Money for nothing?
Last week Jeremy Corbyn said that Labour might consider adopting a universal basic income as party policy. Emphasising the responsibility of government to 'protect citizens' from uncertainty, rather than exacerbate it, he isolated a UBI as a potential solution to the risks of globalisation – but only after proper research and testing. That's probably a good idea, since nobody is really sure what happens when you start to give money to everyone for doing ‘nothing’. There was an experiment in Manitoba in the 1970s, and trials are imminent in Finland and Oakland, California, but they won’t give much sense of how it would work in a country with 65 million people and the world’s sixth biggest economy.
Given the lack of precedents or data, why is the left so seduced by the idea of a guaranteed income for all? (The Greens included it in their last general election manifesto.) Corbyn used the language of unemployment insurance in his speech, but a UBI’s real popularity derives from concerns about ‘technological unemployment’. As robots and algorithms perform more tasks previously undertaken by humans, the argument goes, more and more people will find themselves either unemployed or in highly precarious work. As machines are capable of producing more things more efficiently than ever before, an ever growing number of people will prove incapable of buying them. In a healthy economy under 20th-century capitalism, growth was a result of high employment and rising wages, which meant workers could buy the goods and services they produced. For a growing number of thinkers, by no means limited to the left, that model has definitively gone. Its successor? Secular stagnation.
Proponents of a UBI think they have the answer to that conundrum. As human labour is increasingly disconnected from production, so too, they argue, should wages be. If machines no longer need people to make things, the only way to maintain a market economy, and allow an ever larger surplus population to live, is to make humans no longer need paid work. If capitalism was, in part, defined by workers being compelled to sell their labour on a market in order to live, then undermining that mechanism could be seen as revolutionary.
And yet a UBI has found adherents who champion an entirely different politics, including the two great intellectuals of neoliberalism, Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. Friedman backed a universal income because it would cut bureaucratic costs, as left advocates do, but he also viewed it as a way of inserting markets into the provision of services currently administered by the state. Rather than an antidote to the excesses of late capitalism – low wages, weak unions and the maximal expansion of market rationality – Friedman saw a universal income as a means of extending it.
A UBI makes sense as a progressive policy only if it’s accompanied by major reforms to housing, education and healthcare, which would need to be completely withdrawn from commodity circulation and free at the point of consumption (as much of the NHS presently is). If your rent is more than half your wages, or university sets you back £9000 a year plus living expenses, a UBI won’t be much help: rather, it spells further erosion of any social democratic settlement. A universal income could set us free, tipping the balance of power back to labour, paying carers a wage, allowing experimental business models to flourish and entrepreneurs to take risks, but only if it’s part of a broader moment – one in which the human right to free time isn’t seen as more important than a home, education or good health.