One of the Zoom sessions I went to today was fuelled by optimism about a most unlikely scenario: the idea that the United Nations should provide people around the world with a universal basic income. The advocates were arguing that the money could be raised to pay everyone $30 a month, and that it should be. Their position paper can be read here.
I don’t want to dismiss this as a thoroughly bad idea. In the course of the last 20 years or so, many countries have been introducing cash support for their populations, that support can make a huge difference to people’s lives, and the support doesn’t have to be conditional. The case is well made in a short book by Hanlon and others, Just give money to the poor (2010), and reinforced by the experience of small area provision in India and Kenya. (These experiences don’t translate well into a case for the same policy in developed countries, where BI proposals are often being developed in terms that will not improve the incomes of many poor people, and may make some worse off.)
Nor do I see the proposal as being intrinsically unaffordable. It would call for redistribution from richer countries, but that already happens in the form of Oversesas Development Assistance. Asking the UN to take it on seems like a long shot, but the UN is at least an appropriate forum for discussion: the UN’s Guiding principles on extreme poverty and human rights marks out their interest in the area.
The core problems are somewhat different. The first question to ask is obvious: is this the greatest priority? People in developing countries need money, but many of them are poorly integrated into any formal economy where the money can best be spent. Other contenders for support might be health care, education, water, and sanitation – all of which are essential to welfare, but probably better delivered without depending on private, commercial markets.-
The second problem is logistic. How does one distribute money to seven billion people – or even to four billion? I raised the point on the forum, and the answer came back: mobile money wallets. For which people need first to have access to electronic devices, and the means of powering them, and local providers need to have the means to process the payments. It’s not much of an argument to say this has been done in small communities. Implementation changes with scale.
Advocates for Basic Income are not all utopians, but the curse of Basic Income schemes has been a common failure to think through how things can practically be done, and what the rules should be. Who gets the money? Do they have to claim? How is the money paid? How are children to be treated? How can we ensure that the money is used by the person it’s intended for? What happens when someone dies? These are the sort of details that experiments in BI ought to have engaged with and sorted long ago – not all the nonsense about incentives and behaviour change.