With crisis comes opportunity, and often a willingness to take steps previously thought extreme.
In recent years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic some, mainly on the Left of the political spectrum, have been pressing for a Universal Basic Income (UBI): a benefits system whereby means testing is scrapped, and replaced by a standardised system of guaranteed income for all people of working age and in retirement. Incremental progress has seen the idea shift from the fringes of political thought to the implementation of limited trials of a basic income (not yet universal) by more than a hundred governments and local administrations around the globe.
As we emerge from the pandemic, attitudes to work have changed and a precedent set – governments paying salaries! Might it be feasible to imagine UBI becoming an established policy of the mainstream – and possibly even the Right – of the political establishment?
Something for nothing
Let’s assume our hypothetical UBI would provide enough income for a family to maintain a household and pay for all essentials, with no conditions attached.
Obviously, the idea of ‘free money’ is anathema to many on the Right. We can hear the objections: there would be no incentive for people to work, the money would be splashed on luxuries, and why should hard-working people subsidise other people’s benefits.
But what of the moderate right – the One Nation Tory? This branch of the Right may say that they stand for equality of opportunity, education, employment, low tax, fulfilling potential, and family values. Considering these values, we can see that a UBI ticks all the right boxes.
While a UBI does not guarantee equality of outcome, it is a foundation towards enabling equality of opportunity, a concept with which the Right is generally happy. It is effectively a policy that could be a ladder up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
UBI and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
A sufficient level of UBI should help fulfil basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing. It should enable safety needs to be met (namely personal security), provide access to sufficient resources to live, and cover the essential income element of employment. Being part of a community that embraces a UBI should engender a feeling of belonging. The final two levels of the hierarchy are in the gift of the recipient, having been provided with the base from which to progress. Which is where ‘One Nation’ values come in.
UBI and educational opportunity
A UBI, by being universal, is a form of opportunity that is equal; we all get the same leg up. A key opportunity this could provide for would be education. A person may choose to remain in employment and pay for study on the side. They would hope to improve their productivity and in turn increase both their take home pay and the profits of their employer – another selling point for the Right.
A nice consequence of this is that higher taxes would be paid by the employee and employer, offsetting the original outlay from the government purse. This also means general taxation percentages could be kept lower – another tick box for the right. Of course, a more educated employee is closer to fulfilling their potential (tick) and gives a greater pool of labour for wider business to dip into – further enterprise benefits.
UBI: an entrepreneurial boost
The Right love a self-made entrepreneur too, and UBI helps here. Consider an employee who has dreamed of running their own company but couldn’t ever make the step, as they can’t risk dropping a salaried job and guaranteed income to take a punt on their great idea, in case it fails. Potential wasted.
Then they receive a UBI. Knowing they have financial security, they can make that jump to become their own boss; they can bring that new product or service to market. Potential fulfilled.
UBI and self-fulfilment
The same argument goes for the employee who dreamed of a career in the creative industries but couldn’t ever justify chasing that dream. It could give Fatima freedom of choice again; she could move from that cyber job she was forced into, to become a ballerina again!
There is a serious point here, however, which is that such freedom given by a UBI would allow the person to climb the ultimate steps on the Hierarchy of Needs: esteem and self-actualisation. The individual has the ability to become the best they can be, with all the individual and societal (and fiscal) benefits that brings.
In Japan, an experiment in UBI was conducted by a billionaire who gave away significant sums of money to 1,000 of his Twitter followers. The results were interesting. Not only did recipients show an increased desire to start up a business, but 70% reported increased levels of happiness and divorce rates of those within the trial fell.
The reasons are not hard to understand. Two key drivers for stress and relationship breakdown are financial issues and work pressures. A UBI helps to minimise these, so of course should make for a happier individual, with better mental health – a good starting point for a healthy relationship with others. Family values: tick.
UBI as a moderate Right flagship policy
In fifty years’ time, will a UBI have been embraced as a new NHS? Many on the left have been convinced for a long time but a UBI can easily be sold as a moderate right policy too.
The NHS was born from the ashes of war. Due to the current pandemic, governments of Left and Right have had to take drastic action, providing income to individuals on a scale previously unheard of. Now that has been done, it can’t be undone – there is apparently a ‘money tree’ after all.
We are now in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis requiring radical action. The UK hard Right government is making it worse, and window dressing policies such as the £200 loan are helping (and fooling) no-one.
The current situation may provoke the moderate Right into taking action to re-establish control. If so, they will need a good flagship policy to reinvent themselves in the eyes of voters. UBI might just fit the bill.