Basic Income – from utopian vision to policy proposition to movement

The eighteenth century philosopher and politician, Edmund Burke, whilst opposed to slavery in principle, once described the abolition of even the slave trade, let alone emancipation, as ‘chimerical’. Over the course the next few decades of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the slave trade would be abolished and emancipation would be considerably advanced. With the relentless effort, thought and organisation of good people (lots of them), the unimaginable can become the real and rapidly so.

Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild’s history of the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire, demonstrates quite clearly how the right leadership, engaged with the right public discussion, with the best evidence and the requisite moral force, can change society and its institutions for good. Unusual social forces came to bear on the debate – from the Quakers to a range of civic campaigns such as a forceful women’s movement in the 1820s, linked in to a Parliamentary movement. It was a new form of campaign, weaving in civic action, meticulous research, parliamentary organisation, and a forceful message. Such is the force necessary to lift society from one track to another.

For there to be an embedded Basic Income in a range of societies, similar transformations will be necessary. 2016 was an important year. At the beginning of the year, it was treated as a bit of political escapism. Sure it's a nice idea but, in reality, you can’t be serious. The mindset of Burke cloaked everything. Wouldn’t it be nice but it will never happen. However, at an elite level at least, 2016 was the year that Basic Income began to be treated as a policy proposition rather than simply an idealistic ‘unicorn’.

When the RSA published an argument for Basic Income, we were most mindful of the practical element of the case. My biggest fear was that the idea would be stillborn – de-legitimised before it even had a chance to breathe. Similar approaches were to be found in the work of Compass and the Citizen’s Income Trust in 2016.

There were some desperate attempts – most disappointingly amongst a few in the centre and the moderate left – at de-legitimisation. But far more significantly, there has been intrigue and engagement with the proposition. In the UK, we have seen voices across Labour, the SNP, and the Greens and elsewhere engage proactively and positively with the discussion. The media has treated the issue carefully in the main (with the predictable exception of the Daily Mail at its most puerile – ironic given that many of its readers will benefit). The FT, Independent, the Economist and the Guardian have allowed the argument to breathe. The New Scientist and the British Medical Journal have promoted the evidence as opposed to the politics. Trade Unions have approached the debate with imagination – positive responses have come from Unite, the GMB, Unison and the TUC itself. Local authorities have begun to engage – Glasgow and Fife lead the way. More will follow. Civic activists have engaged energetically with Basic Income. A stunning TedX event in Birmingham organised by Impact Hub Brum showed the potential for Basic Income to be one aspect of civic renewal. Next year, Basic Income will be considered by parliamentary committees in the UK and Scotland.

Globally, the debate has accelerated too. Growing concerns about the impact of automation on work have been part of the driver. The year ended with a paper on AI and work published by the Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Whilst arguing that Basic Income should not be the immediate priority, the fact that it was even there at all is a stunning advance. Would that have happened a year ago? President Obama himself has opened up to debate about Basic Income when the easier thing to do would be to close it down. Silicon Valley is engaged with the debate – through researchers, funders and civic connectors. The launch of the Economic Security Project will lift the debate further whilst tireless campaigners such as Scott Santens will widen the reach further. Basic Income Earth Network will continue to sustain a global conversation about Basic Income.

And, in Europe, Canada and the developing world, an experimental approach is being pursued. The Swiss referndum was lost but it was always intended as the beginning of the movment and debate. Finland’s experiments begin in 2017 and Canada’s should not be too far away. Interestingly, Finland is experimenting with Basic Income to promote work – ironic given ill-informed criticisms. Give Directly are already transferring cash to people in Kenya. Micro experiments will take place in a host of countries – including the US. In 2016, Basic Income became part of serious policy discussion across the world. In 2017, it will increasingly become practical experiment.

The hill gets steeper from here. Ultimately, the reason for a Basic Income is not tied to automation or anything else just as the debate about the abolition of the slave trade could not rest on geo-politics or the economic situation – contingent factors though they clearly were. It stands on its own terms. The argument for Basic Income, contrary to claims of the opposite, is about work and life. Key to the case is the argument that all work should be valued and people are the best arbiters, with support, of their own and their family’s long-term well-being. The ability to make the best decisions is rested on a degree of security and that is what Basic Income provides – without conditions and with clarity and predictability. John Harris argued earlier this week that many of the social and political upheavals we are seeing are grounded in complexity. Basic Income would be a bedrock of certainty in an uncertain world. The moral foe of these times is relentless insecurity for many.

But the case has to be developed further. There are genuine concerns about the impact of removing conditions in return for receipt of financial support. Advocates of Basic Income will have to think creatively about the framing of Basic Income as a practical institution – it is to support the endeavour of all not to undermine it. Whilst the arbitrary cruelty of the modern welfare state has to go, there will still need to be support for people to retrain and find new work. In fact, these interventions and supports might be expanded. A Basic Income system would need to target support, nudge, persuade, generate positive network effects to support people even it couldn’t arbitrarily direct them. A small decline in the aggregate level or work would be tolerable as people adapt and develop in a way that enables them to make a greater long term contribution. A large decline would not enjoy political support in the short term. So there is much thinking to do.

And there is much movement building to undertake. Whilst the movement for a Basic Income – or least the movement for discussing Basic Income – has rapidly expanded, it is not yet a wide mainstream conversation. The abolitionists managed to gather 400,000 signatures to petition against the slave trade. This was before mass communication. Over the next year and beyond a much wider conversation needs to be cultivated. The challenge is one of open engagement rather than mass conversion.

It is commonplace to despair at 2016. However, the progress of discussions around insecurity, work and Basic Income this year have been extremely encouraging indeed. The debate has expanded far further than anticipated. For advocates of Basic Income, 2017 must be a time of continuing to widen and deepen knowledge about, knowledge of, and public engagement with the idea. And for opponents, I’d counsel to remember Burke. History has a habit of accelerating beyond those who stand still.

Happy New Year all.