinking – how much will it cost? It will just make people even lazier than they are now! They will just spend it on fags and cheap booze. Let us look at each of these main reasons offered against adopting UBI.
Imagine the cost of giving this amount of money away to EVERYONE! The amount will be eyewatering but at least half of it would be covered by the vast simplifications it would allow in the welfare system – savings in universal credit, basic pension, housing benefits – UBI would be enough to cover all this. Trials done in North America suggest that giving away $1 generates $1.22 in the wider economy – it could help pay for itself!
Darren Martin wrote an excellent piece for Liberal Base and discussed how a micro-tax on electronic transactions could be used to help pay for UBI. The money raised from a levy of this kind could also be used to help plug the enormous hole in the Treasuries budget produced by the measures taken during the Corona Virus crisis – a fairer alternative to putting up income or VAT tax rates and entering another era of austerity because of more belt tightening akin to the first half of the last decade. I definitely recommend reading his piece.
Giving people money will just make them lazy and not want to work! A reasonable argument but not one that is backed up by evidence. Where trials have taken place, only a tiny proportion drop out of the employment market and most of these are parents who decide to stay at home and look after children – more cost savings! Without the threat of losing benefits, It would actually promote re-training and volunteering in local communities.
Will recipients spend their money on cigarettes, alcohol or drugs? Well the libertarian in me says so what if they do. Again, the evidence suggests that people use it wisely and it improves people’s wellbeing and living standards.
Even without the Corona Virus wrecking the economy we are at the forefront of the automation age where many jobs will eventually disappear. UBI offers a way for our citizens to live their lives with dignity, give them space to retrain and look after families and volunteer in their communities without the worry of having their money cut because of these laudable choices. Considering this, morally how can we NOT seriously think about adopting some form of UBI? Free money – an idea whose time has come?
I’d be interested to hear your views on UBI … feel free to contact me at
Wayne Chadburn is a mathematics teacher and columnist for Liberal Base. He lives in Penistone, South Yorkshire where he serves as a Town Councillor. Wayne blogs at waynechadburn.wordpress.com and Tweets @waynechadburn.