Should I get a cheque through the post every month as of right? Pensioners get an unconditional basic income (UBI), guaranteed by the embodiment of our collective will –our sagacious and beneficent rulers [splutter]– the government. So if the oldies, why not the middle-agies? (Try again, Poppy. Howsabout the lessoldies? Oh dear; moving on…)
A universal Citizen’s Income was built into the Green Party vision at its inception, and the idea was embroidered into my imagination early on. However, when I would propose UBI in response to a diatribe about the welfare system’s scroungy, poverty-trappy perversity, a look of suppressed incomprehension would settle on the face of my interlocutor, as if I’d shifted the dimension of my argument precluding further civilised discussion. Had I said that the fairies -given enough dew- would offer them all a blessing I could not have excluded myself more thoroughly from the conversation.
But not any more. The idea has had so much exposure –in media as diverse as the Financial Times and the Telegraph, to the Independent (whose editor is quite intrigued by the idea, for what good that might do) and, yes, the Guardian and Observer (don’t blame me!)– that people are now ready with a handy dismissal. It won’t work! they say. It isn’t affordable! Moral hazard! Best of all: It’ll never happen! (Who’s closing off the conversation now?)
Laurie Penny in the New Statesman this week describes an experiment in Germany: 39 people chosen at random from a pool of volunteers are given a monthly €1,000 for a year. “Hardly anyone” has chosen to stay on the sofa eating crisps and watching TV for the year. One quit his job in a call-centre to retrain as a nursery teacher; others who had given up on ever finding a rewarding job have done so. “Almost all” have slept better, worried less, and focused more on family life.
I have been present when a vision of society free from want and stigma has been conjured by distinguished figures such as Brian Eno and David Graeber, and thought, yes, I know! And yes, I want!
But can it be done? I’ve invited an expert to lead a discussion about it (as part of the glittering speaker meetings that I organise here in Barnet). I’ve asked her to get ready for some difficult questions: Is it a human right? Is it as simple as it sounds? Is it affordable after the first year or two? Would anyone ever work again? Why is the libertarian Right so keen on it? (Because they see the state could shrink to no more than a distribution mechanism for the basic income, leaving everything else to the “free” market…). Is there moral corrosion in getting something for nothing?
She could simply say, watch and learn: Finland is looking into introducing UBI in 2017, and Switzerland holds a referendum on it this June.
Is it time for us to move?
To keep up with Poppy’s speaker meetings see http://barnet.greenparty.org.uk/