A Basic Income Research Programme

It is a great vision, particularly popular among the political Left: that the citizen could enjoy the freedom of doing with his life whatever she wants. Work, make arts or devote oneself to family or the community. Of course, basic income would not bring with itself the total freedom, but it would make the unconstrained choice of one’s way of living much easier. So far the assumptions, at least. It would be interesting to know, however, whether and–if yes–how this idea can become reality. For so far the vision of basic income is not much more than that–a vision. A beautiful one, but largely lacking an empirical and scientific basis.

The aim of basic income is to give citizens more freedom of choice and flexibility in their own lives. Would she or he like to work full-time or rather only part-time (or not at all), so as to be able to devote herself to other aspects of life (family, civil society, arts…)? To make this possible, the idea is that the state would pay out a monthly “income” to everyone, regardless of what they do and who they are. In return, most of the social benefits we are used to would be abolished, particularly unemployment pay and pensions. However, as great as this might sound for many of us, the introduction of such a system would change a lot in the structure of both economy and society. Thus, many important question come up, regarding both the feasibility and the actual form of basic income. In what follows, I would like to offer some “research questions” that I think should be answered first if we would like to pursue the idea of basic income seriously. One could interpret this as a draft of a research programme on basic income:

  1. What is the statistical citizen’s attitude towards work? What would change if the financial incentives to work would lose weight? What would happen to our expectations regarding working hours and pay? Would anyone be eager to work, say, in cleaning services or as sweeper? And if yes–how much pay would people expect for making these jobs? [those are questions to be answered mainly by experimental economists and psychologists]
  2. Adding to the first point: how would the new expectations towards labour influence employers? Could one still afford cleaning services? Or would it become necessary to let (somehow) the normal employees do such things as cleaning? If yes, how? [business studies]
  3. Is there any relevant potential for societally dangerous psychological and social effects of the diminished incentive to work (what Germans call the “Hartz IV mentality“)? [psychology, sociology]
  4. What is to happen with all those working in public services whose jobs would become obsolete with the abolishment and simplification of the social benefit systems? Would they have a chance to find new jobs? [economics, labour market studies]
  5. (Maybe the most important question) How should a basic income scheme be financed? Would a reform of the tax system be necessary? If yes, in which direction should the tax system then evolve (e.g., towards eco-taxes replacing the income tax)? How should the income tax be structured if everybody has a base income? [financial economics]
  6. How high should basic income be to, on the one hand, reach its goals (more freedom for the citizens) and, at the same time, remain feasible and minimize the dangers mentioned in point 3? [interdisciplinary]
  7. How would the introduction of basic income influence the international competitiveness of companies, especially the export-oriented ones? (this is crucial since a basic income would likely be introduced unilaterally) How would the demand for labour change as consequence of this? [international economics]

I assume that the list above is neither complete nor comprehensive. It is just a selection of some important aspects. I would argue, however, that to know all this is indispensable before one can seriously think about initiating a political process whose aim would be the introduction of basic income. In some countries, the basic income idea is quite popular, so it is not beside the point to call for a research programme similar to the one sketched above. An international programme, e.g. at the EU level, would possibly make more sense than a national one.

4 thoughts on “A Basic Income Research Programme

  1. Like you, I’ve been struggling with the question of a basic income a lot as well. I wonder whether one way forward is for the state to provide the tools for securing basic welfare without providing a basic income itself. So you could have local/micro finance initiatives, self-build tools and materials for housing, local food growing programmes, repair cafes, local manufacturing hubs and decentralised energy initiatives.

  2. I am generally rather sceptical of the government’s role in these things. While, of course, no serious self-governance is possible without at least the recognition by the government (as impressively shown by Elinor Ostrom in the context of common-pool resources), I would prefer private/social (non-profit) initiatives to take on such tasks as those you listed. Indeed, there are many pioneering initiatives out there. But the main problem is, I believe, that the majority of our society just isn’t interested. For many, it may need a spectacular breakdown of human systems–otherwise, they won’t acknowledge the need for change, regardless of whether it should be basic income, government-secured basic welfare services or communal self-governance.

    What I wanted to point out in the above post is that the discussion about basic income is often very superficial, neither proponents nor adversaries dig deep enough into the matter. But there is an urgent need to dig deep into it, because basic income would certainly change a lot–we should have at least a general idea of what these changes would likely be.

  3. “What I wanted to point out in the above post is that the discussion about basic income is often very superficial”

    Indeed. A serious (that is substantially above the resources need for covering the basic needs) basic income would very likely be the end of society as we know it – its effects would shatter not only current economic structures but also radically transform any kind of social organisation and many individual values (think only of the impact of modern wealth on partnerships or families already today). Whether this would mean doom or paradise is, however, very hard to say. The only certainty regarding the BI is that it is one of the worst nightmare for any conservative.

    How superficially the discussions on BI are becomes also apparent when looking at the fact that each German party does (or at least did at some point in its past) propose a certain type of BI. Yes, even the Liberal Democrats that still cling to the good old notion of “those who do not work shall not eat”. Now why is that? It is because a BI does not simply mean what many people intuitively associate with it. Rather, the precise shape of the BI has enormous consequences (not only) for its economic effects. The type of BI the Liberals propose, for example, is far to low to cover basic needs and would therefore essentially lead to a massive expansion of the low-pay-sector. On the one hand people will have to continue to work while on the other hand employers are able to substantially reduce wages which then can fall well below the “level of reproduction” as Marx would call it. In this way Germany’s position in international competition could be radically improved (which is a hypotheses that is still to be tested by the way).

    Regarding the questions posed in your post I think one of the most fundamental is the first one: How would people’s attitude towards work change? The famous German protagonist of the BI Götz Werner always argues that all the people he has spoken with assured him that they would continue to work in case of a BI. One is inclined to belief this, given how crucial work is today for your social position and your identity. However, this does provide us with little clue about what the attitude towards work will be in a generation that has grown up under the conditions of a BI. I remember a tv-documentation about some arab state that already has introduced a BI financed through its oil-industry (was it UAE or Qatar?) with the effect that exactly this type of generation did not care about work anymore but instead by a majority decided to enjoy the sweet life, even though the BI was not very high.

    Another point which is often overlooked concerns the consequences of a BI for immigration policies. Already today much of the allegedly xenophobia of Germans is effectively just the fear of having our social security system exploited by people who did not contribute to it the same way the “native German” usually has. With a BI extending our social security system this fear of exploitation will rise indefinitely and thus lead to a new “fortress Germany”. That this is very much incompatible with European integration and many other structures is easy to see…

  4. First of all, thanks for the quite elaborate comment. I do not have much to add, actually. What you’ve written about the future generations’ attitude towards work reminds me very much of Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain book series–a theme I already once wrote about here (the starting point was not basic income, but technological progress, but the general problem is similar).

    I haven’t heard of basic income in the Arab world, but I immediately had to think of Qatar (I do not know whether this is the country), where 94% of the employees are immigrants, who often work under slave-like conditions. Even if the reason were not basic income, there is much to learn from that case, I think.

    I think, your point regarding the xenophobia in Germany (which is, according to what I know, not supported by facts–but neither are the attitudes of Swiss people, which did not prevent them from voting this weekend as they did) is also very important. Irrational as these sentiments may be–they exist and should not be ignored. An isolated, xenophobic country where there is a functioning basic income scheme is not quite what I would support…


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