One Question
Universal Basic Income

One Question
Universal Basic Income

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, we ask:

Do we need a Universal Basic Income?

With responses from: Julie Wark; Doug Henwood; Peter Frase; Heikki Patomaki; Danielle Guizzo & Will Stronge; Karl Widerquist; Anton Jäger & Daniel Zamora; Alyssa Battistoni; Danny Dorling; Francine Mestrum; Daniel Raventós; Louise Haagh.

Universal Basic Income

Julie Wark

Author of The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013) and, with Daniel Raventós, Against Charity (CounterPunch, 2018).

Understanding that the ‘we’ in the question includes everybody then, from the human rights perspective, I say yes. A big yes because, if human beings have any valid claim of need at all, it is the basic right to a dignified material existence without which all other rights are impossible. Accordingly, human rights don’t float around outside political economy but must be grounded in social institutions and guaranteed by real mechanisms.

In the neoliberal system, human rights are given with declarations and snatched away by the real world. As great fortunes are made, human rights are trashed. And there’s a racist skewing here. Most victims are dark-skinned (just look at the world’s twenty poorest countries) but are subsumed as a colour-free group called ‘the poor’.

If we’re not already living in a dystopia, it’s just around the corner. You only have to read the recent (almost zombie-genre) Davos reports talking about rich people in strongholds and chaos reigning outside. States have created so many scapegoats: black kids who get shot by white cops, ‘bad-hombres’ immigrants, Muslim ‘terrorists’, homeless ‘felons’, ‘traitor’ journalists… Extreme injustice and cruelty, for example in the treatment of refugees, is normal. The planet itself is threatened.

Any struggle against this awful situation will require a political economy aiming at guaranteeing the right of existence for everyone, real freedom, and a decent standard of living (housing, education, health, culture, environment, etc.). Nobel laureate Herbert Simon writes that social capital belongs jointly to all members of society, so the producer should get a small share of the profits and the rest should be taxed and redistributed as an unconditional universal basic income. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein notes that the universal sense of basic income is that it could help to transform the way we treat our whole (social and physical) environment.

Basic income is possible. It can be financed. Any obstacle isn’t a problem of economics but of politics. So far, basic income is the best mechanism on offer for any project of trying to make real the three essential principles of universal human rights: justice, freedom and human dignity. And it holds out a viable means for attaining this. So the next question is, do we care enough to try?

Doug Henwood

Brooklyn-based economic journalist. He’s a contributing editor of The Nation, and has written for Harper’s, Bookforum, The Baffler, the Socialist Register, and Jacobin. Henwood hosts a weekly radio show, Behind the News, which originates on KPFA, Berkeley. His books include Wall Street (Verso, 1997), After the New Economy (The New Press, 2003), and My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency (Seven Stories, 2015). He’s working on a study of the rot in the American ruling class.

At first glance, and even on second, there’s a lot that’s charming about UBI. In a society as productive as those of the rich capitalist world, no one should want for the basics of life. Adding to the charm is the widespread belief that robots are taking over and there won’t be any more jobs in five or ten years, so UBI is an ideal way to distribute what they produce.

Let me address the second point first. There’s just no evidence that the robots are taking over. We’ve been hearing overheated predictions of this sort for decades, maybe longer, and they’ve never come to pass. If the robots were on the march we might expect to see their advance in the productivity statistics, but there’s no sign of that. In fact, most major economies are deep in a productivity funk, driven by low rates of investment. (For more see here and here.) You’d need accelerating rates of investment to staff the robot army. Of course that could all change, but the evidence isn’t here yet.

But what about the political economy of UBI? On third and fourth glances, things get more problematic. One is that doing it right would be very expensive. The OECD ran the numbers and found that if you simply folded all existing benefit programs into a UBI and spread them across the entire population, the resulting benefit would be well below the poverty line. Among other things, that could leave the disabled in seriously worse shape. But funding it at a higher level would require major tax increases.

And, if UBI were set at a civilised level, it would mess with the labour market. Who would want to work at a crappy job if the government sent out healthy cheques on a regular basis? When Silicon Valley types tout a UBI, we can be sure they’re imagining it to be at a very low level – who’d weed their gardens otherwise? And if the political landscape were so transformed that a generous UBI were a possibility, why stop there? Why not expropriate the tech titans and the private equity moguls entirely? Then we could get to serious work on building an egalitarian and ecologically sustainable society.

