In previous writing, I’ve expressed reservations about the idea of a Universal Basic Income, but I’ve also noted that the key objections – the opportunity costs, and the distributive implications – may not apply in the same way in the current crisis. The United Nations Development Programme has taken forward the idea of a temporary basic income, which might make provision for half the world’s population in 132 developing countries. They examine three main options: a top-up income (which would be complex, difficult to administer and liable to be inconsistent); a BI which is different in different countries; or a uniform BI paid at a standard rate across the developing world.
None of the proposals would have the long-term effects that proponents and opponents of Basic Income claim would result from such a scheme – people should not be expected to to change their lives, give up work, enter education, start businesses or start a family just because a change in their immediate income is made for six months. (I’ve doubts as to whether we’d see those effects fully realised in decades – after old age pensions were introduced in the UK, it took the best part of 60 years, two world wars and a health service before we could see the full effects on labour market participation.) The primary case for offering something like a basic income is much simpler: to maintain enough demand for an economy to function, and to make sure that people in developing economies are included despite the crisis.
There are, however, major obstacles in the way. Most proposals for Basic Income are so much concerned with the principles that they don’t get into the practical detail of how such a benefit can be delivered – for example, ID, banking, physical addresses or the lack of them, responsibility for dependents and communications. That is all challenging enough for a developed economy, and in a less developed one it is easy to see how the ship could hit the rocks.