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:
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- (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]
- 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]
- 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.