Peter Frase

Writer and researcher based in New York. He is an editorial board member at Jacobin Magazine and author of Four Futures (Verso, 2016). In addition to Jacobin, his writing on the intersection of labour, politics, and technology has also appeared in venues such as the Washington Post, Vice, and New Labor Forum.

The idea of Universal Basic Income stretches back centuries, and as recently as the 1960s and 1970s something like it was advocated by everyone from the Black Panthers to Martin Luther King Jr. to the Nixon administration. Recently it has seen a resurgence of interest from liberal policy wonks like Annie Lowrey and writers associated with the technology industry, such as Martin Ford and Andrew Yang.

Contemporary interest in UBI is often driven by concerns about automation, stagnant wages, and rising income inequality. UBI advocates point to the prospect of widespread automation of a huge range of jobs, through the use of robotics and artificial intelligence. Basic income is suggested as a means of forestalling the emergence of a permanent underclass that lacks access to jobs or income, and as a way of boosting the purchasing power of the masses in order to drive economic growth. Universal Basic Income is also an appealing idea because it suggests a way of doing redistribution and poverty reduction without much of the paternalism and bureaucracy that characterises the traditional welfare state.

However, it is important to recognise that both support for and opposition to UBI can come from very different political perspectives. This has major implications for just how a basic income is implemented, and what political and social goals it is meant to achieve. Different interpretations of basic income can be broadly mapped onto a Right-Left political axis, corresponding to the distinction between what Los Angeles collective The Undercommons called ‘UBI minus’ and ‘UBI plus.’

UBI minus is a proposal to replace existing social programs and benefits with a flat basic income. It is, as the conservative Charles Murray puts it in the subtitle of his book In Our Hands, ‘A Plan to Replace the Welfare State.’ In its most sweeping form, this version of UBI would replace not just things like food stamps and cash welfare payments, but rights to services like health care and education, which would have to be purchased on the private market. It could also be used as a justification for eroding minimum wage laws and workplace regulations. In this way, basic income can be seen as the most ‘free market’ approach to income redistribution.

Critics on the left, however – both those sympathetic to the idea of UBI and those hostile to it – point out that UBI minus could leave a lot of people worse off. Writing everyone the same cheque to pay for things like health care and housing is fundamentally an unequal solution, since people have different levels of need for medical care, and live in places with wildly differing housing costs. Thus, advocates of the ‘UBI plus’ position insist that it should, at most, replace conditional and means-tested cash benefits, while leaving in place or expanding labour regulation and the direct service provision of certain basic needs.

As interest in UBI spreads across the political spectrum, it is important to keep emphasising the role basic income could play as part of a larger program for ensuring that everyone has their basic needs met, rather than as a one-shot replacement for the welfare state.

Heikki Patomaki

Professor of world politics at the University of Helsinki, author of Disintegrative Tendencies in Global Political Economy: Exits and Conflicts (Routledge, 2018) and co-editor with Jamie Morgan of Brexit and the Political Economy of Fragmentation (Routledge, 2018).

Whether universal basic income (UBI) is worthy of support depends on how it is implemented. The idea of BI is old, but one of its best-known recent supporters has been Milton Friedman. For many economists like Friedman, it is only a negative income tax that is intended to replace most or all forms of social security and public services. The result would be an ever-more privatised market-based society. This is in sharp contrast to classical social democracy, where especially health and education are seen as areas of social life that should be decommodified.

A good rationale for the UBI, or citizen dividend, has to do with justice. We all benefit from a common inheritance, for which none of us did anything. We are also living in a world when automatisation and robotisation tend to reduce the amount of available work. Further reasons for BI include increasing freedom, equality and security of citizens. BI reduces bureaucratic control and increases freedom from the compulsion to sell one’s labour power. It can also mean increasing equality of opportunity, for instance by opening up possibilities for developing one’s skills and capacities. To strengthen social security, BI needs to replace some of the existing forms of cash transfer generously enough.

The risk is that BI leads to large-scale marginalisation, thereby increasing the costs of the system. Not only our earnings, but also our social worth, rights and duties are tied to our position in the system of employment and work. BI functions best in a world of full employment where the republican virtues of participation prevail and where people are motivated to work and participate. The context of implementation is as important as its form and level.

Further questions concern the universality of UBI. Often this question is considered only in the context of a single nation-state. On the one hand, although there are many obstacles to free movements in the contemporary world system, migration is possible and in some areas, such as within the EU, entirely free. On the other hand, justice is in no way confined to a single state. Our common inheritance is global. To cope with the risk of large-scale selective immigration, and to implement principles of justice, would seem to require transnational and global forms of basic income.

