Readers are probably aware that Finland has just begun an experiment to see whether paying a basic income to citizens might replace its current patchwork of welfare programs and systems. The Guardian reports:
Finland has become the first country in Europe to pay its unemployed citizens an unconditional monthly sum, in a social experiment that will be watched around the world amid gathering interest in the idea of a universal basic income.
Under the two-year, nationwide pilot scheme, which began on 1 January, 2,000 unemployed Finns aged 25 to 58 will receive a guaranteed sum of €560 [about US $590]. The income will replace their existing social benefits and will be paid even if they find work.
Kela, Finland’s social security body, said the trial aimed to cut red tape, poverty and above all unemployment, which stands in the Nordic country at 8.1%. The present system can discourage jobless people from working since even low earnings trigger a big cut in benefits.
“For someone receiving a basic income, there are no repercussions if they work a few days or a couple of weeks,” said Marjukka Turunen, of Kela’s legal affairs unit. “Working and self-employment are worthwhile no matter what.”
The government-backed scheme, which Kela hopes to expand in 2018, is the first national trial of an idea that has been circulating among economists and politicians ever since Thomas Paine proposed a basic capital grant for individuals in 1797.
Attractive to the left because of its promise to lower poverty and to the right – including, in Finland, the populist Finns party, part of the ruling centre-right coalition – as a route to a leaner, less bureaucratic welfare system, the concept is steadily gaining traction as automation threatens jobs.
There's more at the link, including a discussion of other countries that are experimenting along similar lines.
I can see one possible advantage to a system of basic income; it might replace a host of other welfare and entitlement programs with a single payment. That would eliminate the need for tens of thousands of bureaucrats and dozens of federal, state and local government departments, saving their annual cost. On the other hand, it's unlikely in practice that such savings would be realized, because politicians can't be trusted to give up leverage and patronage positions like that. What's more, I'm sure there would be pressure to maintain some additional welfare programs, on the basis that this or that group was 'disadvantaged' and needs 'additional assistance'. That would turn a basic income program into just another welfare or entitlement scheme.
The biggest single danger I can see - one that effectively disqualifies basic income from consideration, in my book - is that it's Big Brother's wet dream. It would put enormous economic power over the electorate into the hands of the state. It could be used as a bribe by the party in power - "Look how much we're giving you! Vote for us!" On the other hand, a party wanting to gain power could promise a bigger, better, more generous basic income payment if they come to power, irrespective of whether or not the country can afford it.
That might also affect freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience. When a significant slice of one's purchasing power is dependent on the goodwill of Big Brother, one's unlikely to 'rock the boat' for fear of seeing it reduced or cut off altogether. The government could choose to cut, or deny, the basic income allowance to members of certain groups, or criminalize certain conduct (e.g. protests) and impose cuts in basic income as punishment for those convicted of them.
I think basic income is too strong a lever over the people to put in the hands of any government. I simply don't trust politicians and bureaucrats not to misuse it. It makes everybody a dependent . . . and that might well be fatal for personal and national independence. As President Gerald Ford so wisely noted:
“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”
Truer words were never spoken.