Free money: would a basic income create a fairer society?

Positive News

With countries including Finland, the Netherlands and France considering pilot schemes this year, the idea of a universal basic income is gaining momentum. Giving every citizen the same monthly payment, no matter what their employment status or financial situation, is being touted as a way to help redistribute wealth, create a simpler welfare system and give people more time to get involved in their communities. It may seem fair, but is it the best way to give help to those who need it most? And, would such a system be open to exploitation?

Scott Santens: “Let machines free us from low-paid, low-skilled jobs”
Founder of The BIG Patreon Creator Pledge, a campaign for universal income, who is supported by a crowdfunded monthly basic income, from New Orleans


The best way to help those in need is by helping everyone regardless of need. Consider for a moment the phrase, ‘those who need it most.’ Who are they? Why? What’s needed? Who decides that, and at what cost?

Simply put, the notion that any of us can best judge the needs of another is folly. As soon as we introduce tests for determining need, there will be those who fail who shouldn’t. It’s called a false negative. False positives also exist, but giving aid to the uninjured doesn’t have the same consequences as not giving aid to the injured.

We mistakenly believe we know how to help others better than they themselves do

To err is human, and so in our drive to help only those who need help, we fail. We also create stigmas around the shame of needing help, which leads to people not seeking it. Additionally, determining need requires those who determine it, which creates counterproductive bureaucracy. Finally, we mistakenly believe we know how to help others better than they themselves do. It’s all of these errors in thinking that point directly to basic income.

As for the exploitation of not working, what does that even mean in a world where jobs once performed by humans are increasingly done by machines? Do we exploit our tools when we let them work for us as we go about our lives? Personally, I think that’s the entire point of machines, to toil for us. So let’s let them and collectively earn the payslips they aren’t.

If we provide ourselves basic income, we’ll be free to pursue what we wish, and who are we to say which pursuits are valuable? By forcing someone to flip burgers instead of browsing the internet, we could be stopping the next Einstein. It is that possibility that is potentially the most costly of all.


Anthony Painter: “Basic income should still incentivise paid work”

Director of policy and strategy at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London


Money is what money does. Existing welfare systems already provide ‘free money’ in a variety of ways of course. However, welfare has become a soft form of probation. We provide support for the poorest, but we do it the dumbest and most morally dubious way possible.

The difference with basic income is that it doesn’t come with the baggage. At the moment, if you are on low pay you are locked between an increasingly coercive welfare state and inflexible, insecure work. This is the underside of the flexible labour market.

Money does very different things with a basic income. Instead of being a source of instability, it becomes a support for more stable lives. It is yours and it can’t be taken away. This allows you to plan, learn, work and care without having to answer to the state.

Basic income is a step towards helping people to cultivate better, more secure lives

Basic income, as the RSA model proposes, does not free people from work but it gives them a fighting chance to improve their lives. In other words, if they are fit and able to work they would have a very strong incentive to do so. And they would not get trapped at low earning levels. All recipients over 18 could be required to be on the electoral roll, thereby reinforcing citizenship too.

The weekly amount that any working age person would receive is a ‘basic’ amount. We propose an annual basic income of £3,692 for all qualifying citizens between 25 and 65 (based on 2012-13 prices), as well as a pension for those above 65 and a basic income for children.

It’s not perfect but it’s a start. With welfare institutions, the first step is the hardest. Basic income is a step towards helping people to cultivate better, more secure lives. That’s what the money we now spend could – yet normally fails to – do.


Anthony’s response to Scott

Check your pragmatism. That is the warning shot that Scott’s contribution sends to the basic income movement.

In a dash to prove that basic income is practical and achievable instead of the ‘nice idea, but pie in the sky’ its detractors claim, it’s easy for advocates like us to become too focused on technical detail. The idea is a big one and, even as we try to meet the range of objections, it is important not to lose sight of the hope and vision that propels this debate forward. Scott helps us do that.

