Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition:
The concept of politicians using public money to win votes is an old one. One can trace the phrase “bread and circuses” right back to imperial Rome, and listening to last week’s debate on the so-called “Granny grant” it’s fair to say the concept is alive and well in Ireland.
What caught my eye about the debate was the particularly Irish flavour to it. I’d been reading about the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and the granny grant debate made me change direction: not just to look at UBI but look at it through the prism of Irish politics.
Both UBI and the granny grant have superficial similarities.
Both are, on the face of it, about giving “free” money, not that there ever is such a thing, to voters.
But then they diverge.
The granny grant is a barely disguised “Please, for the love of Jesus, vote for me” ploy.
UBI is a thoughtful concept that could potentially revolutionize modern society.
What unites them?
Watching last week’s debate, the near certainty that both will become sordid and a waste of good money if Irish politicians are let get their sweating paws all over them.
The granny grant is just plain nonsense. It would probably be cheaper to let Shane Ross walk up and down the streets of Dublin-Rathdown with a security van behind him, handing out €50 notes to all comers.
At least we wouldn’t have the pretend bureaucracy and could all be honest about what’s going on here.
But the basic income concept, which keeps popping up across the west, is a whole different beast. The idea is not to get a politician re-elected, but to radically reform the welfare state and prepare society for the possibility of a more automated age of underemployment.
The core of UBI is that every resident gets a fixed guaranteed income from the state every month.
Regardless of income, without any means-testing, straight into your bank account.
You don’t have to lift a finger, do a training course, sign on, prove you’re searching for work.
Sounds like a populist socialist utopia, right?
The funny thing about UBI is that both the socialist left and the free market right see something attractive in it, to such a degree that it’s like neither side fully grasp what they’re looking at.
For the left it’s liberating. A safety net for all. No more pushy welfare bureaucrats hassling you.
For the right it’s also liberating. No more pushy welfare bureaucrats.
See what I did there?
It’s at this point the left shift uneasily.
Because that’s the point of UBI. It permits the state to shrink: who needs welfare bureaucrats if people just get the money without quibble?
Then there’s the abolition of most other welfare payments, which is how you fund it, and also get rid of the welfare trap.
People are no longer discouraged from working because the danger of losing their existing welfare payments will no longer exist.
In short UBI would reward those who choose to work.
In fact, if you want those in receipt of a basic income to benefit from the new means-test free ability to work it may then make more sense to abolish the concept of a minimum wage.
This is because such a system would then permit employers to create a much greater variety of piecemeal opportunities for extra earning, at a lower rate than the current minimum wage.
If you think this sounds very right wing, almost Dickensian, you’re probably right.
But what if it encouraged older workers with lower living costs to retire earlier, letting them focus on the volunteer work they currently do in their spare time? Are there people that UBI would allow to focus primarily on their Tidy Towns committee or coaching the local u16s team?
Socially, would that be a bad thing? I suspect not.
Having said that, there are also solid left wing arguments against the basic income.
It’s universality, the idea that everybody should get it would, you’d expect, ensure that there is broad popular support for it, as there is for the NHS in the UK or children’s allowance here.
But that very universality means that resources which would traditionally have been targeted to the poor through a means-tested system will now end up in the hands of, in many cases, people who do not actually need the additional income.
This is a big issue because as we have seen in the United States a social welfare system that is not seen to be applicable to all classes means that there is no broad political consent for it. Since the 1960s the right-wing of the Republican party has campaigned on a nudge nudge wink wink platform that social welfare is not for the white working classes but only for the fabled black welfare queens of Ronald Reagan.
It’s a huge quandary at the heart of any society that wishes to debate whether to accept a basic income or not. By its very nature building broad support is a good thing, but what if it increases the likelihood of the poor getting less money under the new system?
Not that UBI is right-wing to the the purist libertarian ultra-right. You know the sort, guys who want to abolish the US Food and Drug Administration, or the European Medicines Agency. They want “the market” to decide about medication.
You know, if a new medicine kills enough people, people will stop buying it. That short of fruitcakery.
They think UBI is dirty socialist wealth redistribution, which, in fairness, it is to a degree, as it will require higher taxes to fund it.
But the more thoughtful people on the right have accepted that capitalism, in its ability to adapt as needed, needs broad support throughout society to survive. Capitalism has always been about recognising that a certain degree of wealth redistribution from top to bottom is required to maintain an economic system which is based essentially on a peaceful consensus and the rule of both property and contract law.
That’s the deal: some people to get very rich and in return a proportion of the wealth they create gets distributed to the parts of society that do not benefit to the same degree as others. It’s yet another variation of the post-war social contract that created a thriving middle-class in the years following 1945.
As a theory, UBI is intriguing. But what happens if it comes into contact with our own home based pols like Shane Ross and his merry men, who have proven that the temptation for Irish politicians to just keep spending other people’s money is almost impossible to resist.
Imagine Ireland managed to scrap the entire social welfare and pension system and replace it all with a non means-tested basic income scheme.
Is there any doubt that Irish politicians would not immediately start to identify sections of Irish society (read: voters) whom they believe merit special treatment and therefore deserve additional payments? It wouldn’t be long before the entire system would becomes unaffordable as Irish politicians continue to allocate more and more spending for the simple reason that they literally cannot think of any other way of getting reelected.
UBI has both compelling strengths and worrying side-effects, but it is, at least, an opening to a debate about employment in an age of mass underemployment.
But could it survive direct contact with the Land of the granny grant?