At that level, however, there are competing claims about (re)distributing our common inheritance. The first priority should be an adequate basic level of education for all, implemented in such a way that the funding to realise the universal right to education would also be seen as part of the global redistribution of wealth, especially through global systems of taxation. Clearly, however, other mechanisms of transfer as well as common policies of economic development are required in order to tackle the threat of selective immigration and to make non-global systems of UBI sustainable. As our inheritance is common, our fates are interwoven.

Danielle Guizzo & Will Stronge

Danielle Guizzo is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at UWE Bristol and affiliate researcher at Autonomy. Will Stronge is a Director of Autonomy and Associate Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Chichester. Their latest publications include: D Guizzo and W Stronge, ‘Keynes, Foucault and the ‘disciplinary complex’: A contribution to the analysis of work‘, Autonomy, 2018.

The introduction of a basic income represents an important first step in the separation between wage labour and income. From an economic standpoint, this separation would mean a drastic change in the way capitalism currently reproduces itself: by commodifying one’s labour force into a tradable good that can be sold in the market for a price (a wage), capitalism has linked labour to the provision of the necessary means for living. Indeed, the adoption of a basic income system can offer two important aspects that would fundamentally change our current economic system.

First, basic income is ‘redistributive’: it represents a potential solution for some of the problems faced in advanced capitalism, namely stagnating wages, rising income inequality and the productivity puzzle: unilateral cash transfers would work as a safety net against the most immediate effects of in-work poverty (low pay, long working hours and poor working conditions), thus increasing bargaining power.

Second, basic income offers individual and collective ‘autonomy’: it reduces the ‘disciplinary complex’ that work currently offers (Guizzo & Stronge, 2018) and increases our free time. How many people would continue to work as much as they do if they had a source of income separated from work? A basic income could remedy the problem of economically necessary versus socially accepted jobs, offering the opportunity for people to dedicate themselves to socially valuable activities that are not (or very poorly) remunerated (e.g. housework, child care, looking after the elderly, starting a new degree, learning a new skill). Then, basic income could also be framed as a way to reduce gender and intra-generational inequality by remunerating traditionally undervalued and ‘feminised’ forms of work.

However, there are important caveats to such a redistributive and autonomous basic income system. First, it should not be seen as a replacement for the welfare state, or as an alternative for social benefits – on the contrary, basic income would only offer positive results as long as it is attached to a strong presence of the state and its system of social provisions. Second, a basic income system needs to be accompanied by a set of economic policies that seek to promote the socialisation of economic outcomes and social equality. Without these, it is unlikely that basic income can offer satisfactory results to the economic and social issues faced today.

Karl Widerquist

Associate Professor of philosophy at SFSQ, Georgetown University. He has published dozens of articles and seven books, including A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No (Palgrave, 2013). He served as co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network from 2010 to 2017, and now serves as vice-chair. Most of Karl Widerquist’s writing is available on his Selected Works website. He writes the blog the Indepentarian for Basic Income News.

I support UBI because it’s wrong for anyone to come between another person and the resources they need to survive. It’s wrong for anyone to put conditions on people’s access to the resources they need to survive. Don’t ignore this fact: poverty is the lack of access to the resources you need to live a decent life. A healthy person with the right skills and access to a healthy environment can do many things that are impossible for an impoverished person in society today. They can build their own house; fish, farm, or hunt their own food; they can work alone or with whoever they want. They don’t need a boss. They never have to follow orders.

Our societies create poverty by interfering with people who would like to use the resources of the Earth for themselves. We do it because better off people want to control all the world’s resources. By allowing a small group to control the world’s resources without paying compensation to the people they thereby make propertyless, we put most people in the position in which ‘work’ becomes synonymous with ‘a job.’ Making a living means taking orders. This is not a fact of nature. It is the outcome of society’s rules. We need to change those rules.

UBI rectifies that problem. It says if you’re going to hold more resources than others, you have to pay something back in compensation, so that no one ever again is forced to live in poverty and no one is ever forced into the position where they must take orders to survive.

UBI is not the end of the market or the end of paid labour. It is simply a market where income doesn’t start at zero, and workers are freed from the threat of destitution. With UBI, workers enter the labour market as free people. Employers have to pay enough to make it worthwhile for workers to take those jobs. UBI will give us a high-wage economy that works for everyone.