Change happens when hope and history rhyme, as the poet Seamus Heaney once said. If we are to see a wave of justice in this generation, which I believe is possible, then principle and pragmatism need to be in harmony.

That is the mission for the basic income movement. On that, Scott and I are completely in tune.


Scott’s response to Anthony

I fully agree with Anthony that the RSA’s proposed partial basic income is better than the existing welfare state of affairs in all its counterproductive glory. We know from Alaska, where citizens have received a standard flat rate from the country’s oil revenue since the 1980s, that such universal systems have many positive benefits. With that said, I’m not one to suggest we should let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘better’, rather that we should aim for the moon instead of settling for the sky.

The unprecedented ability of people to be able to say no to employers is possibly the most transformative promise of basic income. It emerges only as a result of a sufficiently high income decoupled from employment. This is real bargaining power, only otherwise possible through the collective bargaining weight of unions.

It is this capacity, that only a full basic income could provide, which has the potential to change the game entirely.


Main image: Flickr member Pictures of Money

  • Ashbro Whalen

    YEAH woohoo. well said and i like tha plan. how can i help and show my support?

  • aLynn

    its a good step to making this more like the world Gene Roddenberry dreamed of

  • strictlynoelephant

    I’m all for it but worry that it would have the opposite effect : in France for instance where I live: highly subsided renting market = huge rents (m, y rent : 1000 euros/calendar months for 23sqm, then add electricity, water, council tax). I’m not ”subsided but if I were the gov would pay for 3/4 of it. So my guess is landlords would increase rents as a result of everyone earning a bit more. Back to square one, only richer landlords….
    And housing is a key problem (at least in capital cities like Paris).

  • AustinMichael Hair

    To Scott: I agree that we need less inequality to have a thriving economy, but what makes you think that taking from the rich and giving to the poor will solve this problem? You put a lot of trust in people’s desire to work. To reform that into a basic monthly income is completely naive. Once the people who really need the basic income attain it, they will no longer work, innovate, or take risks. The ones who do not need the basic income got to where they are because of their ability to take risks and work hard, something the people who froth at the idea of a basic income clearly lack. On top of that, the reason a basic income is pointless is because once everyone has it, it will move the poverty line up by decreasing the value of the dollar. Eventually, because of free markets, $1000 a month will get you the same amount that $0 gets you right now.

    It’s been proven over and over again that governments growing bigger and supporting more and more people fail, just look at Greece. These ideas are not original, they’re Marxist. Meeting someone’s basic needs doesn’t motivate them, it enables them. What you’re proposing is taking money from the people who have figured out how the market works, put in grueling hours, and giving it to people who prefer not to figure it out. Using other people’s money is a great idea until that money runs out. Then the whole economy is actually in trouble.

    Taking the money that machines which are owned by individuals earn is no different than taking money from the people who are earning it right now. It doesn’t belong to anyone who hasn’t earned it. No one is entitled to eat, have a place to live, or survive just because they were born. No one is entitled to anything, they have to earn it. Survival isn’t a right, it’s a necessity. Putting food on the table is the only thing that motivates some people to contribute every day. We already have an economy and a platform for those to get out of the rat race who choose to do so.

  • Craig Clements

    You seem to have an unrealistic evaluation of your ability to predict peoples future behaviour.
    “Once the people who really need the basic income attain it, they will no longer work, innovate, or take risks” This is based on what? Your ability to see into the future and know exactly how people will behave. There is no evidence to back up your claim and this is just an empty opinion. People becoming free from wage enslavement I would predict is likely to have exactly the opposite effect and free people to pursue personally meaningful activities. Life is about living not wasting out time as you claim figuring out how a system works and then wasting time to “put in grueling hours” of meaningless work that provides no tangible benefit to the individual or society other than creating money. What a weak and bleak argument against a basic income.

