We’re giving up on universal basic income before the evidence is in

Are expectations for the UBI pilots too high?
Are expectations for the UBI pilots too high?
Image: AP Photo/Hussein Malla
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Blame Scandinavian chic. Just as Denmark turned the concept of hygge into an international trend, Finland’s announcement in 2015 that it would trial universal basic income (UBI) started a serious fad. In the years since Finland’s much-publicized decision, several similar trials have launched in Ontario, Canada, Oakland, California, Barcelona, Spain, and southwestern Kenya.

The concept of universal basic income—which involves giving some amount of money to every citizen, regardless of need—is now widely known. It has spawned hundreds of think pieces, and is seen by some as a utopian solution to the rise of robots pushing humans out the workforce.

But then, last month, Finland announced that the trial would not continue beyond the end of this year. The government had rejected requests for further funding to expand the pilot, and will wait until 2020 to assess its results. At that point, it will consider launching further pilots.

Still, the media widely perceived the Finnish government’s decision as a disappointment. And as Antti Jauhiainen and Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen, co-founders of think-tank Parecon Finland, noted in the New York Times, both those on the left and right interpreted the end of the trial as a sign of UBI’s failure.

So: Are expectations around UBI simply too high? What kind of pilot results would be necessary to suggest UBI could be practical on a wider scale? We asked four UBI experts about the response to the end of Finland’s pilot, and what to expect next for universal basic income.

We already have evidence, why do another pilot?

Matt Bruenig, contributor at progressive think tank Demos

“Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend program has been providing modest basic incomes to their residents for over 30 years, with much success,” writes Bruenig in an email. “So in some ways I find the whole pilot craze a little odd. A whole US state has already proven it can work really well.”

Bruenig says he was disappointed Finland didn’t decide to expand its scheme. He also notes that he doesn’t think their original pilot was truly universal basic income, as it didn’t include those unemployed at the start of the program. “What they did was take people who were already employed and receiving benefits and told them that they would continue to receive those benefits even if they became unemployed,” he writes. “So I would say it wasn’t ambitious enough in the sense that it wasn’t even really a basic income. It can provide some interesting information about how much fear of losing unemployment benefits keeps people from taking jobs, but not much about what a full-blown UBI implementation might do.”

Bruenig believes any country could conceivably implement UBI. It’s just a matter of political will. “A pilot might provide some evidence about UBIs that could persuade policymakers perhaps, but policy is more about politics than it is about evidence,” he adds.

UBI has to be “robust enough to survive the political process”

Matthew Zwolinski, associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego

“[Finland’s] experiment started with a proposal that was incredibly exciting from a social scientific perspective,” writes Zwolinksi in an email. “The plan was to look at a variety of different basic income schemes, some very generous, some less so, tested on both a regional and a national level. Had it been implemented, this would have given us important information on how all those variables and details that matter so much for good public policy play out in the real world.”

“But Kela [the Finnish governmental social-security agency behind the experiment]’s great idea never made it past the starting gate,” adds Zwolinksi. “Finland’s conservative government wasn’t interested in the basic income as a radical social reform. It merely wanted to reduce unemployment, and thought the basic income might help. And so the experiment that was actually implemented was far less ambitious, and far less interesting from a social scientific perspective, than the original proposal. For a lot of us who closely follow basic income efforts, Finland’s experiment was dead before it even started.”

Zwolinksi says that social reformers have a lot to learn from Finland’s experiment. He explains:

It doesn’t matter how great your idea is on paper. It has to be robust enough to survive the political process, so that even after the amendments and distortions, it will still make a positive difference.

Radical, sweeping proposals for reform have little chance of being implemented in the way their originators intend. The way to make progress toward a basic income is through gradual, incremental steps. Consolidate existing transfer programs. Replace in-kind transfers with cash grants. Start small, and work your way up. Gradual reforms not only have a better chance of being implemented in the way they were intended; they also give us a chance to watch and learn from our early steps, so that we can adjust our vision as necessary to fit the constraints of reality.

We can never fully test UBI

Karl Widerquist, associate professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, and co-chair of the Basic Income Earth network

“UBI can’t be fully tested,” writes Widerquist. “Many of its effects play out on a national basis and/or over many years. These effects will not be revealed in any experiment—even with thousands or tens of thousands of participants.” Anyway, he says, pilots will not translate into policy on the basis of results alone: “Where it will happen depends again on political will, and that is something very hard to predict.”

That said, he notes, there’s “very, very little downside to trying it out, especially if you start small and gradually increase the level of UBI.”

Widerquist says the pilots in Ontario and Oakland are larger than the Finish experiment, and will address a larger range of questions; he examines the significance of these experiments in an upcoming book, A Critical Discussion of UBI Experiments: The Devil’s in the Caveats.

He writes in an email:

What UBI can do depends on what version of UBI we put into place. Most people in the UBI movement want to see one that is truly universal, large enough to live on, and in the context of a welfare system providing good health care, infrastructure, and other things that UBI can’t provide. This version would be truly transformative. But lesser versions of UBI will produce more modest results and that’s where we’re likely to start.

UBI is an ethical issue: we shouldn’t need to test it

Jason Murphy, assistant professor of philosophy at Elms College in Massachusetts, who manages the US Basic Income Guarantee Network Facebook page

“I do not understand why we need the level of scrutiny that some people seem to be demanding,” writes Murphy. He explains:

When we debate other policies, we get excited if there is good reason to think that it would raise income for low-to-moderate [income] people. At least that is when we ought to be excited. Nothing would raise income for the poor and the middle-class like a progressively-funded basic income. It is weird to me that the abolition of poverty is something that we need to prove would be good.

The idea that we need these trials to see if it works is mistaken and a bit of a distraction. Basic income is mostly a matter of taking economic security and freedom seriously. This is an ethical debate more than anything else.

Murphy notes that there’s existing strong evidence to support UBI: Since 1996, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains chose to share a proportion of the profits made from tribe-run casinos among the 8,000 members in their community. Members receive around $4,000 per year. Jane Costello, professor of medical psychology at Duke University analyzed the data and found “statistically significant gains in mental health, education, employment, and health,” writes Murphy. Children get the supplements from birth, and the funds are paid into a trust fund until they’re 18. Costello has noted that, by the time recipients turn 26 years old, the amount the state saved in spending on crime and medical care were three times greater than the cost of the supplement.

In comparison, short-term pilots like those in Finland and California are nothing like the reality of UBI: “These trials are temporary and a basic income guarantee is something we can trust will be around for the rest of their lives,” says Murphy. “Low-income people have a lot of reasons to believe that this or that program will never get around to them. The only real test of a basic income is to implement something that even our most vulnerable can bank on.” In other words, we won’t know what universal basic income can achieve until we implement UBI, permanently.