We need to talk about the Citizens’ Income. The Citizens’ Income (also known as the Universal Basic Income) is an unconditional, non-withdrawable income payable to each individual by the state. In other words, free money for everyone. While it has been campaigned for in the UK since the 1920s, it has never been taken particularly seriously. This could be about to change. The Citizens’ Income is one of the most exciting policy ideas out there, but I am not going to discuss at length why this is - I’ll provide some links at the bottom for anyone yet to be convinced. Instead, I’ll focus on arguing that automation could be about to make it both a societal necessity and a potential political reality.
The Citizens’ Income is not a new idea. In fact, its first known use was 1,400 years ago by the Prophet Muhammed’s father-in-law. More relevantly, the Scottish Green Party has advocated for the policy for as long as it has existed but it has never been a serious consideration of any government. It is difficult to argue for ‘free money for everyone’ in a political climate dominated by neoliberal rhetoric, however affordable and beneficial it may be. In order for the public, media and other parties to be convinced by the Citizens’ Income, something has to change. Artificial intelligence (AI) could be that change.
That is because artificial intelligence is coming for our jobs. Estimates vary, but the biggest consensus is that between 20% and 30% of UK jobs will be consumed by AI by the 2030s. Artificial intelligence is different to previous examples of automation because it’s, well… intelligent. That means, unlike previous forms of automation, individual robots can learn a multitude of tasks. Moreover, unlike humans, they can draw on the collective experience of a network of other robots, and can even outperform humans at cognitive tasks. For example, one study found that AI is 50% better at spotting malignant cancer tumours than three expert radiologists working together. This suggests that not many new jobs that AI cannot perform are likely to be created, unlike when previous waves of automation have occured. According to some estimates, the UK could suffer higher unemployment rates than the US suffered during the Great Depression. Within 20 years.
This is a problem for society as a whole, but especially for the poor. Automation disproportionately replaces the jobs of ‘lower-skilled’ and ‘mid-skilled’ workers, while also softening wages and reducing workers’ bargaining power. In contrast, the people who control automation and the companies that employ it, have the potential to make huge profits by replacing a comparatively costly and inefficient human workforce with an automated one. This does not paint a pretty picture. Huge swathes of the population unemployed and unemployable, low wages, and a workforce disempowered by the constant threat that they’ll be replaced by AI.
This problem requires a solution. It requires a solution which will allow people to work less. A solution which means individuals can say ‘no’ to work, thereby giving the bargaining power back to the workers. A solution that will reduce the inequality that is already insidious but seems destined to grow. A solution which can provide a more secure safety net for the unemployed, but without the bureaucracy necessary to implement the current benefits system. A solution which affords people the opportunity to carry out more personally satisfying and socially useful work. This solution is, of course, the Citizens’ Income.
As of now, serious replacement of the human workforce with AI is not particularly visible, but that will change. The traditional view that people must have jobs to earn money is irreconcilable with a world in which there are visibly more people than there are jobs. Moreover, there is good reason to think that it will be easier to fund a Citizens’ Income in the near future. While the Citizens’ Income would largely pay for itself via efficiency savings, and the negation of all the economic costs that result from inequality, there will be some need for direct taxation. However, there are several politically plausible ways to pay for it. My two preferred methods are either a robot tax, which raises money from the people and companies who benefit from replacing human workers, or a carbon tax, which targets the people and companies who benefit from exploiting the planet’s resources. The exact method is not important; the point is that both of these examples will become more politically tolerable as the impacts of automation and climate change respectively become more intolerable.
In sum, automation presents the UK with two potential realities. On the one hand, it could cause burgeoning unemployment and inequality, pushing millions of people out of a society obsessed with work. On the other, it could free us to work less and spend more time doing the things we enjoy and which benefit society, such as parenting and education. Key to ensuring the latter happens is making the Citizens’ Income central to political discourse. Never has the Citizens’ Income been more needed than it will be in the forthcoming decades; fortunately, never has it been more politically plausible.
‘An introduction to the universal basic income’ by the Citizens’ Basic Income Network Scotland: https://cbin.scot/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/What-is-a-Basic-Income.pdf
‘Why universal basic income costs far less than you think’: https://theconversation.com/why-universal-basic-income-costs-far-less-than-you-think-101134
‘Basic income paid to the poor can transform lives’ https://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2014/dec/18/incomes-scheme-transforms-lives-poor
‘Ten reasons to support a basic income’: https://www.basicincome.org.uk/reasons-support-basic-income
Ted talk: ‘Why we should give everyone a basic income’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIL_Y9g7Tg0