Prof. Guy Standing: Every country can afford Universal Basic Income

Guy Standing: "Our wealth and income are much more influenced by our parents and older generations than by our own actions." [pbombaert/Shutterstock]

99% of people want to improve their lives. And the UBI won’t prevent them from wanting it. So if such projects prevent them from having to do terrible jobs, this is positive, Guy Standing told EURACTIV Poland.

Professor Guy Standing is a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and co-president at the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN).

Standing spoke to Editor-in-Chief Karolina Zbytniewska.

Universal basic income (UBI) means money received unconditionally by everyone in a community. How do we afford such a universal social benefit?

UBI can be justified morally and philosophically, which outweighs any arguments from the field of economic efficiency. It is a matter of eradicating poverty, and – more generally – of ensuring social justice.

Many liberal economists would argue that at least in Western democracies we live in open, classless and casteless societies, where everyone can rise “from rags to riches”, as the American dream’s slogan goes. It is social justice, theoretically.

However, the truth is that our wealth and income are much more influenced by our parents and older generations than by our own actions. Since so much depends on private inheritance there is a need for a social dividend.

We are not born equal, both in terms of talents and socio-economic background, which determines our situation. But also setting where we develop is determined externally.

And so we move to another fundamental argument for UBI – ecological justice. Rich people make money by polluting and depleting natural resources, while poor people and – more generally – the precariat are the ones who experience this pollution. Taking this into account, UBI would constitute compensation for suffering from profit-making side effects.

Social justice is not the end of positives, however. UBI enhances freedom, which is lacking especially today in the times of ubiquitous control. And the essence of republican freedom is the right to say NO. NO to a humiliating job I don’t want. NO to a nasty boss or inhuman conditions. NO to controlling bureaucracy at a social security office.

This is the emancipatory effect of UBI. Not having to humiliate oneself every month to receive unemployment benefit or other social support in situation of poverty.

There’s also the third fundamental advantage of implementing UBI – it simply increases human capacity and social capital. The feeling of insecurity diminishes intelligence and it’s impossible to make rational decisions if you feel insecure. And reversely, the feeling of security increases our mental competence, our general understanding, our tolerance and altruism.

UBI has been now implemented as a pilot project in Finland – 2,000 randomly chosen unemployed Finns are receiving 560 euros a month for a 2-year-period since 1 January.

The Finnish experiment does not test UBI.

Because it is not universal but, designed only for the unemployed.

Indeed. And I can already tell the results will be positive – it will confirm that it is not necessary to press people to take a job. However, there were and are going on other pilots around the world, much closer to being pure UBI experiments, including three in India. Those programs were so successful that the Indian government is considering UBI implementation on a regular basis. According to the governmental study India can afford it, reverting present subsidies that don’t reach the poor today.

Another experiment held in Ontario is also closer to the original idea of UBI, as the sampling method gathers the whole community and measures collective effects. It is very important, as if you give special treatment just to some in a given community, the others – brother, uncle, neighbor – will come to you for share.

They feel treated unjustly. And it’s not UBI then, just BI – basic income.

This is the case in Finland. But if everyone receives UBI in the community, this imposes a moral pressure on people to act responsibly – also on the children. So in my opinion it is important to design pilots as close to the real UBI as possible.

Still the experiment in Finland is a step in the right direction, as it removes the poverty trap, increases security, as well as provides incentive to take low-paid or part-time jobs without any bureaucratic pressure or reducing the benefit. Because under the present-day social security structure the unemployed, the poor are under pressure to do what bureaucrats want.

Is it not so that UBI is not a solution for every culture? In Poland we have one of the lowest levels of social capital in Europe, with minimal public and private trust, which often translates into low social responsibility. Decades of Communism are to blame. So when we see men drinking cheap wine outside a shop there’s a tendency to think that alcohol is paid by benefits.

Basic income experiments around the world, whether in South or North America, or in Africa, or in India, or in Japan demonstrate that when people have basic security – when they know they will be able to pay their rent and get food – they become more responsible, and actually spend less on alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

Such a kind of drunkard lumpenisation you mention has many reasons. It is a symptom of a social illness, of having dealt with failures throughout one’s life – arriving at the dead-end with no sense of belonging.

They don’t drink BECAUSE of benefits. And also giving them benefits without providing help to recover is completely irresponsible, as then those people will collapse indeed. This shop-drinking picture shows that your system is bad – that it rejects its own people.

And blames them for effects of this rejection.

Still of course, it’s impossible to cure everyone with the same medicine. But if it doesn’t work on scarce individuals, you don’t resign from this medicine penalizing the majority.

In Poland, the present government introduced a ‘Family 500+’ program, under which every family receives 500 PLN (120) a month for a child. The condition is that it’s a family not a single parent. According to market research, it has reduced employment among less educated people, as well as among women aged 35-44. There’s also a rise in passive people who neither work nor look for employment.

Indeed it’s a controversial program paternalistically imposing conservative Catholic customs. Still, if giving poor people income support leads them to stop doing a job of cleaning public lavatories or doing dangerous works without proper safety measures – it is just great. In the long run it may lead to the improvement of employment conditions – rising wages, improving job setting, providing training.

You know, 99% of people want to improve their lives. And UBI won’t prevent them from wanting it. So if such projects stop them doing terrible jobs, then this is actually a positive outcome. And everyone should ask himself or herself if they would like to do those jobs before criticizing those people or given project’s results.