In the late 18th century, English-American radical, philosopher, and Founding Father, Thomas Paine, floated the idea of paying young men a no-strings grant of £15, raised through taxes on landowners. The philosophy has since been tweaked but the basic principles remain the same: that citizens, whether working or not, are paid an unconditional set salary by their government, in what has been termed a universal basic income, or universal wage.
Last year, Labour revealed that they were considering a scheme to pay every Kiwi more than $200 each week, a trade-off to arrest many of the nation’s welfare payments as part of the party’s Future of Work Commission — a project that deals with the impact of new technologies on the workforce. In a recent an interview with CNBC, entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Telsa, SolarCity and SpaceX, said the rise of automation means a universal basic income is practically inevitable.
A 2013 study by Oxford University estimates nearly half of all US jobs could potentially be replaced by robots within the next 20 years, while a 2016 World Bank analysis concluded up to two thirds of jobs in the developing world to be at risk — some estimates see that figure rise to nearly 80% in China.
“Imagine a little gadget called an i-Everything,” writes author, thinker, and political commentator, Professor Robert Reich. “… a combination of intelligent computing, 3-D manufacturing, big data crunching, and advanced bio-technology.” This little machine could do everything we want, and give us all that we need, but the catch is that, without jobs, we won’t actually be able to afford buy the thing. “We’re heading toward the i-Everything far quicker than most realize.” A universal basic income, Reich argues, “will almost certainly be the answer”.
But it won’t come cheap. If each US citizen, for instance, was paid US$1000 per month, yearly payments would total more than US$3 trillion — that’s comparable with the income tax collected by the American government each year.
Cost aside, the most obvious argument against such a system is that free money would essentially make people lazy. But in the late 1970s, a similar scheme was trialled across a couple of Canadian towns and the number of hours worked dropped by just 10%—mostly through women taking more time to stay at home with their kids. Countries either currently trialling, or planning to trial a universal basic income include Holland, Finland and Scotland. “For centuries, we have tapped the potential of only a small proportion of the British people,” writes John O’Farrell for the Guardian, “the rest have been powerless to initiate or discover where their true talents lay. With the UBI, innovators would be given room to experiment knowing that would still have something to fall back on, it would see more small business and less grovelling on Dragon’s Den.” He adds that the stigma of signing on for benefits with its “degrading culture of blame and humiliation” would vanish overnight.
A 2016 poll found nearly two-thirds of the British public supported the idea of a universal basic income that “replaces other social security payments and is high enough to cover basic needs”. Across the EU, results were similar (64% in support, on average), though also last year, Switzerland (a non-EU nation) voted to reject the scheme in a referendum. Some deride the philosophy as left-wing idealism, but in the early 1970s Richard Nixon, not exactly revered for his liberal views, proposed a similar idea titled the Family Assistance Plan. The bill passed the House but not the Senate, and was abandoned.
In an act of supreme prescience, in 2011 Professor Guy Standing predicted the rise of automation would lead to a reduction in employment and a surge of right-wing populism — something that can only be combated by discarding the idea that the only way to earn money is to work.
“It’s populism that gave us Brexit in Britain and President Donald Trump in the United States,” pens historian and author Gwynne Dyer in a powerful article on the potential merits of the universal wage. “But the fundamental lie of populism is that it can ‘bring the jobs back.’ It doesn’t even admit where they really went.” So don’t be conned by claims that computers create equal numbers of new jobs, for you may end up with a “minimum-wage MacJob” if you’re lucky. The principle of the universal wage, he says, is to ensure a decent standard of living for all. You may choose to work and you may still get rich, because it’s “about saving capitalism, not ending it”.