The experience of lockdown confirms that a basic income is both possible and desirable, writes Tom Hodgkinson
On 24 November 1942 Sir William Beveridge presented his proposals for a new welfare state to parliament. He declared that the five evils which assailed society were want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. Since then, the idea that work is the route out of poverty has been a central plank of government philosophy – at least for the common folk who do not live off rents.
Beveridge was right about the first four evils but you will not be surprised to hear that I think he was wrong about the fifth. Idleness – call it leisure or otium or schole in Greek – as I don’t have to remind you, has a long and noble history and is an aspiration, and is not an evil to be wiped out. “Every man is, or hopes to be, an idler,” said Dr Johnson.
This is why I am optimistic about the way discussion of basic income has hit the mainstream. I remember going to talks about it in the nineties, when think tanks like Demos and the New Economics Foundation were putting the idea out there. Back then it seemed, like the four day week, a pretty fringey notion.
The basic income tends also to be attacked by a certain type of Tory who believes that a regular basic income, paid for doing nothing, would encourage the evil of idleness. This view was best expressed by Tory MP Nick Boles in his book Square Deal (2017) where he wrote:
The main objection to the idea of a universal basic income is not practical but moral. Its enthusiasts suggest that when intelligent machines make most of us redundant, we will all dispense with the idea of earning a living and find true fulfilment in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants. That is dangerous nonsense. Man is hard-wired to work.
In actual fact the experience of lockdown shows that when people are given a basic wage and left alone, they really do find fulfilment in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants. Freed from worry about food and rent, we are able to create more fulfilling lives for ourselves. Not only did furloughed people tend to their gardens, they also got involved in community schemes and voluntary projects. For many life became richer, less harshly competitive, as a result of the new autonomy.
Lockdown has also shown that government can in fact find a “magic money tree” if necessary. This suggests that ending poverty – the evil of want – via a basic income could be done if the political will was there to do it.
These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your thoughts.
Nick Boles isn’t very bright. If there is a ‘moral argument’ against the basic wage, it’s that it would entice people to be slothful, lazy and idle. But if we are ‘hard wired’ to work, as Boles claims, how can there be a moral problem? We would apparently all resist the urge to idle and turn up at the Amazon warehouse every morning. No idling immorality would occur. He was good at logical inconsistency. You describe him as a Tory MP. In fact, he left the Tories and styled himself a ‘Progressive Conservative’, which is an Oxymoron on stilts.
– Simon Jameson
It’s not a magic money tree – it’s called the National Debt.
In the sixth para of your communication today, you seem to be making the mistake of the metropolitan liberal who believes that the main body of the people has the same interests and aspiration as he does. Having got to know a great deal about the soldiers in my platoon when I was in the army – these ones came from Liverpool, Burnley, Manchester, Bury, Preston and generally North Lancashire – I can tell you that they had a great sense of humour; that they loved going out for eggs, chips, beans and bangers; they loved girls if they could get ’em, and if they couldn’t they made to do with ‘a wank and a gonk’. Gonk was Scouse for ‘sleep’. They liked going to the cinema but they never went near an art film or Italian visions of lowlife as in La Strada. Very few of them, given a basic income, would have turned to the philosophy of the kind you are talking about, or formed recorder ensembles or joined play-reading societies. If asked, they would have said that there was no such thing as a free lunch and that leisure tasted better when you had earned it. You may say that was some time ago, but do you really think people change much? Maybe they alter a bit as they grow older and have families, but the vision of satisfaction and enjoyment follows the same mind of line.
I am glad to say that Kipling – where is his statue, must pull it down?- agrees with me. I am sure you know his fine poem ‘The Gods of the Copybook Headings’. It is as good as his famous ‘Danegeld’. I will, if I may, quote you the last verse:
…As it will be in the future, it was since the birth of Man,
There are only four things certain, since social progress began,
The dog returns to his vomit, the sow returns to her mire,
And the burnt fool’s bandaged fingers go wabbling back to the fire.
And when all this is accomplished and the brave new world begins,
When all men are paid for existing and no man pays for his sins,
As surely as water will wet us, as surely as fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.
I am sure your more enlightened readers will shake their heads in dismay and say’ Oh, Kipling’ with a little moue of distaste. But there’s none so deaf as those that won’t listen.
– Nick Salaman
I do wonder whether you over-estimate the numbers of the population who have artistic ability and can turn to creativity to fill their time? Mrs Thatcher would have been lost without work….
– Paul Bailey