Opinion and Editorial

The basic income movement

Filed on November 16, 2013

Growing unemployment and rising poverty levels in the developed world has led to the re-emergence of a movement calling for “unconditional basic income”, where the state provides a monthly pay cheque to every adult seeking some income.

The movement got a boost last month when 125,000 signatures were rustled up in Switzerland, enabling supporters of basic income to get the initiative on the national ballot. The Federal Chancellery of Switzerland has said the citizen’s initiative has been accepted and a referendum would be held in about two years.

Supporters of the initiative have suggested a minimum basic income of $2,800 be given to any adult citizen who needs the money, irrespective of whether he or she is working, looking for a job, or just lazying around. The proponents of this social welfare policy claim that it would ensure “a dignified existence and participation in the public life of the whole population”. If enough voters in the affluent nation back the proposal, every citizen would be entitled to receive a monthly cheque of $2,800 from the government, irrespective of one’s personal wealth and income.

The move is expected to eradicate poverty, bring solace to the unemployed, especially the young, and help the aged and other disadvantaged sections of society to lead a decent life. The basic income movement is catching up in Europe and the US. Surprisingly, it has found favour with both conservatives and left liberals in the US.

Charles Murray, an American author, who works as a fellow with the conservative Washington DC-based think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, is a proponent of basic income. In his 2006 book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, Murray had suggested that the government should replace existing welfare measures by paying about $10,000 a year to every American over the age of 21 who needs it.

The idea of a guaranteed minimum income was first conceived by English-American thinker, political activist and writer Thomas Paine in the late 18th century. The basic income idea has, in recent times, had the backing of many economists and thinkers across the political spectrum: From redistributionists like Martin Luther King Jr to conservative thinkers such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. In fact, in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman had put forth the idea of a “negative income-tax”, which would see the government provide a basic income to the poor.

The US Census Bureau recently revealed that 15 per cent of Americans (adding up to 46.5 million) live below the poverty line of $11,945. Doing away with all the existing welfare programmes and replacing them with a basic income, it is argued, would be a more effective way of tackling poverty.

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