  • AustinMichael Hair

    No evidence to back up the claim? We’re surrounded by evidence in our day to day life. Food stamps haven’t fixed the problem since they were implemented, our food stamps per capita are higher than ever before. The number of unemployment payments per capita has continued to increase as well, even in a thriving economy. If these things worked, they’d be going down not up. Hand outs give people a sense of entitlement, not accomplishment, and there’s a big difference.

    I think you have it backwards, we have all the evidence we ever need to be able to determine that giving people things simply because they exist causes decreased motivation, productivity, and over all fulfillment. Furthermore,we don’t have any evidence over the course of history that giving people hand outs causes them to “spend their lives pursuing meaningful activities.”

    Have you ever worked in healthcare and seen people taking average of Medicaid? Have you ever strolled through section 8 housing and seen how people treat that l their free living spaces? Have you ever talked to someone who claimed unemployment and seen the psychological affect on them? You have a lot of faith in people’s desire to contribute.

  • Craig Clements

    Yes I do work in health care, I founded and I am currently the Clinical Director of a charity working with victims of trauma and abuse with 1000’s of hours of direct clinical experience working with people who claim benefits whilst also finishing writing my dissertation for a masters degree in psychotherapy, so what are your credentials? Food stamps, unemployment benefit etc are not a basic income and are not a realistic comparison because they target only the most impoverished in society and not the entire population of a country equally as would a basic income. Basic income will help to create a more financially equal society and all research shows that the more inequality in society, the more social problems it has. It is laughable that you can claim that someone who is on unemployment benefit has psychological problem directly linked to it, the cause and effect is reversed, someone with psychological problems is far more likely to claim benefits.

  • Brian Bartholomew

    At what point would the basic income be unnecessary for an individual or would people graduate from being given a basic income? E.g. a young person is given the basic income and then is able to express their art, say painting instead of flipping burgers. The art is deemed valuable by society and the artist becomes in demand, with more income. At what point is the basic income unnecessary?

    How does this differ from minimum wage or a living wage? I can see a basic income model being necessary transition for people trying to get back on their feet and get off standard welfare.

    “If we provide ourselves basic income, we’ll be free to pursue what we wish, and who are we to say which pursuits are valuable?”

    Other than unconditional love for humanity regardless of form/function, how could you justify a basic income for a person if they had a passion for something that the majority of society deems not valuable? Or what if a capable person on basic income has a passion for something they are not really good at the does not help the community? e.g. the thousands of people who train and try out for professional sports teams and never make it. Does it become selfish for a person to focus on their passion while not adding much to better their community?

  • John Wilcox

    Ah, so many logical fallacies it is ridiculous, signs of weak position based upon wilful ignorance. First of all, food stamps have been replaced by SNAP and EBT long ago. Second, the way the programs like food stamps and later SNAP is they create an artificial spot in which people make too much for the benefits yet can’t afford what the benefits are supposed to cover. The Democrats keep stating “Just throw more money at the problem, that’ll fix it” and it doesn’t. Republicans such as yourself advocate “You don’t work, you don’t eat” and “hunger is a great motivator” and we all know that worked out quite well in Imperial Russia. Oh, wait!

    A universal income is totally different than any other program, it is meant for anyone meeting a simple condition, that is being a legal resident at least 18 years of age or older. To some degree we already have the basis of universal income, social security both retirement and disability. When it become feasible to do so social security could be expanded to include anyone meeting that one simple condition and it would eliminate the need for snap/EBT benefits, HUD, unemployment insurance, SSI, (SSD/SSR would just simply become universal income), pell grants, and numerous other programs. Furthermore, people will be able to get more from their universal income if they work. In fact, the more they work and the harder they work the higher the monthly deposit. How would that give anyone a sense of entitlement anymore than a raise at work? Then again, looking at your own ignorance filled post I can see why you would be against anything that could help America move forward. After all, section 8 does not make a living space free, someone has to pay at least a portion of the rent whether it’s family, friends, or self. Someone on section 8 must pay a minimum even if there is no income, otherwise it is 30% they would have to pay, that is far from being free as in beer.

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