Basic Income – left-wing utopia or right-wing trap?

IssueJune - July 2017
Comment by Milan Rai

Universal Basic Income (UBI) or Citizens’ Income has been around a long time on the fringes of politics. It’s now become a hot topic among some of the richest and most powerful people on the planet.

UBI has an image as an ultra-left demand maybe associated with the Greens – give everyone an unconditional regular cash payment without means testing or any work requirement.

So why did the Swiss Green Party vote No in the referendum on UBI there last year? Why is the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) warning against a pilot project in Canada?

Green concerns

If you look on the Swiss Green Party website, you’ll find they list three reasons for supporting UBI.

It ‘ensures a better balance between work and private life, families and private commitments... for all, not only for those who can afford it’.

It works against ‘the logic of the neoliberal labour market’, and helps workers ‘reject unworthy working conditions’.

Finally, Basic Income ‘places people and their needs at the centre, forcing us to deal with the meaning of work’.

However, you will also find a statement from the Green Group stating that the proposal made in the 2017 referendum would not fulfil these goals for two reasons.

Firstly, the Green Group believed that ‘companies will cut wages drastically because there is no minimum wage’, meaning that people could not afford to do part-time work. The pressure to work wouild be even greater.

Secondly, the group was concerned about ‘the simplification of social services’, affecting people who can’t find employment or who can’t work.


In Ontario, the OPSEU has been extremely worried about possible cuts in essential public services following the introduction of a Basic Income.

Last November, Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the OPSEU, said: ‘Basic Income has had the support of right-wingers for decades now because of the expectation that it would reduce the government’s role in providing services, and shift that work on to families and communities.... I’m worried that this Basic Income is just part of the Liberals’ larger plan to further privatise the province.’

In March, Thomas added: ‘If Basic Income raises incomes for people living in poverty, I’m all for it, but people in poverty need more than money. They need employment counselling, housing supports, crisis intervention, and personal advocacy. And those things can only be provided by real live human beings who care for a living.’

Financial Times columnist Alan Beattie noted in June 2016 that, in Britain, there is currently special provision for the long-term disabled, for parents, for older people – and to adjust for the difference in housing costs across the country.

Beattie went on: ‘Shifting from this to a basic income system is essentially saying that we consider the challenges of disability, old age, parenthood and prohibitive rent less important than administrative simplicity and the inefficiencies associated with means-testing.’

Another way

That, of course, is a false choice. There is the option of having a Basic Income and benefits and social services which meet special needs.

That’s why Andrew Hood of the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that compared with current welfare benefits, a Basic Income would ‘either be a lot less generous or a lot more expensive.’

Quoting Hood, Tim Harford of the FT summed up the choices around Basic Income schemes in April 2016: ‘In the end, the idea appeals to three types of people: those who are comfortable with a dramatic increase in the size of the state, those who are willing to see needy people lose large sums relative to the status quo, and those who can’t add up.’

So there is a ‘boosting-social-services’ expensive form of Basic Income, and there is a ‘privatisation-and-austerity’ form of Basic Income.

Austerity Basic Income is the kind that has attracted right-wingers such as US president Richard Nixon and economist Milton Friedman in the past, and that interests techno-billionaires today. That reactionary form of UBI is the most likely to be implemented in today’s world.

That’s why French leftist Mateo Alaluf has written a new book, L’allocation universelle. Nouveau label de précarité (Basic Income: the new mark of precarity – ‘precarity’ means ‘a life of insecure work’).

Topics: Economics