In Britain, more than in the rest of the world, debate around universal basic income (UBI) has sometimes been constructed as a test of the concept against the idea, seen as an alternative, of universal basic services.
It isn’t hard to see the reason for that. With our wonderful National Health Service, which has given the kind of security that a basic income wants to broaden, under neoliberal attack, with privatisation rampant and threats to introduce charging regular, some have seen the UBI as a potential or actual further attack. What if it is seen as an alternative to this universal service?
That’s not a wholly unfounded concern. There are some – coming broadly from the libertarian right ― who see a basic income as a way to further extend the already extreme financialisation of society into new areas by giving people money rather than services. Education vouchers are another aspect of this suggested model.
It was a concern brought out from a Global South perspective at last week’s congress of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) in Tampere, Finland, by Brazil-based academic Lena Lavinas, who pointed out how development in countries like her home, and South Africa, had been accompanied by huge indebtedness among the poor, with the money going to basics like food and housing. They are funding windfall profits for the financial sector, at great costs to themselves.
There’s a risk, particularly if the basic income isn’t provided at a level that allows people to participate fully in society, that it just becomes a new form of collateral that can be mortgaged to the hilt.
But this “financialise everything” view of a basic income doesn’t reflect the approach or aims of the vast majority of the proponents of universal basic income.
They see universal basic income as a guarantee of the basic human rights to life and dignity, as a measure to improve the health and wellbeing of those who are being tormented and damaged by the failed conditionalized welfare systems and a way of building a society that meets people’s needs without trashing our already badly damaged fragile planet.
It is extending the security the NHS offers in health into subsistence.
Supporters of this model of UBI don’t seem it as the “solution to everything” – and as a matter of principle I’d urge extreme caution to anyone who tells you one single policy is the solution to every problem.
As was said again and again at BIEN, a functional UBI society also needs universal services available to all who need them. As Dr Louise Haagh from the University of York (and BIEN chair) said, “we should be talking not only about how the welfare state needs UBI, but how UBI needs the welfare state”.
Professor Lavinas set out two key universal services, health and education, as the crucial provision, and added that housing need to be provided in ways that meant it was affordable and not a base for speculation and windfall financier profits. She added an important further qualifier, that a functional basic income society would have to be one in which the financial sector is tightly controlled and constrained (something essential indeed for any future stable society, unlike our currently insecure, unstable one).
She also made reference to a point brought out further in a later session discussing trade unions and the basic income: that funding the universal income and services requires something that’s multinational companies and rich individuals to pay their taxes – a crucial change for the future, whatever the other societal structures.
But it ensures also that everyone has an income sufficient to meet their other basic needs, that enables them to make choices of what to eat, how to usefully spend their time and effort, how and where to get around.
As in so many areas of life, a balance of universal service provision and universal income provides a healthy way forward, without putting us all in hock to unpayable levels of debt, which is where our current arrangements have put us.
Natalie Bennett was in Finland as part of the Green European Foundation’s Universal Basic Income project.