Anton Jäger and Daniel Zamora

Daniel Zamora is a post-doc in sociology at the University of Cambridge and the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Anton Jäger is a PhD-candidate in intellectual history at the University of Cambridge. Both are currently finishing a book on an intellectual history of Basic Income.

Allow us to slightly rephrase the question. Namely: how did we come think of UBI as the ultimate solution to our ‘social question’? If this initial query has already stirred several scholarly spirits, we want to insist on asking the question how we came to believe that a ‘universal floor’ is our best chance at dealing with the matter of poverty.

Firstly, we have to remind ourselves of how stark a rupture with post-war policy habits a UBI really presents. Previously, New Deal programmes were organised around the notion that the market’s inherent flaws stipulated the need for an interventionist state, promoting social rights like universal health care, education, public transportation, etc. Here, questions appertaining to ‘poverty’ always concerned the limitation of the space in which the market could operate – as noted by Alice O’Connor, ‘poverty itself was not the central problem’ at the dawn of the century.

All of this changed in the early 1960s – the moment the first UBI saw its ‘true’ inception. Rather than being what the Financial Times called a ‘500-year-old idea’ with ‘roots in Thomas Paine and Thomas More’, UBI grew in close correlation with a deeper subversion of the Keynesian paradigm. Its catalyst, above all, was the publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America in 1962. Harrington’s tract would popularise the idea that ‘poverty’ was now a ‘specific’ and ‘isolated’ condition, separated from inequality, together with the contention, as argued by Dwight McDonald in his seminal review of the book, that Social Security programmes kept ‘the poor forever poor’.

Principally, it was the guaranteed income’s ‘anti-normative’ design which rendered it attractive to the New Left – much like Milton Friedman’s Negative Income Tax. Since UBI implied no paternalistic ‘obligation to work’ and other ‘perverse incentives’, it was the most elegant alternative to existing security schemes. Yet what remained in its wake – as historian Samuel Moyn has convincingly shown – was not an ideal of ‘distributive equality’, but rather a ‘more minimal commitment to sufficient provision.’

One could argue, of course, that if a generous ‘UBI’ did lead to more equitable outcomes, we ought to simply forget this history. But there is a catch. Even if different UBIs show hugely divergent effects, the danger remains of becoming imprisoned by the proposal’s conceptual architecture. The current UBI faces three recurring problems: (1) the sum dispensed would remain tragically modest (otherwise it would become unaffordable), (2) its effects for those in need would remain feeble and deeply ambiguous, and (3) it would have a potentially detrimental impact on wage rates. Consequently, it is not surprising that existing simulations demonstrate the UBI’s inconclusive effects on inequality and poverty.

Perhaps we are in need of some post-war common-sense. Twentieth-century socialists sought to create a system in which our access to reproductive goods no longer depended on exclusive access to the medium of money. Although this perspective has experienced major setbacks since the early seventies – and has always had its inherent limits – it still offers us a vision radically different from our current neoliberal consensus. We need less of the market, not more – and UBI scarcely helps us in that task.

Alyssa Battistoni

PhD candidate in political theory at Yale University. She writes frequently for publications including The Nation, Dissent, n+1, and Jacobin, where she is on the editorial board.

Do we need a universal basic income? With all due respect to the format, forgive me if I break this ‘one question’ into a few.

The first is a classic: Who is ‘we’? The ‘universal’ would seem to suggest the answer. But we should know better than to take this universal for granted. In the case of UBI, its definition depends on the boundaries within which a basic income is distributed – typically, those of the nation-state – as well as on the status of people within them. Would a UBI be available only to citizens, as in proposals for a ‘citizen’s dividend’? Green card holders? Residents? Certainly it seems unlikely to be truly universal anytime soon. And amidst widespread political turmoil over the status of migrants and refugees, a UBI bestowed on a narrowly defined universe of people is a particularly fraught prospect.

Second, what is the basic income that we need? There have been many versions of UBI proposed over the years, but to my mind, not just any UBI will do. The kind of UBI increasingly popular in Silicon Valley is the kind that Silicon Valley titans might need but not the rest of us – that is, one that functions as a subsidy for the low wages of the gig economy and a solution to the problem of automation. Or, if it’s UBI in the form of Milton Friedman’s negative income tax, intended as a lump sum of cash to replace other forms of welfare state provision, then I think it’s the last thing we need – at least, those of us who aren’t neoliberal ideologues. The UBI I want is one in the lineage of visions put forth by, among others, socialist feminists and the black freedom movement—one that aims to expand social provision in an economic system that relies on structural unemployment, recognise the unpaid work done mostly by women, and support increased leisure time.

