In recent weeks, my posts on social media opposing the idea of basic income have often been responded to with the suggestion that long term measures are all well and good but that this policy approach would offer an immediate way of ensuring that people have adequate and secure income. While I appreciate the focus on practical solutions this reflects, I disagree and I’m setting out below my reasons for taking this position. Lots of people are taking up the idea of basic income for the first time and so I will make my points as clear and succinct as I can.
1. People have pointed out that governments responded to the pandemic and the economic crisis it set in motion with measures like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). It is hoped, then, that more adequate and less restrictive social provision is a new direction we can expect. However, it is necessary to put an initiative like CERB in context.
The pandemic suddenly confronted governments with the need for lockdowns and wide ranging economic shutdowns in order to preserve public health. In this unexpected situation, huge numbers of people suddenly had no income. Staving off widespread hunger and the loss of housing on a huge scale became urgent in order to preserve social stability. However, these exceptional measures were taken as a temporary response to an unprecedented crisis. There was no intention to move in the direction of new and adequate income support systems. Justin Trudeau recently told the Financial Times that these emergency payments are ‘not a measure that we can automatically continue in a post- pandemic world.
We should certainly fight to maintain payments like CERB, as we deal with more waves of the pandemic, and we must also fight for permanent income support programs that are adequate and available to all in need of them. However, the assumption that the creation of CERB means that a $2,000 a month permanent and unconditional basic income is something governments are about to provide, is misplaced.
2. Basic income is often presented as something that has an almost magical quality about it. Where unemployment insurance has been cut and social assistance rates have been driven down, it is simply assumed that basic income would automatically provide a decent and secure income to everyone. But what is the basis for this assumption? Income support systems play a certain role within capitalist economies. They keep unrest and social breakdown at bay but they are set at levels that will not make it easy to turn down low paying and highly exploitative jobs. The last decades have seen the huge expansion of the low wage sector and income support has been cut back to ensure that the supply of workers for this sector would increase.
A basic income that suddenly gave everyone enough to live on reasonably well would undermine the ability of employers to pay low wages. The political agenda of restricting income support so as to push up the rate of exploitation would not go away because a basic income system was put in place. The same employers’ groups and political parties that have gutted EI and social assistance would be working to ensure basic income was as inadequate as possible. We’d face the same fight against cutbacks and austerity that we are in today. The only question is would basic income give us an advantage in our fight to win decent income or would it work against us?
3. In the next few years, as we put the pandemic behind us, we will be facing economic crisis and large scale unemployment. Governments will have spent unprecedented amounts to get through the health crisis and on economic stimulation, most of it in the form of subsidies and giveaways to Big Business. Employers will be on the offensive, trying to restore profitability by increasing the rate of exploitation. If we have gone the route of basic income, this approach will prove to be incredibly helpful to those employers and the governments that serve their interests in a couple of ways.
Firstly, basic income will mean a wide expansion of social provision by cash payment. Most of those who receive it will be waged workers. Suddenly, just as employers are on the attack, a major part of the income of low wage workers will come, not from their bosses, but from the general tax revenues. In effect, employers will be receiving a cash subsidy that partly pays the wages of their workers. This will undermine the struggle for better wages and let governments off the hook when it comes to decent minimum wages. Basic income will be an employer’s weapon against workers.
Secondly, as the drive to cut back and privatize public services intensifies, basic income will be used to take this forward. The payment will be provided not, as some hope, to complement existing programs but as an inadequate replacement for them. It is, of course, argued by basic income supporters that we should preserve existing services AND have basic income but the more social programs take the form of cash payments, the easier it will be to cut back on healthcare, education, public transit and other vital public services. We should most certainly fight for decent income for unemployed, poor and disabled people but, rather than buy into the commodification of social provision, we should be focused on winning improved healthcare, pharmacare, denticare, a huge expansion of social housing, free and accessible child care, free public transit and many other vital social needs.
Basic income is not a viable way of improving things in the short term and, over the longer term, it would not impede but actually facilitate the agenda of neoliberal austerity that has so intensified the poverty and inequality in this society that we all want to challenge and defeat.