How do we solve the coming decimation of jobs through automation? The solution of a Universal Basic Income has united both Silicon Valley libertarians and social democrats, offering a guaranteed income to every citizen. But the practical and political issues with the UBI mean it will only serve as a temporary salve for the underlying problems. Instead, progressives must argue for Universal Basic Services, drawing on the history of publicly provided health and education services to build a state fit for the 21st century.
Automation will put between three and five million jobs at risk in Australia by 2030. Some new jobs will be created, but the rise in baseline unemployment since the Second World War will continue, putting millions out of work. This structural change will require adjustment to welfare systems, or risk severing the social contract and plunging the reserve army of labour into wretched poverty.
The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been around for some time, championed by Hayek and Friedman on the right, as well as Martin Luther King on the left. The idea is that every citizen would receive a basic stipend paid by the government. This would be paid for through the elimination of existing targeted welfare systems and tax increases on the rich to counteract their portion of the UBI. But because this idea has come separately from the left and right, there are two competing views of how the program should be implemented.
The social democratic version of a UBI would provide each citizen with enough money to fulfill their basic needs. Each person could then spend this income on the market, and this consumption would circulate through the economy, providing customers for businesses and allowing each person to allocate their money to maximise their own utility. Systems like the NDIS would remain in place to ensure that those with exceptional needs have those met. The social democratic UBI would keep everyone from absolute poverty and desperation. By ensuring that people’s basic needs are met, it would also allow more risk taking by entrepreneurs and artists.
But the social democratic vision of a UBI is not the only version of this policy. The conservative vision of a UBI is as a trojan horse to dismantle the welfare state. Milton Friedman didn’t advocate what he called a negative income tax in order to eliminate poverty, but to serve his ideology of small government. Under a conservative vision, the basic income level could not be sufficient to live on, but would be kept as low as possible (like the dole) in order to ensure recipients are desperate for work. All other welfare programs would be abolished, meaning that the desperation for work would extend to the retired and injured. The UBI would also serve as a cudgel for cutting other government programs – for instance replacing universal healthcare with an increase in the UBI to allow for citizens to buy their own health insurance.
In a two party democracy like ours, these competing visions of a UBI would clash, providing conservative governments with justification for slashing public welfare and services whenever they are in power. For all the good intentions of a social democratic UBI, it cannot fail but be corrupted by the libertarian right. In a policy contest between social democrats who want to maintain welfare at a low but livable level and conservatives who want to push it as low as possible, the social democrats cannot win. The collapse in the level of unemployment and student benefits in Australia demonstrates this well.
Even discounting the political problems, there are practical issues with a UBI as well. The amount of funding necessary is substantial – if the current welfare spend was diverted entirely to UBI, it would provide each person with a little more than $6000 per annum, thus requiring spending to be quadrupled in order to reach the poverty line. Core to the idea of the social democratic UBI is to fund it with tax increases on the rich, but a $500B per year tax increase would be tough for even the most radical in the Labour Party to support. It is more likely that the UBI is set to a much lower level, ensuring that it does not meet people’s living needs and functions like a conservative UBI in practice.
By relying on the market as a mediator, the UBI also introduces a slew of other problems. Much like first home buyers grants only serve to pump up the prices of homes, there is a real risk that a UBI will just end up in the pockets of landlords who can set higher rents at the bottom end of the market. The profit seeking motives of market intermediaries like this mean that a cash grant has to be higher than what would be required for the government to fund the services directly.
So why not provide Universal Basic Services instead? The state could provide basic housing, food, transport and communications in addition to existing healthcare and education services. The public sector already has recent experience in providing services in all these areas, from social housing to public transport and pre-privatisation telecommunications networks. The healthcare example demonstrates the cost savings which are possible through public services rather than those run for-profit – the UK’s NHS costs less than half that of the private US system. This would allow the services to be set at a genuine living standard while keeping tax increases to palatable levels. All the benefits of a social democratic UBI, but at a much more affordable cost.
Providing a non-market alternative in these basic areas would also have other benefits. The poor would no longer be anxious about whether they could afford the necessities, as these would be guaranteed. The public provision of these services would have unexpected benefits, like eliminating food deserts and homelessness. It would also help to combat alienation, allowing creatives to meet their basic needs without pandering to the whims of a fickle market. It may prompt a rethinking of the central role which markets play in our society.
Those who wish to seek their riches and luxuries on the market would still be able to, but those with other priorities would be freed from the drudgery required to make rent. Without this Sword of Damocles hanging over the worker’s head, they will be able to push harder for wage rises, whose stagnancy has been decried by even the Reserve Bank. In a society where basic needs are guaranteed one can forsee some in the creative class eschewing the market entirely, enriching the lives of all. Entrepreneurs would not need to set aside funds for their own survival, helping startup businesses become established and providing a boost to innovation.
Universal Basic Services may reduce the incentives for people to undertake menial labour. Some would see this as a negative. But in a world of increasing automation, the demand for low skilled workers will contine to fall. UBS would make it easier for workers to retrain and build their skills in the new fields demanded by the market, helping fit them to the skilled work available. Critics will decry the program as enabling bludgers to watch TV all day, but is this any less valuable to society than them working as telemarketers instead? In an automated world with less demand for low skilled labour, we need to reconsider the nature of unemployment. I believe that the vast majority of people want to do socially useful work, and if this is community volunteering or their own creative projects rather than the alienating wage labour they are forced into at present then all the better for them and us.
Politically, there is no right wing case for the state to provide these services. So there would be no squabbling and compromise between the left and right over the level of service provided. History shows that once implemented, universal public services are very hard for any conservative government to repeal. By their universal nature, voters experience these services and understand their value – the whole population cannot be decried as ‘welfare queens’. Consider how the Labor Party was able to fight the last election solely on saving Medicare from privatisation, even though the Liberal Party had no such policy.
There is strong support for increased public spending funded by taxation on those who can afford to pay. Without action in advance of the job losses caused by automation, we risk severing the social contract and leaving swathes of the population in abject poverty. Universal Basic Services are a radical idea, but one whose time has come.