How to implement basic income

Fiver photo by Philip Veater, Unsplash (All CC).

The idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been around a long time; in fact it can be traced back to ancient Athens and to the principles of social justice outlined in the Old Testament. But for advocates of UBI, like myself, this is both good news and bad news. It’s good that the concept is connected to deep traditions of equality and justice; it’s not so good that these traditions often seem to be defeated by forces of injustice.

Martin Luther King’s sentiment that the long arc of history bends towards justice feels true; but I fear that we often deceive ourselves as to where we are on that curve.

However, UBI is certainly emerging from the shadows of history today. For example, there is a campaign for basic income, led by Basic Income UK, many local groups, like UBI Lab Sheffield, and a wide international network, led by BIEN. Many countries around the world are currently piloting versions of basic income, and research results so far have been very positive.

UBI has now entered the second phase of life for any social innovation. It has left the margins, where it was associated with crackpots and dreamers, and it is becoming controversial. Controversy is necessary for getting an idea into the mainstream. So it is good that organisations like the RSA now support UBI; it also good that organisations like NEF oppose it. We are set for some lively debates over the coming years. This debate will sharpen the appetite of reformers, politicians and most importantly us, fellow citizens.

However, the real test of a promising idea is whether it can be implemented successfully. Here I think, lies the main challenge. Robert Townsend once said:

“It’s a poor bureaucrat who can’t stall a good idea until even its sponsor is relieved to see it dead and officially buried.”

My own experience of social policy confirms this view. In particular, government departments all have their own distinct agenda, based around protecting their own identity, budget and functions. Basic income threatens to simplify benefits and to remove a host of petty controls, sanctions and nonsense from the lives of ordinary people. To any good bureaucrat basic income is poison.

In addition, the technical task of introducing basic income relies upon developing a reliable database which contains information on each individual and which can be used to organise payments. But currently we have two competing systems – one in the HMRC and one in the DWP.

The craziness and costliness of Universal Credit is partly caused by the need to bridge two systems that work in very different ways. The tax system is fully individualised; whereas the benefit system expects families to provide support, and so it tracks who you are living with and how. Although both systems perform the same job (changing your income) they are currently incompatible.

This is the reason why the Centre for Welfare Reform argues the best first step towards basic income is to scrap the DWP and to move our benefit system into one integrated tax-benefit system that will fully individualised. On its own this won’t guarantee the success of UBI, but without this step I fear that the bureaucratic obstacles to basic income, for all its justice, will be too great. It’s hard enough to fight City Hall, fighting City Hall on two fronts is impossible.

Moreover the policy of scrapping the DWP also has another advantage. For there is only one group who can defeat the bureaucrats and they are politicians; and it is a politician who might sense the political attractions of closing down a whole bureaucracy in order to free people from the tyranny of sanctions and to end our current policy of snooping into people’s private lives.

Dr Simon Duffy, Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform (@CforWR) and Secretary for Citizen Network.

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