Citizen’s Basic Income and social cohesion

A recent article in Quillette, ‘Universal Basic Income and the threat of tyranny’, by Shai Shapira, [1] asks some interesting questions:

When we examine historical trends in politics and economics, we can spot a basic pattern: political rights are strongly correlated with economic participation. … Societies where the state economy comes from natural resources, or other sources that require only a small, fixed number of people to defend or maintain them, tend to develop autocratic regimes with little concern for the welfare of their citizens. …

What is the value of a non-working citizen in such a society? What motivation do the people in power have to keep supporting these citizens? … Will the workers still be happy to finance them? … Will working people accept a vote by non-working people to increase their universal basic income? … More resources are not going to be enough to compensate people for working – they will also need a privileged political status.

A number of assumptions need to be questioned. The Alaska Permanent Fund dividend has increased employment levels, and not decreased them, [2] which suggests that a Citizen’s Basic Income wholly or partially funded from natural resources revenues would do so as well; and if a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme were to abolish or reduce existing means-tested benefits, then marginal deduction rates would fall, and there would be increased and not decreased incentives to seek employment and to establish new economic activity, which again suggests that employment levels would rise. And research shows that if people pay Income Tax then they are more likely to vote according to their convictions, [3] so if a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme were to be funded by abolishing or reducing the Income Tax Personal Allowance then more people would be paying Income Tax and more people would vote according to their convictions.

We can already see that far from a Citizen’s Basic Income reducing lots of individuals’ economic engagement with society, it would be likely to increase people’s engagement with society in relation to both employment and voting behaviour. It is true, as the article suggests, that a Citizen’s Basic Income might provide people with more choices over their use of time, and it is possible, as the article also suggests, that some of that time might be employed for antisocial purposes. However, one of the reasons that civic and informal caring activity have suffered during the past few decades is that far too many people are working long and often unpredictable hours. A Citizen’s Basic Income could enable a lot of households to reorganise their employment patterns, which in many cases could result in fewer employment hours. Civic and caring activity could benefit.

Precisely how unconditional incomes would change economic and social activity will be difficult to predict until a genuine Citizen’s Basic Income scheme is implemented, but there is no reason to assume that the outcome will be unremittingly negative.



[2] Scott Goldsmith, ‘The economic and social impacts of the Permanent Fund Dividend on Alaska’, in Karl Widerquist and Michael W. Howard (eds) Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp 49–64; Karl Widerquist, ‘Lessons of the Alaska Dividend’, Citizen’s Income Newsletter, issue 3 for 2010, pp. 13–15.

[3] Jane Gingrich, ‘Structuring the Vote: Welfare institutions and value-based vote choices’, in Staffan Kumlin and Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen (eds), How welfare states shape the democratic public: Policy feedback, participation, voting, and attitudes, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2014, pp. 93–112.