The UK is one of the top half dozen richest countries in the world. I feel lucky to have been born here. For most of my life, we all knew no-one in the UK could possibly fall destitute and starve. We still know – just about – that we could, given the will, secure everyone’s basic needs.
I know a statutory basic income is a good idea. Most of the other people who packed out Hastings Printworks to listen to Guy Standing on 2nd April also knew that, as did Guy himself – so instead of trying to sell us the idea, he told us the story of his journey from the outer boundaries of ‘whacky’ to where he stands today, a consultant to politicians, an invitee to DAVROS and Silicon Valley businesses, whose books sell in multiple languages, who is busy assessing basic income pilot projects across the globe.
And then he told us how to sell the idea to everyone else.
Guy was dressed in grey (at least I think he was – it’s very dark in the Printworks). I wondered if it was an I-am-a-serious-economist uniform left over from the days when Guy was a part of the revolt against the Chicago School, against the heartlessness of Reaganomics, Thatcherism, and the destructive unrolling of neoliberalism across the globe, against the relentless idea of ‘inevitable capitalism’ that turned us all cold in the last decades of the 20th century.
The idea of a universal basic income was one of the founding ideas of the new economics which, after decades of being ridiculed by the dreadful establishment during those ‘history is dead’, ‘there’s no such thing as society’ days. Basic income, along with other ethical ideas like the Land Tax, are expressions of the determination many felt to put humanity and community back into economics.
But it’s not a hippy, whacky idea. To convince anyone of that, people like Guy first had to persuade the world that capitalism really was not the logical necessity it was painted as, that there really was no such thing, in practice, as a free market. One of his major contributions to that effort was the book Rentier Capitalism, in which he demonstrates that what is known as ‘free market capitalism’ has increasingly been seen to channel money into the pockets of owners – land owners, buildings and infrastructure owners, intellectual property owners.
That being the case, he has an easy answer to anyone who says basic income for all can’t work because it’s an unhealthy ‘something for nothing’ – what then, is property? After the first generation, it’s inherited, and so just an enormous something for nothing, isn’t it?
Arguing against the arguments against
Another common ‘yes but’ is that giving everyone a basic income ‘for nothing’ is just too expensive – but if that was true, it would also be too expensive to give hundreds of billions a year in tax breaks to the wealthy, which they promptly stash in off-shore accounts.
And, seeing what rich people do with that money is another argument for the wisdom of giving money to everyone – ordinary people do not stash their money in tax-avoidance schemes, they spend it in their local economies, thus stimulating healthy economic activity. Giving small amounts of money to everyone is more economically sound than giving massive amounts to rich people.
There is no level playing field in capitalism
For anyone who suspects the defenders of capitalism really believe their system is fair, we are asked to consider one Iain Duncan Smith; whilst capping the benefits paid to the poor, citing a necessary austerity as the reason, he was pulling in £1.5m in subsidies on land he owned. Isn’t that inherited land a something-for-nothing like the one he claims we can’t afford to allow? Why is security said to be necessary for those born into money, but bad for others?
Is it too complicated?
It is complicated – especially in a system like ours, with an interdependent web of benefits and tax grades – what would happen to people previously on means tested benefits? What of people with extra needs, such as the disabled, or those with caring responsibilities? – That’s why a lot of planning and pilot schemes are needed – to find out how much should be paid, and how, and what the problems to look out for might be – but people like Guy who have been a part of those plans now taking place across the world, who have overseen those pilots, tell us it’s well worth the effort.
Why do we need basic income?
Because it heals all the harms brought about by the years of society-destroying, demoralising Reagano- Thatchero- nomics. Here’s how:
For those struggling to keep a household going with insecure, unpredictable or low-paid work – even if the basic income was just the £250 or £350 that Universal Credit provides, imagine how your quality of life would be improved if it was your statutory, unquestionable right – a supplement that arrived reliably in your hand each week, with no threat of sanctions or claw-backs, no hours of battling with the DWP to justify each change in working hours done. You would have so much more energy, so much more thinking time, don’t you think you’d find yourself being more use to your family, to your society?
The right to sustenance
Has it ever occurred to anyone that the animals of the field don’t have a right to the grass they eat or the water they drink? Yes, that idea probably would occur to certain kinds of capitalists (Nestlé now swear blind their CEO didn’t mean what he said about water). In truth, this country that can afford to sustain us was built and maintained by our mothers and fathers and their mothers and fathers. Our sustenance is our birthright at least as much as Iain Duncan Smith’s land is his.
We all believe in the benefits of freedom
…although we tend to forget it. People who are not anxious, people who are not suffering from insecurity, or wondering whether they can feed their kids – people who are reasonably relaxed and confident are not just happier, but are less likely to do harm, and more likely to do better things. Guy says that the increased positive attitude and actions of people in areas where basic income has been tested out means that the value to the community of giving everyone their basic income is greater than the cost of giving it.
Security clears the mind
People who are not afraid make better decisions. They can work out, for instance, that because the ‘quantative easing’ that was our government’s response to the financial crash in 2008 equaled the sum that could have been three years of basic income for everyone, then we know the government could afford to give us a basic income, and that because we know rich people stash their money off shore, we could have got that money back into circulation more efficiently by sharing it out to ordinary people who use local shops and services.
(Or if you’re allergic to socialism, how about ‘community spirit’?)
Far from making people lazy or unhelpful, basic security increases their sense of agency, helps them believe in their ability to make things happen – and it can become an expression of solidarity. In some of the schemes Guy monitored, people decided to pool their basic income money, and made big things happen in their communities, working together. Could that be why right-wing politicians don’t like the idea?
Guy reminded us of Beveridge’s Report on the 5 giants that needed to be slayed, to achieve post-war reconstruction.
He tells us we now have 8 giants to slay to recover from the destruction wrought by neoliberalism.
The Next Labour Party Manifesto
Guy is currently working with John MacDonnell’s economics team, and is hoping there will be a plan for basic income in the next Labour Manifesto. If you’re a Labour member, as I am, get onto those policy forums now, or email John and his team, and let them know we want that to happen.
Guy Standing is one inspiring speaker. I can practically see my magic sword already – let’s go giant-killing.
With thanks to Hastings Green Party, the Radical Book Club, the Printworks, and Lee from Printed Matter Bookshop for a fascinating evening with Guy standing. Go hear one of his talks, or get yourself a copy of his basic income book.
There’s currently no safety net (such as UBI) in this country so we all just do the best we can. If you are able to support my work by making a donation, I am very grateful.
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