Time to rethink the route to a basic income

Last week week, Ontario’s new social services minister announced that she will soon end the basic income pilot project launched by the previous Liberal government. This setback for the basic income movement follows Finland’s decision earlier this year to effectively abandon its admittedly questionable experiment as well. Other pilot projects are still on the drawing board elsewhere, but it will be several years before any of them are completed. And that’s assuming that these experiments will be allowed to run their course—an assumption which these recent setbacks call into question. The movement seems to be back to square one, and this strikes me as a good time to rethink its overall strategy.

I understand the movement’s strategy so far to envision the following sequence of events. First, activists raise awareness of basic income. Raising awareness leads to support for pilot projects. Pilot projects are carried through to completion and validate basic income advocates’ empirical claims, building further support for the idea. Eventually, growing support leads to full blown implementation of a basic income program.

However, this is not the only possible sequence leading to a basic income. An alternative route would be to build towards a basic income gradually through incremental reform of existing income support programs (for example, through implementation of the Dogwood Benefit proposed by BC’s recently concluded MSP Task Force, or the federal tax credit reforms Kevin Milligan discusses here). This approach would take time, but so would running through the sequence that advocates envision currently—especially given that basic income seems to hit a brick wall at the second stage of the sequence.

Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 7.42.47 PMScreen Shot 2018-08-06 at 7.45.37 PM.png

From the Final Report of the MSP Task Force, pages 16-17

The incremental reform approach has a number of advantages. First, a modest increase in income supports would deliver significant benefits to a very large number of people—not just those who are currently receiving support payments, but those who are at risk of needing support in the future. A pilot project delivers larger benefits, but it delivers those benefits to a vanishingly small number of people. Basic income supporters feel the moral urgency of alleviating poverty; this is reason enough for them to prefer a sequence where, in the early stages, small benefits are given to very many people rather than large benefits to very few people.

A second, related advantage is that such incremental reform creates a very large political constituency that is invested in the program’s continuation, making its survival much more likely. Proponents of the truly universal variety of basic income guarantee are sensitive to this consideration; it’s one of the reasons they support a payout for every citizen and not just those in need. But the pilot project-focused approach is at odds with this reasoning; it makes it so that before a universal basic income can be implemented, a very narrowly (and arbitrarily) targeted basic income must be implemented first, in the form of a pilot project. If any kind of targeted basic income is politically vulnerable, then we should predict that pilot projects would be the most vulnerable of all. And Finland and Ontario have proven this prediction accurate.

Third, the incremental approach makes it easier—as a matter of logical necessity—to attract support for each stage of the sequence. The number of people willing to increase the maximum size of some benefit by, say, $100 a month is inevitably larger than the number who are willing to increase it by $1000, because the former group includes the latter. Moreover, once people have seen that there are attractive consequences (both moral and pragmatic) to a small increase, it should be relatively easy to convince many of them that a further small increase would also have attractive consequences. At every leg of the journey towards a full blown basic income, the number of people who can be convinced to make a small increase to benefit payments will be larger than the number who can be convinced to make a very large sudden increase.

Finally, incremental reform seems more likely to sustain the enthusiasm of basic income activists over the long term—and if basic income can be achieved at all, it can only be achieved over the long term. Most people drawn to activism need occasional victories to sustain the sense that their efforts matter. I’ve argued here that victories are much easier to achieve and sustain if the incremental reform approach is pursued, whereas the available evidence indicates that the pilot project-focused approach faces barriers that seem insurmountable. At first, incrementalism may not seem as exciting as the prospect of a single sudden, radical change. But over time, the realistic prospect of actual change tends to outshine the dimmer prospects of something more dramatic.

Previous posts on basic income

A brief response to Daniel Zamora on basic income
Responses to concerns from the left about basic income
Some remarks on basic income and social democracy
Basic income sticker shock

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