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The global Basic Income debate

August 2, 2023


By Malcolm Torry, University of Bath, previously London School of Economics, Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) and formerly Citizen’s Basic Income Trust.

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

The modern debate about Basic Income—an unconditional income for every individual: sometimes called a Universal Basic Income, a Citizen’s Income, or a Citizen’s Basic Income—can be dated from the founding of the Basic Income Research Group in 1984. The Basic Income European Network (BIEN) soon followed in 1986. For the following thirty years the subject remained a minority interest. Once every two years an international congress was held; most of us knew each other; and I could honestly say that I had read everything written on the subject in English as well as some of the books and articles in other languages.

But then everything changed. Opinions differ as to precisely when that happened, but it was about ten years ago. And inevitably opinions differ as to why it happened. I suspect that there was no single factor, but rather a combination of them: successful pilot projects had taken place in Namibia and India; the Swiss were preparing for a referendum on the subject; the Finns were discussing a minor experiment with something similar to a Basic Income; the fake news that Finland was planning to give everyone a Basic Income began to circulate, and try as we might we couldn’t stop it; and the UK had seen the first mainstream newspaper article on the subject for twenty years in The Guardian following the publication of my Money for Everyone: the first general introduction to the subject for nearly fifteen years. BIEN’s international congresses became annual events; a journal, Basic Income Studies, was founded; think tanks and academic departments piled in; and publications multiplied. Nobody can now say that they have read everything on the subject. A personal consequence was that what had been a half a day a week voluntary task quickly became an almost full time one, so I had no option but to retire early from the post of Team Rector of a large and busy South London parish in order to give to Basic Income organisations and research the time that they needed. If we count second editions, I have now written twelve books on the subject, and it has been a particular pleasure to have worked with Edward Elgar on four of them: A Modern Guide to Citizen’s Basic Income: A multidisciplinary approach (2020), Basic Income—A history (2021), A Research Agenda for Basic Income (2023), and Unconditional: Towards unconditionality in social policy (forthcoming).

Whilst there are now thousands of books and articles on Basic Income, what sets those four books apart is their somewhat obsessive concern for clear definitions and the best available research. Agreed definitions and high quality research matter, and the debate suffers when they are neglected.

To take a recent example: The Government of Ontario called an experiment with payments that varied with the recipient’s household structure and other income a ‘Basic Income Pilot Project’. A means-tested and household-tested income is a long way from unconditionality, so the experiment was not a ‘Basic Income pilot project’ as that phrase might normally be understood: but it has often been discussed as if it was one. And a number of recent United States experiments that have employed ‘Basic Income’ terminology have imposed proxy means-tests, again disqualifying them as Basic Income pilot projects. This matters, because only if we all understand the same things by the same words can we communicate accurately; and if we mean different things by the same words then misunderstanding is bound to occur. The problem that we now face is that the global extent of the Basic Income debate means that a) it is more important than ever that definitions should be agreed and that we should all stick to them, and b) it is more difficult than ever to achieve agreed definitions and just as difficult to ensure conformity with definitions over which consensus might have emerged.

Just as important as agreed definitions is the employment of the best available research methods. For instance: A particular contribution that the UK has made to the Basic Income debate is microsimulation research. A Basic Income would never be implemented on its own because it would have to be paid for by implementing new taxes, adapting existing taxes and benefits, or creating new money. Whilst a Basic Income is always an unconditional income for every individual, a ‘Basic Income scheme’ is a specified level of Basic Income along with the funding method fully specified and changes to existing taxes and benefits also fully specified—and there is an endless number of different ones, all with different effects. The only way to ensure that a Basic Income scheme would not increase poverty or inequality, would not tip low-income households into deeper poverty, would be affordable, would take people off means-tested benefits, and so on, is to employ microsimulation: a computer programme that employs a vast real-world dataset to predict what would happen in the real world if a particular scheme were to be implemented. In the UK we have discovered that there is a fairly narrow range of Basic Income levels that would be feasible. The existence of such robust research does not stop campaigners advocating for high Basic Incomes that they should know by now would impose deeper poverty on poorer households, and neither does it stop Basic Income’s opponents from employing a particular infeasible Basic Income scheme to vilify the whole idea of a Basic Income: but it does mean that the research results are available for anyone who wants an intelligent debate about Basic Income and how it might be feasibly implemented.

This is just one example of the importance of employing the best available research. The same applies to every aspect of the Basic Income debate. Readers might tire of the way in which my books are strewn with references, but they are essential, as are the long bibliographies that contain only high quality social science research and not some of the less well evidenced books that my readers sometimes hope to find there.

Both clear definitions and high quality research matter, which is why I was particularly pleased to be asked to write the Research Agenda for Basic Income for Edward Elgar. It starts with a thorough discussion of definitions, and then outlines both the research that is already available and the research that now needs to be done.

To be personal again: It is a pleasure to see so many organisations and individuals now involved in the global Basic Income debate. In order to give to new generations of researchers, educators and advocates the social space that they need to run the organisations, hold the conferences, and write the books and articles that the debate now needs, it is high time for some of us who have been involved for forty years to leave the field. Unconditional will be my last book on social policy, and I look forward to seeing how the next generation develops the global debate on Basic Income and on unconditionality more generally. I hope that some of them will publish with Edward Elgar.  

A Research Agenda for Basic Income
By Malcolm Torry, University of Bath, previously London School of Economics, Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) and formerly Citizen’s Basic Income Trust is available now.

Read the introduction and other free chapters on Elgaronline

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