Third, do we need it? Certainly everyone needs the basic means of sustaining their own lives, as an absolute minimum. I also think we need to diminish the centrality of work to individual meaning and social worth, and reject the idea that income is a function of merit. We need more leisure time, and less work-for-work’s-sake. We need to break the stranglehold that ‘job creation’ has on political possibility. We need to not just ‘raise the floor’ on income, but to ‘lower the ceiling.’ We need, that is, to radically change ways of life built around an endlessly growing economy that somehow never has enough for everyone.

We need a lot of things, in short, and under some circumstances UBI might be one of them. But it is a mistake to think it is a singular answer.  It’s folly for the left to put too much weight on any one policy: what we need is a movement that can win material changes and build on them over time; one that forges demands through popular struggle instead of in advance.

Danny Dorling

Halford Mackinder Professor in Geography at the University of Oxford. Much of his work is available open access (see dannydorling.org). With a group of colleagues he helped create the website worldmapper.org which shows who has most and least in the world and also for London: londonmapper.org. His most recent book is Peak Inequality (Policy, 2018).

Yes we need a basic income. Yes we will get one. But we in the UK will very probably have to wait until other European countries have had one for some time. The UK in 2018 is the European country with the widest economic inequalities and in many ways is the least progressive large country in Europe.

One manifestation of this is scepticism over whether a basic income could work, be possible, or is even desirable. Unlike other countries in Europe, outside of Scotland where there is some enthusiasm, in the UK we are not even experimenting with different models of a basic income in different towns and cities to see what might work best when it comes to its introduction. Instead arguments are raised against basic income on principal in a similar way to how universal health care is derided as socialist health care in the United States, the country with the worst health record of the entire affluent world.

A basic income is needed for freedom. It is the only way in which people can be given a genuine choice over whether to undertake paid work or not. Where people have more choice over whether to work and what they do, the quality of their work is far higher. We need a basic income if we are to get good jobs. We also need it so that some can choose to live a very low consumption lifestyle. A basic income is what it says – basic. Consumption by the affluent also reduces in those places and times where basic incomes are introduced. There is a three hundred year history of basic income that we can learn from, and many studies, of which the best in my view was written by Philippe van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght and published in 2017.

A basic income is not, by its very definition, enough for people with special needs to live on. It is not enough if you are in a wheelchair or have a large number of children and no work. But it is not beyond the whit of imaginative people to realise that a basic income needs to be augmented for a few with greater needs. Like universal child benefit, or a minimum basic income for pensioners, no one would claim that all children or all pensioners could survive on those minima. A basic income is also not an alternative for basic universal services. We need both.

Basic income will likely come late to the UK. When you are old and dying the person turning you over in bed and inserting the catheter in your body may well be doing that because they have to. Not because they want to. In a country with basic income it would be because they wanted to. You will be able to tell the difference. Basic income sets us all free.

Francine Mestrum

Founder of the global network of Global Social Justice, currently working on a project for social commons, www.socialcommons.eu. She has worked at a variety of European institutions and at the universities of Brussels (ULB), Antwerp and Ghent. She is the author of several books (in Dutch, French and English) on development, poverty, inequality and social commons.

No, we do not need a basic income, if by ‘basic income’ is meant an equal amount of cash given to all citizens without strings attached.

My main argument, from the perspective of the (retrenched) Bismarckian welfare states in Western Europe, has to do with growing individualism and inequality. What a basic income does is replace the structural and horizontal solidarity of welfare states – every individual shows her solidarity to all other members of society – by a vertical link between government and the individual citizen.

Certainly, our welfare states have to be updated to answer the needs of all citizens in the 21st century, to take into account new forms of work as well as the link between social justice and environmental justice. But welfare states with social security, labour rights and public services are the best buffer against growing inequality and the best way to help prevent poverty.

Basic income means the citizen is left on her own, ‘free’ to do whatever she likes, ‘free’ to be discriminated against and to exploit herself in our flexible and precarious labour markets. A basic income for all at a level allowing for a life of dignity is out of reach, as the IMF, OECD, ILO and the UN special rapporteur on poverty have indicated.

Instead we need more collective rights, which is a condition for developing individual rights while confirming our interdependency. We need social services for all (from health and education to public transport, communication and housing) and cash transfers (guaranteed minimum incomes) for the poor. Because yes, societies do exist and we need to foster them.

