The arguments for a basic income are as idealistic as they are simplistic. Its proponents are pursuing misguided ideals.
The idea that the state should give everyone a pay cheque is in vogue. The concept of a universal basic income, whereby every man, woman and child is given a monthly sum by the state no matter how well- off they are, is supported by Greens as well as by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Perhaps more surprisingly, a number of libertarians and Conservatives like the idea too. They believe it to be a single intervention by the government which will allow all other systems of state welfare provision to be abolished. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk are also supporters. In a variation on the theme the Resolution Foundation suggested recently that the government should give all 25-year-olds a £10,000 lump sum.
The arguments for a basic income are as idealistic as they are simplistic. Unfortunately, its proponents are pursuing misguided ideals. Our welfare system should help poor families, not rich individuals. Indeed, the family is the primary vehicle for income distribution — and 75 per cent of the country lives in a multi-person household. Within a family, income, goods and services are transferred between parents and children, husband and wife, and the elderly and those who are working. There is no need for the state to step in to help children and others with little or no income and who live within well-off families.
It can reasonably be suspected that those on the Left who support a basic income are keen to pursue a cultural agenda which removes the family from public discourse and social policy. They also seek another cultural change. If everybody receives an income from the state, we are all, to some extent, reliant upon the state. People will come to see the state as the first provider rather than as the last resort.
There have been some “micro experiments” with the universal basic income, but the income provided has neither been universal nor enough to cover basic needs. Now it appears that even the much-reported trial in Finland will be suspended. The cost of a genuinely universal basic income would push up tax rates enormously as money goes round and round in circles and the state takes with one hand and gives away with the other.
The universal basic income is not a silver bullet but a poisoned chalice. Pope Leo XIII got it just right when describing the role of the state in welfare: “If a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth . . . But the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop.” The primary duty of the state is to ensure the conditions for prosperity so that few people will need its help. It should not be the provider of first resort.