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8 June 2023

The left should champion universal basic services, not UBI

Free public transport, higher education and social care is far more radical than free money.

By Aaron Bastani

“Work saves us from three great evils,” wrote Voltaire. “Boredom, vice, and need.” For the Enlightenment philosopher, toil wasn’t merely a means to gain a living – but the thing that infuses life itself with value. That axiom gets to the heart of how our culture views work.

So it is unsurprising that some find the proposal of a universal basic income (UBI) – which would untether wages from work – incomprehensible. Appearing on Good Morning Britain earlier this week, the businesswoman and Apprentice winner Michelle Dewberry called the potential effectiveness of forthcoming UBI pilot schemes the “height of delusion”.

I have reservations about UBI. But these are not the result of believing work is inherently virtuous. I believe that technological change should lead to more leisure time rather than, as at present, to higher profits. So permit me to critique UBI not from the right, but the left.

The planned pilot schemes attracting such ire will take place in Jarrow in north-east England and East Finchley, north London. Between those two locations, 30 people will receive monthly payments of £1,600 for two years – which will supplement their existing earnings. I support the programme because it will test Voltaire’s hypothesis about the necessity of work for happiness. Will those taking part become bored and lazy, or will they become more productive and virtuous?

But given the demands for a national – and truly universal – UBI, consider for a moment the cost of expanding the scheme. This would mean 38 million working-age people receiving monthly payments totalling £19,200 a year – meaning a total cost of £730bn.

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It’s important to point out that nobody is suggesting replicating the exact figures in the pilot scheme nationally, so let’s look at alternative projections by the pressure group Compass. In 2016, it modelled a scheme that would pay £244 a month to every working-age adult in the UK and smaller payments to other groups. This would complement rather than replace existing social programmes, adding more than £170bn a year to public spending, around the same as the day-to-day health budget this year.

Yet Compass found that even with this extraordinary intervention, child poverty would only fall from 16 per cent to 10 per cent, while pensioner poverty would stay broadly the same. Even if we assume this is too pessimistic, it is worth comparing such a proposal with a different approach: universal basic services (UBS). 

For £170bn a year we could not only fund primary and secondary education (already themselves forms of UBS) but higher education too. Alongside this we could create a national care service, for young and old alike, a critical resource for any society facing the challenge of demographic ageing. We could also provide free (and eventually entirely electric) public transport – as Luxembourg already does – as well as a socialised broadband service. Finally we could return to a world of abundant social housing: where publicly owned homes meet demand and help limit house prices for those looking to buy. With extra funding we could reimagine energy as a universal basic service with the customer, rather than private energy firms, benefitting from the deflationary tendencies of renewable energy.

The return on such an investment seems superior to UBI, not least because it permits society to engage with the principal challenges of the 21st century – the climate crisis, demographic ageing, stagnant living standards and automation.

After all, we are told UBI would mean we work and commute less, thus reducing consumption of fossil fuels. I support a four-day week for precisely this reason but the truth is that to decarbonise by 2040 we need the one thing market fundamentalists hate: planning. Public transport as a UBS would help us engineer a zero-carbon economy in a highly coordinated way. The same is true for housing, with new social homes built to a Passivhaus standard of energy efficiency and solar panels adorning every roof.

Then there is care work and the challenge of an ageing population – often gestured to by proponents of UBI. Women do most care work so we should have UBI. This is certainly true. But then why should men, who are less likely to be care-givers, also receive it? And why remunerate care in such a chaotic way if it is analogous to a job? Surely a preferable alternative is a national care service, free at the point of use and paid for through progressive taxation?

Finally, there are the politics of UBI vs UBS. Universal basic services are readily comprehensible to the electorate, not least because they build on something everyone is already familiar with: postwar public services. It may be fashionable to say we can’t go back, but even a majority of Conservative voters favour public ownership of energy, water and the Royal Mail. Why wouldn’t the left use that as a launchpad to argue for UBS? Offering to instead spend the money on a political programme that few have tried and which has uncertain benefits seems a mistake.

[See also: The triumph of cash]

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