Love the idea of a universal basic income? Be careful what you wish for

Yes, UBI could be an important part of a radical agenda. But beware: its proponents include neoliberals hostile to the very idea of the welfare state

For some time now, the radical left has been dipping its toes in the waters of universal basic income (or unconditional basic income, depending on who you talk to). The idea is exactly as it sounds: the government would give every citizen – working or not – a fixed sum of money every week or month, with no strings attached. As time goes on, universal basic income (UBI) has gradually been transitioning from the radical left into the mainstream: it’s Green party policy, is picking up steam among SNP and Labour MPs and has been advocated by commentators including this newspaper’s very own John Harris.

Supporters of the idea got a boost this week with the news that the Finnish government has piloted the idea with 2,000 of its citizens with very positive results. Under the scheme, the first of its kind in Europe, participants receive €560 (£473) every month for two years without any requirements to fill in forms or actively seek work. If anyone who receives the payment finds work, their UBI continues. Many participants have reported “decreased stress, greater incentives to find work and more time to pursue business ideas.” In March, Ontario in Canada started trialling a similar scheme.

Given that UBI necessarily promotes universalism and is being pursued by liberal governments rather than overtly rightwing ones, it’s tempting to view it as an inherently leftwing conceit. In January, MEPs voted to consider UBI as a solution to the mass unemployment that might result from robots taking over manual jobs.

But UBI also has some unlikely supporters, most prominent among them the neoliberal Adam Smith Institute – Sam Bowman, the thinktank’s executive director, wrote in 2013: “The ideal welfare system is a basic income, replacing the existing anti-poverty programmes the government carries out.” He added that UBI would result in a less “paternalistic” government.

From this perspective, UBI could be rolled out as a distinctly rightwing initiative. In fact it does bear some similarity to the government’s shambolic universal credit scheme, which replaces a number of benefits with a one-off, lower, monthly payment (though it goes only to people already on certain benefits, of course). In the hands of the right, UBI could easily be seen as a kind of universal credit for all, undermining the entire benefits system and providing justification for paying the poorest a poverty income.

In fact, can you imagine what UBI would be like if it were rolled out by this government, which only yesterday promised to fight a ruling describing the benefits cap as inflicting “real misery to no good purpose”?

Despite the fact that the families who brought a case against the government had children too young to qualify for free childcare, the Department for Work and Pensions still perversely insisted that “the benefit cap incentivises work”. It’s not hard to imagine UBI being administered by the likes of A4e (now sold and renamed PeoplePlus), which carried out back-to-work training for the government, and saw six of its employees receive jail sentences for defrauding the government of £300,000. UBI cannot be a progressive initiative as long as the people with the power to implement it are hostile to the welfare state as a whole.

In their incendiary book Inventing the Future, the authors Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek argue for UBI but link it to three other demands: collectively controlled automation, a reduction in the working week, and a diminution of the work ethic. Williams and Srnicek believe that without these other provisions, UBI could essentially act as an excuse to get rid of the welfare state.

What’s needed is not the arbitrary adoption of UBI, but an entirely different conversation about what a welfare state is for. As David Lammy MP said, after the Grenfell Tower disaster: “This is about whether the welfare state is just about schools and hospitals or whether it is about a safety net.” The conversation, in light of UBI, could go even further: it’s possible for the welfare state not just to act as a safety net, but as a tool for all of us to do less work and spend more time with our loved ones, pursuing personal interests or engaging in our communities.

UBI has this revolutionary potential – but not if it is simply parachuted into a political economy that has been pursuing punitive welfare policies for the last 30 years.

On everything from climate change and overpopulation to yawning inequality and mass automation, modern western economies face unprecedented challenges. These conditions are frightening but they also open up the possibility of the kind of radical policies we haven’t seen since the postwar period. UBI could be the start of this debate, but it must not be the end.