I’ve been giving consideration to the subject of UBI and I’m not sure I like where these considerations take me. I’ve spent the majority of my working life supporting ‘vulnerable’ people - for the past decade supporting people with disabilities to source and employ their own carers. Prior to that, I worked with people either homeless or at risk of losing their homes, which mainly meant supporting people with substance misuse issues, prison leavers, repeat offenders and people with a history of violence and other antisocial behaviours.
The vast majority of these were people who do, in fact, already receive UBI of sorts - unemployment and disability benefits. Full disclosure - I myself am in receipt of disability benefits since losing my job last year through ill-health. The question of whether or not I will become employable in the future remains to be seen. Financially, I am relatively comfortable (though I won’t be booking any tropical holidays for a while) but the price I pay for that is being mad as a bag of frogs on a meds regime that could very well bankrupt the NHS.
Michael - it interests me that you begin by stating that we must find a way to deal with the downsides of UBI - people wasting their time on ‘useless, unproductive, or even harmful activities’ - but then almost immediately switch to the likelihood that ‘people will become terribly creative’ and the problems that will thus ensue. Having worked with many of the former, I cannot help but wonder whether UBI will, in fact, change anything. I think it is naive to suppose that with the safety cushion of a UBI we will all suddenly become creatives, knocking out Dostoevsky-esque novels or Picaso-like paintings. For example, sometimes the most creative thing I can do in the morning is get out of bed and crawl to the kitchen for a cup of tea and for a lot of people with disabilities this is their lot. In that sense I fully support the idea of UBI for those truly vulnerable - although as already pointed out, in the UK we do already have that (with all its flaws). The RSA report published in December 2015 ‘Creative Citizen, Creative State: The principled and pragmatic case of a Universal Basic Income’ was notable for the absenteeism of how UBI would work for people with disabilities and when questioned the RSA had to admit that the whole area of disability benefits was a minefield best left alone until we at least have a clearer idea of how UBI would work for the general population. And I can respect that - the current benefits system is a chaotic shambles of fuzzy logic, with so many different micro-benefits that can be added or removed seemingly at will from one’s income that half the time even I’m not sure what it is exactly to which I am entitled, getting, or for how long and on what basis.
The problem lies, as I see it, with the former group within society for whom addiction, aggression and offending are run of the mill. This group contains not only those with these issues, but also those who do not want to work - plain and simple. I think this is a fact that remains largely unacknowledged for what it is, mostly because predominantly Tory rhetoric lumps anyone without a job (regardless of reason) into the well-known trope - benefit scroungers. On the left, the opposite is true, where anyone and everyone unemployed or seemingly unemployable is deserving of the same aid. For the record, I lean centre-left myself, but largely because I do not want to see the truly vulnerable being penalised by the actions of those who have no interest or incentive to become productive members of society.
Speaking of incentive, the RSA report made clear that proposed levels of UBI should be set high enough to meet basic needs but low enough so that it would ‘incentivise’ people to work. But here’s where I have my problem: a large segment of society does not want to work. The lives of those that comprise this segment are either too chaotic or too sedate for them to want to venture out of the door in search of gainful employment. Under the current system, why should they? Basic needs are met and in order to procure the little extras that make life worth living a large proportion will turn to crime - it is, in a sense, their gainful employment.
Let me be clear: people who genuinely cannot work - for whatever reason - should be supported and I would resist any system where they were unfairly pressured to feel otherwise. UBI needs to better be able to foresee what impact supporting these people will have on the wider picture. And in my experience, people with disabilities, for the most part, do tend towards creativity, whether in the arts, volunteering, education etc. But in the years I spent supporting those who spent their time primarily engaging in ‘useless, unproductive and even harmful activities’, it was rare to see creativity exhibited in any personal or societal sense. The cold, hard fact of it is that the majority of this group will simply offend to get whatever fix they need. Magistrates. Prison. Released back into society. Offend. Magistrates… well, you get the idea.
So my problem with negotiating the pitfalls and perils of UBI is actually no different to what we have now - there are those that want to work (whether for recognition, social standing, personal empowerment or cold, hard cash) and those that don’t. And there are those who want to work and who are physically or mentally prevented from doing so, whether by the nature of their own disability or society’s failure to make the necessary adjustments required. In that sense, the future may provide a glimmer of hope in that assistive technologies will undoubtedly continue to be developed that can aid these last to become productive members of society. But if the future will be worth living in, UBI must protect those that remain unable to work, i.e. salaried employment must not become the marker by which everyone is judged.
But what to do about those who choose not only not to work, but also actively to make a choice to act against the society within which they find themselves to satisfy their own wants. Violence, theft, antisocial behaviour; all too often the people I have worked with in the past repeated the same cycle of destructive behaviours in order to get more than simply their needs met. I am not writing here about the criminal justice system of the future as it’s off-topic, but rather how will UBI set about beginning to solve these problems? Is it even possible to do so without falling back on the binary argument that posits that everybody must work or everybody must be supported regardless of their inclination to work? And when they take from others? Is it really fair to give them the same level of financial support that someone with a disability who is doing everything in their power to further themselves and be productive receives?
As you say, human psychology is a deep mess. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I have a lot of questions, and as a result of them I fear that UBI may well reveal deeper and more serious problems. However, as I hope I’ve intimated, the future is now. The problems we experience now will still be there with UBI. Rising above the challenge may require more effort than current proposals for its institution imply.