Something to Look Forward To?

Hettie O’Brien

Y Combinator, a San Francisco-based ‘seed accelerator’ for start-up companies, is working on a pilot for unconditional basic income. The project’s research director told Quartz magazine it will explore ‘alternatives to the existing social safety net’ in a world in which robots take our jobs. They say subsistence grants dished out by corporate solutionists offer the answer. The Finnish government is halfway through a two-year trial, giving 2000 unemployed people €560 a month, with no obligation for them to look for work (or turn it down). Supporters of unconditional basic income include Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bernie Sanders.

But UBI is not a new idea. Quaker pamphlets at the turn of the 20th century advocated a regular income stream to assuage ‘the Social Problem’. One of its keenest proponents in the 1940s was Juliet Rhys-Williams, a member of the Beveridge Committee whose 1943 pamphlet Something to Look Forward To laid out a scheme for a subsistence income conditional on a contract stating a citizen’s intention to work. It was an explicit alternative to Beveridge’s insurance-based plan for the welfare state. Rhys-Williams criticised Beveridge’s designs, arguing he discriminated against those who worked by only providing for a ‘favoured few’: the unemployed, sick and unfortunate.

‘The state owes precisely the same benefits to all of its citizens,’ Rhys-Williams insisted, ‘and should in no circumstances pay more to one than to another.’ But her idea that grants should be dependent on willingness to work undercut their claim to universality. And set against the aspirational pull of Beveridge’s proposals, which aimed for full employment and breadwinner wages, her campaign for universal grants seemed unnecessary and naive.

Beveridge said there were ‘five giants on the road of reconstruction’ that needed to be attacked: want, disease, ignorance, squalor – and idleness. Rhys-Williams, too, was deeply concerned about the corrosion of a work ethic (her own was very strong: among other things she wrote novels, stood for Parliament for than once, was honorary secretary of Winston Churchill’s United Europe Movement, and had four children). The Quaker campaigners Mabel and Dennis Milner had similarly warned that basic income ‘must not be too much, since some are lazy, and if luxury were possible without work we would be glad of the opportunity to rest’.

Current proposals for UBI, however, envision a world in which there may be no work, no possibility of Beveridgean full employment. Some of these voices come from the left: Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, in Inventing the Future: Post-Capitalism and a World without Work (2015), argue that this future could be bright – boundless leisure divorced from the work ethic, where basic income has replaced a coercive welfare state. But Silicon Valley collapses the distinction between state and market in favour of simplified welfare solutions controlled by private interests. Its basic income lobby see automation as an unstoppable tide that will create a world in which the many are unemployed, and the few own the robots. Is a world without work in which the wealthy dole out subsistence payments to a surplus humanity something to look forward to?


  • 30 January 2018 at 12:09am
    Graucho says:
    Imagine for a moment if everybody from the age of 18 received job seekers allowance whether they were employed or not and there were no tax allowances. Instead tax started at 30% on earned income.

    1) No poverty trap. Working will always leave you better off.
    2) If you lose your job you get on with finding another without going through the humiliation and time of applying for JSA.
    3) No need for a small army of administrators vetting and checking.

    It's a sensible idea automation or no.

  • 30 January 2018 at 10:55am
    Simon Wood says:
    I have long thought, certainly since the 2008 crash, that we should be paid just for being here, as supercars pass us in the street, their occupants live it large here and abroad where their untaxed money sits, inescapable towerblocks burn and inaccessible office blocks, growing tall with their global corporations, reach to the skies.

    The world owes us a living where making a living is compromised by all manner of invisible stress - like the continuous devaluation of the worker.

    No-one knows how to handle globalisation - the EU referendum has shown us that with its key fear of the foreigner arriving to work for less. But we could start by making sure that everyone is basically OK.

    The homeless are the canaries in the mine. The system is not broken, it's getting stronger, squeezing people out.

    What's wrong with the conservative ruling party in Britain when rather than champion "the British way of life" for all in a forever-evolving future, they are subtly suggesting that the best bet is to leave altogether for the goldmines of Hong Kong, Singapore or maybe America first?

    Currently their big idea seems to be to plant a forest across northern England, like a wig.

  • 30 January 2018 at 7:08pm
    robin bale says:
    We would do well to dispense with the work ethic. The people now slogging their guts out for less than the minimum wage are not hugely well served by the purported dignity of labor. On the other hand, those they slog their guts out for are doing alright from it.

  • 6 February 2018 at 6:28pm
    Anaximander says:
    Western capitalism has until now relied on the labourers having sufficient income to buy (some of) what they make. That's now changing.

    The rentiers now trade baubles among themselves regardless of their being made by robots.

    Whether they can survive without paying some kind of income to the no-longer-labourers remains to be seen.

  • 6 February 2018 at 10:43pm
    John Cowan says:
    If it were funded out of ground rent currently collected by private entities, as many have proposed from the French physiocrats through Henry George and beyond, there would be more than enough money, and if everyone (however rich) received a payment, the income would be just. Why should some people and companies skim huge amounts of the top because their ancestors or predecessors in title came over with William the Land-Stealer?