In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, European governments are having to consider policies that they would have previously dismissed or even ridiculed. Neville Keery shares his view on one such issue. Neville is a Quaker from Ireland, and a founding member of the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA).
In recent years most of my political activism has focused on advocating the introduction of a Universal Basic Income in Ireland. It seems to me that the Covid-19 crisis and the great depression forecast to follow makes the case for Universal Basic Income stronger than ever and that it must make sense now for most European countries. In this respect I was delighted to read the top Editorial on the Covid-19 pandemic in the Financial Times of Saturday 4 April 2020. Hopefully this paragraph was read by a global range of political and business leaders: “Radical reforms – reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades – will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix”.
The scale of the current crisis has brought an immediate loss of thousands of jobs in sectors like catering and retail. Governments are called on to help people and businesses bankrupted through no fault of their own and exchequer and taxation resources are already being mobilised to make payments available to stricken individuals and families. Existing social services are the immediate vehicle for help but we know that they can often be unfairly discriminatory and dependent on a bureaucracy of management and means testing.
A monthly income for every citizen is either a sole income or becomes part of a taxable income. Decisions to introduce Universal Basic Income demand little bureaucracy and the political challenge of deciding on the level of a frugal living wage broadly equivalent to current basic welfare rates should be relatively easy to meet. In some countries or regions, including Ireland, most of the initial theoretical and budgetary work required has already been done.
If all this sounds obvious and practicable why has it been taking years to sell the model of Basic Universal Income?
First, many are instinctively against the idea that many citizens might get something for nothing without having to show availability for work. Secondly, there is a widespread view that social welfare schemes have become more effective and support a basic minimum wage approach rather than a generous vision for the benefit of society as a whole. Ideologically some political parties and employer interests view basic income as a radical experiment requiring revised levels of taxation which would clearly fall in the first instance on higher earners. The social welfare bureaucracy itself cannot imagine becoming largely unnecessary as individual assessment and means testing disappears. Change offers opportunities of redeployment and reorganisation in the public service. Certain welfare services will have to continue and change to meet the needs of disadvantaged and other families where a basic income could not cover essential caring needs.
Major change always requires imagination, empathy and a sense of solidarity
The scale of the current crisis can be the catalyst for rethinking many of the taken for granted approaches to organising our society. In offering the possibility of an immediately available life-raft Universal Basic Income could galvanise a great deal of community energy by lifting immediate fears of poverty and offering the possibility of re-organised family finances and opportunities for creative and entrepreneurial initiatives. Why not look at Universal Basic Income as offering renaissance possibilities open to all? It is no surprise that among communities experimenting with Universal Basic Income there is already evidence of reduced anxiety and improvements in mental health.
The political will required for the introduction of Universal Basic Income is not a party or ideological challenge. It is a challenge of culture and imagination which should be able to take its place among the foundation European ideas which began with peace in a war-torn continent and now must meet the challenges of injustice in new and different forms.