What is Universal Basic Income?

John McDonnel, Shadow Chancellor of the British Labour Party, has revealed at the the Davos World Economic Forum that his party are “deeply interested” in and “considering” adopting a Universal Basic Income policy. In a talk where he warned the global elite to “pay [their] taxes” and floated the idea of an accountants’ oath to reduce corruption and tax avoidance, the senior politician encouraged experiments and pilot programs regarding basic income policies.

So what is universal basic income? The policy is supported by a crowd as socially and politically diverse as Tesla and SpaceX leader Elon Musk, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerburg, Virgin franchise founder Richard Branson, and is – even now – being openly considered by left-wing political figureheads such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.


[caption id="attachment_122879" align="alignnone" width="312"] Elon Musk supports a Universal Basic Income.[/caption]

UBI is, in a world of (often deliberately) convoluted finances and welfare, a simple strategy. It is also not a new strategy – having been proposed in a 1797 essay by Thomas Paine – yet recent campaigns and influential supporters, partnered with successful trials in various countries, have brought the idea back into the spotlight.

Basic income involves, by its definition, the providing of a given sum of money, on a regular basis, to all citizens of a nation. The idea is that all citizens deserve an income that they can survive and live on, regardless of whether they contribute to their nation’s production or into what circumstances they were born. The purpose of the policy is to “prevent or reduce poverty and increase equality amongst citizens.”


I would strongly advise watching the following animated video, by German Youtube channel Kurzgesagt (In a Nutshell) on universal basic income.


Universal basic income is designed to remedy imbalance and inequality in society, but it doesn’t only do so financially. The policy would have a positive impact on some of the most marginalized individuals in society, such as black women. Feminist and Citizen’s Income advocate Nicole Sallak Anderson highlights that 57% of American women between 15 and 50 are mothers, and UBI would alleviate some of the stresses that these women encounter when trying to balance motherhood and working lives.

[caption id="attachment_124752" align="alignnone" width="312"] Many vocal feminists support UBI.[/caption]

Universal basic income is a policy that is currently being tested by various nations worldwide, including Finland. So far, the experiment – which gave 2,000 unemployed Finns an income of €560/month – has had positive results. The income has given Finns the ability to pursue alternative sources of finance, and follow up and dedicate more resources to their hobbies, passions, and studies. The result is Pirkko Mattila, Minister of Social Affairs and Health, seeming “genuinely bemused” to any opposition against the plan. In response to criticisms that the income would prevent citizens from striving for productivity, she claimed, “I believe that in Finland citizens really want to work.”


There is, however, a case against UBI. The increase in tax that would be necessary to fund such a project, for example, may drive away large corporations and employers. Countries with the policy, it is then argued, may witness a decreased GDP and industrial production. Other criticisms are that billionaires and Silicon valley mega-investors such as Gates, Zuckerberg, and Musk may be using their advocacy for the policy for political gain. The most common claim, however, is that of critics who see laziness as a fundamental part of human nature. They may argue that universal basic income encourages an idle lifestyle on the borderline cusp of poverty, and would culture a society of inactivity.


All in all, universal basic income is a policy that has been making waves in today’s society. This, however, is not news – as the idea has circulated in the heads of governing figures and policymakers for centuries without being largely adopted. Perhaps the current surge of support will decline, as many political scientists predict, and UBI will continue to be a system exclusive to the idyll of false and unrealistic utopias.


All images sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Cover image from Wikimedia user McZusatz.



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