An overview of the state of the debate regarding Universal Basic Income in politics and among the general public.
Public debates about Universal Basic Income (UBI) around the world have entered a new phase in recent years, becoming much more sophisticated and rich in content. With the publication of data from numerous studies, the argument that most people would no longer engage in work in a basic-income society has become untenable. On the one hand, the classic conception of work as the pursuit of wage labour is increasingly coming under criticism. On the other hand, more emphasis is being placed on the value of other forms of activity such as care work, unpaid family labour, volunteering and informal jobs. The debate regarding UBI, moreover, has begun to focus on the feasibility and possibility of implementing various concrete models.
Employer-based approaches to financing a UBI, which focus on a significant increase in the Value Added Tax (for example, the model proposed by the German entrepreneur Götz Werner), have lost their appeal because they appear to be politically unrealistic. But political parties are now developing more complex models based on public savings in administrative costs, combined with a recalibration of income, property and inheritance taxes as well as the occasional addition of new revenue instruments such as a financial transaction tax.
The discussion around UBI is turning to the question of how such an approach could help to sustainably organise a welfare state as processes of automatisation and digitalisation lead to a dwindling number of wage-labour positions. Plans which usually focus on a low-sum UBI that would vastly simplify and degrade the social welfare system are thus being promoted by conservative and neoliberal forces. An experiment currently being carried out in Finland, for example, follows this model. Socialist, social-democratic and green-oriented parties as well as numerous social movements have criticised this approach as form of social clearcutting or (in the example of Finland) as a “loser’s allowance” and a way of subsidising the low-wage sector.
Across Europe, it is clear that the established social-democratic parties find it difficult to grapple with concrete political conceptions of a Universal Basic Income. Among the most common fears are that the welfare state will be weakened, unions will lose influence and that there will be an attack on hard-won workers’ rights. This is partially a reaction to the employer-dominated debates regarding UBI in recent years, and has led to a situation in which, for example, the presidential candidate for the Socialist party in France, Benoît Hamon, was knocked out of the elections early on and was unable to muster a majority within his own party for his plan for a Universal Basic Income.
It is no coincidence that the large social-democratic parties in Europe – for example, the Parti Socialiste in France, the Sozialdemokratische Partei in Germany and the Partij van de Arbeid in the Netherlands – have lost more credibility than any other family of parties in recent years, and currently have less voters than at any other time in their histories. Many workers do not trust that the national social and labour market programmes promoted by these parties will protect them from the structural upheavals that may affect the global labour market, resulting in mass unemployment and allowing an ever increasing number of workers to slide into the precariat.
In many areas of wage labour – the banking sector, manufacturing, the automobile industry and the nursing sector – processes of automatisation and digitalisation have long been underway. Financial pressures are growing in large swaths of the educational sector as well, in social work, care work and in the media industry. Meanwhile, there is an urgent need for financial relief and investment in these fields. With all of this going on, a social-democratic push for a UBI could help to capture a large portion of the lower and middle classes, instead of losing them to conservative or right-wing-populist movements.
A social policy that included a Universal Basic Income could help many workers to overcome their fears regarding unemployment and becoming part of the precariat. The labour market would relax, and workers from the sectors that are currently under so much pressure would find some relief. At the same time, people who have long had to rely on unemployment benefits would be emancipated, enjoying more autonomy when deciding how to orient themselves in occupational terms. In this sense, stronger unions and wage agreements as well as a reasonable system of social services such as health and nursing insurance should be understood as complementary to a UBI, not portrayed (as is still often the case in current debates) as a choice between one or the other.
In order to develop a sustainable social policy that includes UBI, it may be necessary to institute ambitious changes in the gathering of revenues. A financial transaction tax (which has already long been discussed), would be one possibility for funding this new form of social welfare. As is the case with a UBI itself, the established parties continue to exhibit cowardice when it comes to promoting this new approach. Nevertheless, in order to maintain social harmony over the long term, new redistribution mechanisms like Universal Basic Income and a financial transaction tax must be extensively and comprehensively discussed, and then implemented.
A more courageous approach to redistribution is currently on display in Canada. As part of a socio-political experiment, around 4,000 citizens in the province of Ontario will receive a UBI as well as child benefits and health insurance for three years. In addition to a reduction in poverty and putting a hard floor under the precarious conditions of wage labour, the government hopes to simplify the bloated bureaucratic apparatus. Based on previous research, academics also predict improvements in health, education and living conditions. What the head of the Ontario government, Kathleen Wynne, described as an “answer to a new world with new challenges” will thus soon become a fundamental part of a few people’s everyday lives. Many hope that the programme will trigger further initiatives internationally, ones that place UBI at the core of a new approach to social policy.