In this series Luke explores the Eight Modern Giants introduced by Economist Guy Standing in his recent report Basic Income as Common Dividends. This second article focuses on Insecurity and how the ideologically driven cutting back of social security has led to chronic uncertainty. He then explores the importance of basic security, and how a Basic Income can reverse regressive trends in social policy by reducing economic insecurity.
Luke Brotherdale Smith, Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland Volunteer
The second of the ‘giants’ Standing sees as being a key challenge to modern Britain is insecurity, specifically economic insecurity. Insecurity has always existed in this sense, with many people believing a certain level of insecurity actually incentivises and drives people in different ways. However, with the 1942 Beveridge Report and the formation of the welfare state, there was a consensual view that too much insecurity, uncertainty and stress is damaging and counterproductive both individually and collectively. As a result, ‘social security’ and the idea of government providing support to the unemployed and disabled was strengthened and became a normalised feature of our country. Basically, the idea is that there are indefinite random events which could hit anyone, suddenly leaving them jobless, homeless and so on. As a result, the state provides all people with social security, everyone is protected from future uncertainty, in case (bluntly) shit hits the fan. So unemployed people would be given benefits and financial support, almost as compensation for the job market failing them and therefore guaranteeing all people a level of economic security. But that was an idea produced in the 1940s, over half a century ago. I’m sure we’ve evolved, developed and improved on these ideas, making the post-war social security system look positively medieval…
…Well, not quite.
Our current so-called ‘social security’ system has become a zone of insecurity. This would be an ideal point to insert a funny comment about renaming it ‘social insecurity system’ or something, but I think our clusterfuck of a benefit system is a big enough joke as it is. Except it isn’t really funny.
Over the decades we have seen jobs paying less, people in work suffering from poverty and therefore the need for in-work benefits. At the same time, the benefit system has been cut back, manifested into a minefield of sanctions and been built entirely on conditionality. As you can imagine, when the money that’s supposed to keep you out of destitution is conditional on the decisions of some untouchable people in offices, the situation isn’t greatly secure.
Now we are at the stage where people in suits actually profit from assessing who is deserving of benefits. Is that disabled man disabled enough to deserve benefits? Are those in work low-waged enough to deserve benefits? Is that unemployed single-parent impoverished enough to deserve benefits? In essence, can you prove you are desperate enough to deserve the small sum of money that ultimately, keeps you alive? With more assessments, more means tests, more conditions, more decisions from out of touch politicians, our once social security system is now rife with insecurity, uncertainty and stress.
So why has our social security system which once promised to defeat ignorance, greed, idleness, want and squalor taken a U-turn and now seeks to install greater insecurity into the lives of the most vulnerable? As I discussed in the first article about the ‘Giant of Inequality’, economic and social policy changes haven’t happened by accident or through innocent mistakes. Nor (as far as i’m aware) is this change due to some cruel joke about how much the privileged can shaft the most vulnerable. The increasing insecurity has occurred because of ideological choices. The Neoliberal Ideology is built on the assumption that people are individually responsible for everything – remember Thatcher’s “There’s no such thing as society”. So there’s a belief people choose to be unemployed, choose to be on benefits and therefore deserve insecurity and stress, to force them back into work through fear. Incredibly, we’ve designed a benefits system which rather than supporting people in the most insecure and vulnerable positions, we instead punish them with sanctions and complex conditions.
As you can imagine, the consequences of this increasing insecurity isn’t great for human wellbeing. Standing points to the prevalence of chronic uncertainty throughout society. But whats chronic uncertainty? Whilst you can do some clever mathematical simulations to calculate probability of risks, (so i’m told anyway,) you cannot calculate uncertainty. Uncertainty is made up of ‘unknown unknowns’. So thats stuff we don’t know we don’t know. Be it a future war on the other-side of the world or an impending breakdown of a trade agreement (don’t mention the B word) we can be negatively impacted by events we have no control over and cannot predict. Whoever gains from or is hurt by these events is random. Unless you’re rich – turns out having money increases your security! As we have moved towards greater insecurity, be it in terms of insecure work, insecure welfare, feeling insecure about your home and insecure personal relationships, our systems have thrust us into an epidemic of chronic uncertainty, stress and volatility. So many people in modern Britain are now the loss of a job, the eviction from a flat or the breakdown of a relationship away from seriously hard times. I am not going to talk about the psychological and emotional destruction this uncertainty and insecurity causes here, as stress is another of Standing’s ‘giants’ which I will discuss in a later article. But fundamentally, this chronic uncertainty is a ramification of the systemic stripping away of security from every aspect of our life.
