On Saturday 4th February, Greater Manchester continued its long tradition of being at the forefront of political and social history in Britain. In the backdrop of thousands of people gathering in Albert Square to protest against Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, a radical meeting around a relatively new idea took place across the River Irwell in Salford’s oldest church.
Now I’m interested in progressive politics of all kinds, and I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of introducing a basic income nationally, whilst harbouring doubts about its practicality. Yesterday, over a hundred people from around the world walked in the footsteps of Marx and Engels, and came to Salford to discuss a new progressive idea at the first World Basic Income Conference. By the time the conference was over, almost all my doubts and reservation about basic income were dispelled.
The conference was organised by the World Basic Income organisation. It brought people from a range of backgrounds and disciplines, both internationally and locally to address the varying issues around basic income. I’ll do my very best to summarise the issues that were discussed.
What is a world basic income?
To try and simplify and very complex idea, basic income is where a government (either national or regional) collects money through taxes, levies or fees and distributes it unconditionally to everyone to spend as they see fit. There are different variations of basic income; some methods give everyone the same amount of money, whilst others give more to those who need it most.
Basic income is not a new idea in itself. It has roots in the 18th century with Thomas Paine advocating for it as a “right not a charity”. Since then, the idea of a basic income has had a range of supporters from right-wing economist Milton Friedman, to Martin Luther King Jr.
World basic income takes the same concept behind a basic income and applies it internationally, so every human being, whether rich or poor, would be entitled to a regular, supplementary income. The World Basic Income organisation proposes that this should be $10 a month as a starting point.
How would it work?
There have been many pilots on different forms of basic income on small and large scale. These have taken place in all over the world; Namibia, Uganda, India, Netherlands, Portugal and Finland have all trialled (or are currently trialling) different forms of basic income. Documentary filmmaker and conference attendee, Peter Janssens filmed a two-year basic income pilot in Uganda as part of a project called Eight, which looks to find eight ways of reducing inequality in the world.
The funds for a world basic income could be raised in a variety of ways: it could be through a tax on corporations, trade or land value to ensure that the richest in the world contribute towards improving the lives of the poorest. Alternatively, it could be through a tax on carbon emissions, thus mitigated the effect of climate change whilst tackling global inequality. It could be a variety of others methods or a combination of a few. Whatever the method, it’s not beyond all reason.
The collected money would have to be distributed from an international body; maybe a division of the UN or a whole new organisation. With the capabilities of modern technology, it wouldn’t be too difficult to distribute the money to every person who opts in to the scheme. It could be done through direct bank transfer, or as mobile cash, smart cards or vouchers.
But there’s not enough money to go around, right? Wrong. In fact, humanity is wealthier than ever. The problem is that the money is in the hands of so few whilst billions live in poverty. The total wealth we produce each year is around $76 trillion. A world basic income would only need to re-direct a tiny part of that wealth – around 1.2%.
And no, people will not just stop working because they have a small supplementary income. Ask yourself this: if you had even an extra £300 a month, would you stop working? I bet around 99% of you would say no, so why assume others would stop? In fact, almost every pilot study of basic income has shown proven that it helps people get back into work, continue work and contribute to society in a variety of ways.
There are certainly real challenges that still need to be addressed: how can basic income overcome the regional and international disparities of living costs is certainly a major problem. However, we can only start to work out these issues through trailing different forms of basic income and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
Why introduce a World Basic Income?
This year’s Oxfam report on global inequality exposed the massive injustices in the global economy: eight billionaires own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who form the poorest half of the world’s population. Whilst $10 a month might not seem a lot to those of us from wealthier parts of the world, to a lot of people, it could allow them to get a basic education, afford clothes, food and healthcare, and other things many of us take for granted.
“It’s not justifiable that a section of humanity lives in wealth and luxury, whilst another lives in destitute poverty” – René Heeskens, founder of the Global Basic Income Foundation
If the basic income was substantial enough, it could also eventually replace other forms of welfare. In Britain, the welfare system is catastrophically failing, often with devastating consequences. Now is a time to start exploring alternative systems, at the very least.
Another benefit is that a basic income could offer an alternative to the increasing individualism in our societies. Church attendance and trade union membership has long been falling, whilst loneliness has been increasing. This is in part due to the necessity to work longer hours, with little time to engage in social, collective or family activities. A basic income could offer security and more freedom to engage in wider society.
However, this shouldn’t just be some “Leftist, liberal” dream. It could appeal to the Right of the political spectrum as well. In theory, if every human being is guaranteed basic economic stability, there would be less need to move for economic reasons. Therefore, a world basic income could reduce migration, whilst also improving human compassion for those fleeing from conflicts.
“Basic income is about giving people power over their own lives” – John Merry CBE, Deputy City Mayor of Salford City Council
Aside from those all those benefits, it actually makes economic sense. Poverty is incredibly expensive. Various pilots have shown that time and time again, a basic income lowers poverty, decreases infant mortality, improves health, lowers crime rates and means people spend more money, thus putting more money back into the economy. In the long run, a world basic income would be an investment with a guaranteed return.
Lastly, there is the increasing automation of the workforce. A report in 2014 indicated that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated within the next two decades. There is undoubtedly benefits to technological progress and there are many jobs that robots simply perform more efficiently and effectively than humans. But governments internationally must begin to ask – how are we going to replace that loss of work and therefore income? A basic income is surely the only solution, and here’s an idea: why not tax the use of AI to raise the funds for it?
That all sounds great, how do we make it happen?
Now this is definitely the trickiest part. International policies are often lag painfully behind global developments.
One of the positive things is that basic income has the potential to have a positive effect on everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, whether you identify as of the Left or the Right – a basic income changes society for the better. Therefore, basic income has a universal appeal.
Indeed, the French Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, is proposing it if he wins the Presidential election. The British Green Party made it their campaign pledge in 2010 and there are ongoing discussions within the Labour Party about adopting it as part of their policy. The centre-right government of Finland has been experimenting with basic income for a while and India, the country with the most amount of people living in poverty, is considering introducing a system of basic income.
As ever, we can’t rely entirely on political parties to push through such a radical proposition as a world basic income. We must start grassroots movements to put pressure on governance locally, nationally and internationally.
Some of you may have got this far and be thinking “good idea, makes sense but it’s never going to happen.” Well, there was a time when people thought we would never end the slave trade or that women would never have equal votes as men. Sometimes, all it takes is a group of visionaries with the will and persistence to make their vision come about.
“It’s about moving from that dream to that vision … And we need to be clear in that vision” – Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party
In ten, fifty or a hundred years, when world basic income is a basic human right – please remember, the movement that contributed to making it a reality began in Salford.