‘Magic bullets’ don’t come around very often. Frankly, they don’t really exist. So why do so many people talk about a Citizens’ Basic Income as if it’s a one-stop shop for answers to all our problems?
Firstly, they shouldn’t. In fact it is perfectly possible to create a dystopian version of a Basic Income in which all public services are replaced with a low, flat-rate payment to citizens who then have to buy all their services from the private sector. And even in a less extreme form, a low Basic Income tagged onto a failing social policy could end up being little better than a low, fragmented benefits system.
So does that mean that Basic Income advocates are just deluded? No – because the best advocates do not see it as a ‘magic bullet’. They see it as part of a package of measures which, together and in a coordinated way, can tackle inequality. They see it as a potential response to automation and artificial intelligence. It can be a great economic tool if it is linked to a different kind of economic strategy. It can replace the misery and humiliation of a punitive benefits system, so long as it itself isn’t punitive.
Like so many ideas, Basic Income sometimes gets elevated from a really solid piece of good thinking into some kind of perfect solution to all problems. And like so many ideas to which that happens, it actually devalues the quality of the idea in the first place.
Basic Income isn’t a replacement for a strong, balanced programme for government for the future – it is an important part of that programme. If we can talk about it not as a messiah-policy but as one of the tools we can use to transform society, we’ll get somewhere much better in this debate.
- Robin McAlpine, Director of Common Weal, @Common_Weal