Neoliberal austerity and has led to a lack of protection for tenants, a decline in workplace protection and cuts to welfare: all of which have combined to create great insecurity and therefore a crisis of uncertainty. Neoliberalism is all about stripping back collective and socialised stuff, and instead putting an emphasis on individual responsibility and private markets, (extreme examples being buy your own lifesaving healthcare, pay for your own police force etc). But you may be sat there thinking the idea of you ensuring your own security as an individual is a good thing, right? Surely the idea of cutting benefits in order to force people to look after themselves is only a good thing? No, not really… As I mentioned earlier, Standing emphasises that whilst risk can be assessed by individuals, and they can choose whether or not certain activities are a good move, uncertainty is the unknown unknown. You can be the most individually responsible person on the planet, but if, say, a financial crisis hits, you’re put out of a job and the landlord gives you notice, you may well need some sort of security, (lets call it social security, maybe?). This is fundamentally where the Neoliberal ideology breaks down. The idea everything can be individualised and dealt with by the individual is simply not true. We are all impacted by unknown unknowns that we as individuals cannot predict nor deal with alone. It is why only those with security and money seem to ride out the storms of uncertain events, and even prosper while others struggle.
And this is where the Basic Income comes in. Fanfare plays.
A Basic Income will provide a guaranteed income without conditions and without sanctions. A Basic Income will therefore ensure basic security.
Now, theres a reason why basic security is such an important thing, and it’s because it is what economists call a ‘superior public good’. So what the hell is a ‘superior public good’?
I’ll explain using carrots (no, really). If you eat loads of carrots it limits my ability to eat carrots, because you’ve eaten them all. In contrast, if you have basic security from, say, a guaranteed income, that doesn’t prevent or limit me from also having basic security. So we can’t both have loads of carrots, but we can both have basic security. But it gets better. I don’t particularly benefit from you eating loads of carrots – even though you benefit as you now have insane night vision. However, unlike the carrots, you having basic security actually improves my basic security. Psychologists have shown basic security increases tolerance, altruism and cooperation, all of which improve society’s security and prosperity as a whole. So the major takeaway, (food pun not intended,) is that basic security is a superior public good, because not only can we all have it at the same time, but having it actually enhances one another’s basic security further. This is why a Basic Income can and will be so transformative, eradicating insecurity and the chronic uncertainty it causes.
So a Basic Income will protect people from the unknown unknowns and underpin a genuine social security system. Universal Credit forces those in the most precarious positions to earn support through specific behaviours and conditions whilst being threatened by sanctions. This adds constant pressure, anxiety and is anything but social security. The Basic Income will not only defeat the ‘Giant of Insecurity’, but will also have a ripple effect, increasing cohesion, trust and unity – values which are increasingly lacking and so desperately needed in British society.
This blog is one of a series looking at Guy Standing’s recently published report, written for the Shadow Chancellor, ‘Basic Income as a Common Dividends’. Influenced of course by Beveridge, Standing reflects on the eight modern giants he sees as stalking modern Britain. He comments on how these giants are having a protracted negative effect on society as well as the economy, and how a Basic Income can be a key tool in combatting the growing challenges these giants pose. In the next few weeks, we will be releasing a series of articles analysing Standing’s eight giants and delving further into how the Basic Income can (and will) combat them.
The giants are inequality, insecurity, debt, stress, precarity, automation, ecological crises and the rise of neo-fascism and the far right