A few months ago now, I read up on a revolutionary proposal, and have spend some time pondering over it since then. It was initially proposed in September 2013 in Switzerland, and a referendum was actually triggered over it. The vision was to deliver a Basic Universal Income to all members of the public living in the country, regardless of their profession or walk in life. The proposal was to supply every citizen who is 21 and upwards with a guaranteed monthly sum of 2500 Swiss Franks (or £1750).
This isn’t such a radical or new idea – it has been suggested for centuries. Starting off with Thomas More who raised the idea in his book Utopia in the 16th century. Liberal economist Milton Friedman, former US president Richard Nixon and his democratic presidential opponent George McGovern all spoke of the positives of a universal living wage. In 1967, Dr Martin Luther King made the profound statement – “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”
This is not a left-exclusive policy, or an inherently pro-Marxist scheme, despite what initial impressions it may manifest in some people. It has received positive reactions from both the political left and those with a Conservative orientation. In fact, it would still be able to operate within the realms of capitalism. It would even give smaller businesses a chance to flourish, so it would lead to a more diverse and flourishing form of capitalism, rather than one which is primarily run by monopolies and corporations.
Now, onto the practicality of the proposal. In Namibia, an experiment was undertaken to test how a basic income would affect a society. Instead of giving aid to a village, a big sum of money was distributed to each individual citizen living in that village. Immediately, instead of everyone dividing off and spending their money on themselves, the people cooperatively put their money together to make one common pool of money which they invested into developing a democratic society – in the first investment they built a post office for the village.
Oxfam also tried a similar experiment in India. An aid group distributed a basic income to residents in eight villages in India, and compared it with twelve villages which received no income. The villages provided with a basic income saw “improvements in child nutrition, child and adult health, schooling attendance and performance, sanitation, economic activity and earned incomes, and the socio-economic status of women, the elderly and the disabled,” wrote Guy Standing, a professor at the University of London.
In relation to the above scenarios I described, it shows that generally, if people are joined together through equal positioning and status, they will co-operate together. Already from this case, we are shown that a progressive society will still be present if people are co-operating in such a manner, and technology and innovation will not necessarily diminish as a result of it.
One doubt which people would be having is the economic feasibility of this proposal – how the country could afford to supply each citizen with money. Well of course, money spent in the country would be put straight back into the economy anyway. More money being spent would equate a more efficient and growing economy.
If wealth is hoarded up, as it is in corporate societies such as America and the United Kingdom, then this leads to slower economic growth. Statistics show that there is a clear correlation between austerity and slower GDP growth. Therefore, one could definitely make a case for this potentially being a more productive society.
Below is a graph, comparing austerity and GDP growth in 2011-2012 in the Eurozone, to confirm this.
Also, inequality of wealth and tax evasion would need to be tackled in the first instance, to make this plan actually work. With this long overdue and highly necessary course of action to be taken, it would free up society and make it fairer, rather than one being run for the interests of the corporations and the richest 1%. According to a report by the Public and Commercial Services union (a union for most staff at HMRC), tax evasion amounted to £119.4 billion as of last year. Therefore, this highly debilitating issue of tax evasion would make the proposal of a universal wage much more feasible if it were clamped down on.
In the year 2014, £112.4 billion was spent on welfare, while £143.2 billion was spent on pensions. Naturally, these expenses won’t be necessary if a Basic Universal Income is put into practice – so again, two more vast sums of money which could cover the costs of the policy.
If implemented, the basic universal wage would solve arguably the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world – poverty. Millions who rely on food-banks, miniscule sums of welfare, those who are homeless, and those who simply struggle to get by due to inadequate wages or lack of hours will be lifted out of poverty from this proposal, so it would be vital for a healthy, just society.
Crime is also an issue corresponding to poverty, as high crimes levels often correlate with higher levels of deprivation in society. Wealth being distributed more fairly, as a result of the policy in question being put into practice, will no doubt result in shattered crime and poverty levels. This would be a huge step forward for society!
One of the most prominent criticisms of this idea which I have witnessed is that if people are paid enough money to be able to get by, then they will not work and become couch-potatoes, or scroungers of some variation – therefore resulting in a less productive society. I do not like idea, as it implies that humans are inherently lazy, and only work when they have to. Of course there will be a few who this could apply to, no system could possibly make every single person in society “not lazy” – unless we are talking of forced labour camps which would have been highly welcomed a few thousand years ago.
People will still want to work and be productive. If humans only work because they have to – then why do entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Warren Buffet, Alan Sugar, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump and so on carry on doing what they do, despite having enough money to live off? Did Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Alexander Bell, only do what they did for the money? No. Innovators, and people in this category who change the world and society did what they did out of sheer curiosity and passion in the field which they so greatly contributed to. If people really want to do something, they will, whether or not money is part of the equation.
There is another key issue here. A major issue at that, which I believe needs to be brought into perspective. In this society, where corporations set out to gain as profit as possible, they will obviously look for cheap labour. They will be able to obtain this as technology advances, when automation is more readily available to businesses/companies. Many corporations would therefore use automated technology to carry out jobs, rather than hiring a great deal of staff.
Automation is already becoming more widespread in the workplace today – such examples of this are in manufacturing or in retail. It is conceivable therefore, that automation will dominate industries in decades to come – hence, there will be less employment for people. In this scenario, it is likely that a universal living wage will be highly necessary for people – as work opportunities, mainly for menial jobs, will be much more scarce.
Therefore from this, we can conclude that not only would the basic universal wage be a nice idea, it is highly necessary to produce a fair, yet productive society – and this will be even more so the case in years to come.