Basic Income Revisited

LONDON – Britain isn’t the only country holding a referendum this month. On June 5, Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected, by 77% to 23%, the proposition that every citizen should be guaranteed an unconditional basic income (UBI). But that lopsided outcome doesn’t mean the issue is going away anytime soon.

Indeed, the idea of a UBI has made recurrent appearances in history – starting with Thomas Paine in the eighteenth century. This time, though, it is likely to have greater staying power, as the prospect of sufficient income from jobs grows bleaker for the poor and less educated. Experiments with unconditional cash transfers have been taking place in poor as well as rich countries.

UBI is a somewhat uneasy mix of two objectives: poverty relief and the rejection of work as the defining purpose of life. The first is political and practical; the second is philosophical or ethical.

The main argument for UBI as poverty relief is, as it has always been, the inability of available paid work to guarantee a secure and decent existence for all. In the industrial age, factory work became the only source of income for most people – a source that was interrupted by bouts of unemployment as the industrial machine periodically seized up. The labor movement responded by demanding “work or maintenance.” Acceptance of maintenance in lieu of work was reflected in the creation of a system of social security: “welfare capitalism.”