Universal social protection/welfare states can be transformative and strengthen societies; instead, basic incomes empower individuals without being emancipatory.

Daniel Raventós

Lecturer in the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Barcelona. He is author, inter alia, of Basic Income. The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007) and, with Julie Wark, Against Charity (Counterpunch, 2018).

If you care about freedom and understand that you can’t be free without an autonomous material existence, then you’ll probably say yes we do need a Universal Basic Income. If you think we should let the rich keep enriching themselves without limits, that making them pay taxes is wrong, that ill-paid jobs in wretched conditions are necessary for efficiency, and that the poor are poor because they deserve to be, then you’ll say no.

I’m with the former group because I’m coming from the ancient republican tradition of freedom which holds that only a person who doesn’t have to ask permission from another in order to earn a living or, in other words, to exist socially, can be free. The idea that without a guaranteed material existence, a person is not and cannot be free is one of the foundations of the classical republican tradition.

Liberalism came along in the early nineteenth century with quite another conception of freedom, now independent of the material conditions of existence, making it possible, then, to assert that a poor person or one working for a wage in conditions of semi-slavery, is free. This is one big difference between real-world liberalism (liberal academic theories of justice are something else) and the historical conception of republican freedom. I’m not talking about the way the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘republican’ are used in the United States but speaking from Europe where republican freedom appeared in Athens more than 2,300 years ago and liberalism in the early nineteenth century.

I believe that a Basic Income equal to or above the poverty line and financed in a such a way as to bring about a partial redistribution of wealth from the richest members of society to the rest of the population is very necessary but not at the price of dismantling state welfare services, as some right-wing Basic Income proponents (like Charles Murray) propose. It should mean maintaining and improving them. Would it be necessary to complement a Basic Income with other measures in the domain of political economy? Yes. For example a maximum income to prevent a few very rich people from attacking the freedoms of the great majority. But that’s another question.

Louise Haagh

Associate Professor/Reader in Politics at the University of York, and Chair of the Basic Income Earth Network. She researches and has written numerous articles and books on democratisation, economic development and social justice. Her latest book, The Case for Basic Income (Polity, 2018), will be out in November 2018.

The proposition of a Universal Basic Income, or UBI – a right for all to basic monetary security – needs to be rescued from three contemporary discourses linked with polemicism, populism and reductionism. These three problems are all accentuated by an Opportunity Paradox, as UBI has hit the political space at a time of rising inequality, nationalism, and public austerity that are not suitable contexts for basic income reform.

The shape of contemporary polemics involves two fallacies: the solve-all and solve-nothing propositions. The notions that basic income can provide an encompassing response to automation and the problem of collective work, or that it simplifies a range of public policy systems, all fall in the solve-all category.

The solve-nothing proposition is also overdrawn. A UBI does not have to do away with ‘unequal redistributive plans’, nor does it have to be viewed as a whole ‘system’, as Heller suggests, in surveying support for UBI within the American right and by left libertarians. A basic income can also be seen as a part in more complex welfare arrangements, and to rely on a high level of social equality (as I have argued in Policy and Politics, 2011). Public austerity reinforces short-term cost polemics, such as, in the UK, the choice between universal basic income and services.

In a context of rising inequality there is also the risk of UBI being swept up in populist political tides, characterised by seeking answers in single policies. The European Social Survey indicates UBI has greater public support in countries with weaker welfare states and more authoritarian political systems.  And the IMF has lent support to basic income in countries with the highest inequality and poverty. The risk in both cases is that UBI becomes a cure-all for more intractable problems.

Finally, in the context of austerity, a danger is that the misnomer ‘partial basic income’ becomes mistaken for the real thing.  Will the important complementarities between features of basic income fade from view? Will means-tested unconditional benefits or time-delimited ‘basic income’ become the back-door for reintroducing labour market conditionalities down the line that predictably will adversely affect the most vulnerable? Will a below-subsistence UBI become the basis for eroding welfare funding and the social support of individual needs?

Ultimately, the main problem with current income security systems is the idea that people can be forced to work, and the consequence that a section of society can be forced to do the worst jobs, and take on the most stressful work schedules. Yet the solution to this cannot be pure anti-poverty policy because increasingly the problems of market-induced stress are universal. The solution is to reinstate positive, developmental work incentives. Hence UBI is important as a signal of the wider change in institutions we need. Basic income is important for the vision of actually-shared human conditions – including control of time and the pace of work and human interaction – it represents. Hence if it is not a magic bullet, it is nonetheless a catalytic idea in the twenty-first century.