Poverty is paralysing. In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell recalls spending entire days in bed with, ‘nothing worth getting up for,’ conceding the essence of poverty is that it ‘annihilates the future’. Part of this comes down to scarcity mentality. We behave antithetically in perceiving something to be scarce; scarcity narrows focus to our immediate lack. We cannot make decisions with the long-term perspective rationality demands. Adding to this is the Keynesian notion of “animal spirits’; at times of prolonged economic downturn with narrowed social mobility, people, quite rightly, feel discouraged and ostracised economically. To Keynes the only solution to this was governmental intervention.
Cue then, the Universal Basic Income. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, recently revealed intentions for a pilot scheme in Labours’ next manifesto, replacing a means-tested benefits system with an unconditional flat-rate payment for all. It’s a concept impartial to any socialist / conservative affiliation, owing its’ pedigree to as early as the 16th century. It was even briefly considered by Nixon in 1969, but was quickly tabled when his vehemently-opposing advisor Anderson, presented him with a report on a “failed” case in 19th Century England. Despite it being based on biased and insignificant evidence, this “Speenhamland System” cast a shadow far beyond the summer of ’69. Only recently has it come to be disputed. Indeed, Cambridge Professor Szreter argues it boosted workers’ income and contributed to making the English agricultural industry one of the most efficient in the world.
Economist Albert Hirschman once contended that before great milestones of civilisation became reality, the rhetoric is dismissed as, ‘futile, dangerous and perverse’.
It’s futile: “We cannot afford it”
According to economists in ’69, whilst of ‘substantial costs’, it’d be ‘…well within the fiscal capacity of the nation’. Basic income is a venture capital for all. In America, child poverty amounts to $500 billion per annum (expenditure on drop-outs/health/crime). Economists estimate, if financed using negative-income tax, for a net cost of $175 billion- (only 1% of GDP)- you could lift all Americans out of poverty. Amounting to a mere ¼ of the trillions spent on warfare in Iraq, it seems it’s not a matter of affordability, but of priorities.
It’s dangerous: “Free money makes people lazy”
An association reiterated ad nauseam, but not one necessarily substantiated. Enter Dauphin. In 1974, this Canadian City became the test subject of UBI experimentation and there was nowhere near ‘the mass dystopia’ anticipated by the prophets of doom. Alas, the new government abandoned the experiment, refusing to fund analysis of the collected data. When eventually analysed, what was unearthed revealed during the five-year experiment, not only had the population become wealthier, they’d become smarter and healthier. School performance was on the increase with domestic violence and mental health problems on the decline. Hospitalisation rates decreased over 8%, and people had not stopped working.
Anxieties of ‘free-riders’ are deeply-embedded within our psyche. Curiously though, seldom would we fret a chief executive be demotivated by their handsome income; yet, we’re convinced £70 per week for every citizen would beget an unproductive nation of unemployed, faineant couch-potatoes en masse. UBI isn’t synonymous with a post-work society; rather, a society wherein people relinquish control over both their working and personal lives- which if anything, inspires a motivation to work.
It’s perverse: “It will be counterintuitive”
On the contrary, it seems to me, it’s the welfare system in its present form that has deteriorated into this perverse villain of supervision, stigmatisation and suspicion. It is founded on the belief of individual economic agency. When looking at this politics of individualism, not only can we see an erosion of empathy, but a reframing of personal responsibility. Poverty is increasingly viewed, not as a sign of collective societal failure, but one of individual immorality. Instead of being disgusted by poverty, people are disgusted by the poor themselves.
Such public antipathy is largely driven by blanket perceptions of ‘idle scroungers’, exploiting a bureaucratic welfare system, funded by hard-working taxpayers. Indeed Margaret Thatcher even once said “poverty is a personality defect”. If anything is counterintuitive, it’s the system itself; endorsing this misconception of a legion of ‘lazy delinquents, bums and freeloaders’. In providing a standard income for all, UBI could also work to combat these largely fictional stigmas that divide society. By addressing these perceived inequities and allowing everyone to become beneficiaries to this, what Ed Miliband dubbed, “trust fund for all”.
“The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail”, says Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who admits, “If I didn’t know I’d be fine if Facebook hadn’t worked out, I wouldn’t be standing here today”. Indeed, innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial culture can only thrive where people possess the time and financial security to experiment with ideas. Think of all the prospective George Orwells out there now, stuck in this poverty-trap. When faced with such untapped potential, society can only stagnate.
It’s time we develop a social contract for our generation. One that strives for equality and dispels this archaic fallacy that a life without poverty is a privilege, rather than an inherent right. Whilst a UBI system may seem chimerical, there is nothing inevitable about our economic structure or welfare policy. After all, those who called for suffrage for women, racial equality and same-sex marriage were once denounced as absurd, until history proved them right. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, ‘progress is the realisation of utopia’; and if history has taught us anything… it’s that things, could be different.
Annabelle Rose Lymbery is a third year law student