The Unconditional Basic Income: How realistic is an implementation?

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The idea of an unconditional basic income (UBI) has triggered a broad social debate in recent years, the arguments for which I have highlighted in the first three parts of this series of articles. But what are the potential opportunities that the UBI will actually be realized in one way or another?

In fundamental terms, the idea of a UBI seems to have met with quite broad approval among the population, even though many are skeptical. In recent years, several studies have been carried out in Germany, such as those conducted by Dalia Research in the spring of 2016 or Splendid Research in the autumn of 2017. Most of these surveys came to the conclusion that a small majority of Germans would generally support the launch of a UBI.

Of course, one must always be careful with studies (among which there are astonishingly many in the meantime on this topic): the lack of consequence encourages soft-hearted, emotionally based answers, and with such an intricate topic, yes/no questions are generally a delicate matter, as Sascha Liebermann, for example, notes (Blog).

The results show that a large part of the German population is open-minded towards the idea – but at the same time that the interviewees see the topic differently and are well aware of possible problems.

Switzerland has taken concrete action: in June 2016, the actual introduction of a UBI was voted on, with a fixed amount of 2,500 Swiss francs (currently a good 2,100 euros) per month for all adults and 650 SFr. 550 (around 550 euros) for minors, including non-nationals living in the country. This, of course, placed a much greater emphasis on the matter than any study without any binding force.

However, the initiative clearly proved fruitless: 78% of respondents rejected the introduction of the UBI, only 22% were in favour (Reports: www.sueddeutsche.de and and www.zeit.de). The main argument of the antagonists was the concern that the UBI could not be afforded. Proponents such as the Basic Income Initiative nonetheless regard the vote as a success, because almost a quarter of those voting supported the realization of the UBI.

However, as discussed in the first three parts of this series, the most unforeseeable aspect of the introduction of a UBI is not simply its funding, but rather the question of how people would respond if they received a UBI.

Would a sufficient number of people still be able to pursue normal employment, or would too many of them either cease to work at all or only pursue economically irrelevant employment? Since a UBI does not yet exist in any other country of the world, empirical values are lacking, so experiments are meant to clarify the sensitive psychological factor.

The most noted experiment is currently being carried out in Finland: on 1 January 2016, 2,000 randomly selected unemployed people began receiving a monthly sum of 560 euros and will continue to do so for two years – unconditionally and without any accountability and in any event even if they should find a job in the meantime. The experiment is intended to show how people perform under this environment, in particular, whether the incentive to seek work changes in positive or negative ways. More than half of this period has now passed, and a detailed evaluation is not expected before 2019.

At present, there are only a few statements from a small number of participants that mostly point to a positive motivation boost (Reports: www.deutschlandfunk.de and www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de).

However, the question arises as to how conclusive the results are going to be. The Finnish experiment does not correspond to the actual idea of a UBI in many significant respects:

To begin with, only people who were unemployed were selected, so the participants were in no way representative of the entire population. The second is that it involves only individual persons and not an entire society; thirdly, the  560 euros per month that has been paid out is far from enough to guarantee a livelihood. And finally, the experiment is restricted to two years, so the participants are faced with the prospect of falling back into their present situation if they do not manage to find a job during this time.

The idea of the UBI, however, is precisely based on the assumption that people will be permanently exempted from the obligation to perform paid labour. Accordingly, the Finnish experiment – regardless of its outcome – is generally considered attractive, but not really revealing.

Many respondents – both supporters and opponents of the UBI – believe that something like the UBI cannot be tested in a limited experiment. For example, Michael Hüther says in Focus:

There is practically no test – the implementation of the basic income remains a journey into institutional instability.

Philip Kovce also does not consider time-limited and socially limited experiments to be significant:

An unconditional basic income cannot be tested, nor can democracy, the rule of law or human rights be tested. They can only be practised by practicing them.

The Finnish attempt will not, therefore, be capable of giving a real answer to the question of whether the introduction of a UBI is reasonable and effective. Ultimately, an actual deployment in an entire country would remain an experiment with an utterly uncertain outcome.

The starting point of this series of articles was the question of whether the UBI is just a romantic social utopia or a realistic model for the future. Neither of these seems to be the truth: The UBI has definitely emerged from the ranks of leftist utopianists; it is being discussed seriously on a broad basis today. This in itself is a remarkable fact, which proves the relevance of this topic!

The fact that there are powerful dissenting voices against this is inherent in the nature of a political discussion.

The unconditional basic income will definitely come. The only question is when.

Optimistic statements such as these are often read in the proponents’ manifestos. But in the near future, concrete steps are not to be expectedat at all, too much lies in the area of the unpredictable; the political and economic risk seems – at least at present – far too great. But if you look at the dynamics of the discussion within a few years, it becomes clear that this could possibly change quickly.

And even if the UBI is never introduced, the public debates on the value of work and the possibility for every individual to participate in the economic prosperity of a society are nevertheless very valuable.

Translation German-English: Anna Dichen

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ferien-maedchen-freibad-sommer-sonne-liegestuhl-baden-gratis-free-clipart-comic-cartoon-c-large- ferien-maedchen-freibad-sommer-sonne-liegestuhl-baden-gratis-free-clipart-comic-cartoon-c-large- Agnes Avagyan CC BY-SA 4.0