Basic Income: A timely solution to the imminent welfare crisis?
Universal Basic Income, or Citizen’s Income, is the idea of guaranteed a monthly payment, paid equally to all citizens, what some are calling ‘money for free’ . It is an idea which is steadily gaining traction, it is now Green Party policy , and has the backing of the SNP’s National Conference . Basic Income is one policy which seems to most capture the spirit of unbridled optimism of the Yes Movement: a remedy for the ills of late stage capitalism and the economic challenges presented by continued automation. It is also seen as a commonsense solution to our current state of affairs, whereby too many people are overworked, many more are unemployed and vast swathes of society are not having even having their basic needs met. Inequality has sky-rocketed, work is no longer a route out of poverty and our social security system no longer provides a ‘safety net’ for those in need.
In this context, the idea of giving everyone a basic amount of money to live on is appealing. This appeal is demonstrated by the number of events bringing together supporters of universal basic income. In late 2016, the Royal Society of Arts supported public lectures in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, where proponent Professor Guy Standing spoke to hundreds of people about the benefits of Basic Income . Tied into these meetings were discussions with Fife and Glasgow Councils about piloting such a venture . Last week, Women in Scotland’s Economy, hosted Philippe Van Parijs, to present a paper at the second annual Ailsa McKay Lecture, entitled ‘Basic Income: A radical proposal for a free society and a sane economy’, and on Wednesday 24th May Basic Income will be examined from a feminist perspective at the Fika Café Glasgow.
Although we most often here a progressive case for a basic income, not everyone is so sure that free money as radical a solution as is generally assumed. On the 12th of May Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, hosted an event entitled. ‘What’s Wrong with Free Money? A Critique of Demands for Universal Basic Income’  which sought to challenge Left-wing support for this policy. In their article of the same name , Cristicuffs point out that basic income has been supported at different points in time by Conservatives, such as Richard Nixon, free market libertarians, as well as the progressive Left. Starting from the perspective that there must be something fishy about a policy that is supported by people with such widely divergent political views, they conclude that the policy is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of capitalism, and its need to create poverty. This argument is reminiscent of Leftist critiques of the creation of the Welfare State, which contend that social security merely acts to ameliorate capitalism, thus allowing its contradictions to continue, and ultimately does not solve the problem – which is capitalism itself. For some, a Basic Income is merely a way of maintaining poverty, rather than a means of ending it.
While there is wisdom in being skeptical of a policy which is supported by Left and Right, these discussions seem abstract in the face of the reality of our current failing social security system. Speaking with a welfare rights worker, who did not want to be named, there is a clear consensus, among those who work directly with claimants, that Universal Credit will prove to be an unmitigated disaster , that it is completely unworkable and destined to fail . For those experiencing the failures of our current welfare system, Universal Credit is a crisis quietly unfolding and already the cause of immense suffering .
When faced with an unworkable welfare system, which appears beyond repair, an opportunity may be presented to establish something new. If, as some suggest, Universal Credit really is doomed, then something will need to take its place. Replacing the kafkaesque, cruel and complicated Universal Credit with the simplicity of a guaranteed income for everyone, could well become politically feasible, even desirable, right across the political spectrum. With a Government, unburdened with the legacy of creating Universal Credit, could Scotland now be the place where such a radical idea actually takes hold?