In George Bernard Shaw’s enigmatic social commentary Pygmalion, Alfred Doolittle – a cockney dustman deeply scornful of middle class morality and his society’s notions of deserving and undeserving poor – sells his daughter Eliza to Professor Higgins for five quid.
An undeserving poor man, Doolittle expounds, has as much right to go on a drunken binge as does a deserving poor man. Furthermore, if they will give him some money, he will promise to spend it all on a drunken binge immediately and will thus be broke and ready for work on Monday morning.
The originality of this idea, and the audacity and impudence with which it is put forward, cause Higgins and Pickering to yield to his request, and they even offer him £10. But Doolittle refuses because it would involve him in responsibilities; he can’t drink up 10 quid in the weekend, but he can drink up five.
Unfortunately for him, however, he is next seen after his persuasive rhetoric has dumped him into considerable riches and precisely the responsibilities he most abhores.
Doolittle was always going to be a survivor, but it’s a question that society hasn’t yet reconciled.
Egalitarian New Zealand – with the echoes of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s pioneer blueprint for housing and individual dignity – did pretty well with it through most of the 20th century. But you cannot say that now, least of all if you’ve recently walked down Queen Street with visible destitution in the doorways and a vast hinterland of houses that working citizens can no longer afford.
I’m for a universal basic income and it may be an idea whose time has come, given global concerns about the effects of artificial intelligence on workforces and the abilities of the current system to safeguard meaningful wealth redistribution to sustain populations through catastrophic change.
Usefully, it is firing the imagination of both radical leftists – John McDonnell and Bernie Sanders – and Silicon Valley plutocrats such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.
As far as countries go, no one is going big with it yet, although Finland, which was well into a trial of handing just such a payment out to a sample of 2000 citizens and monitoring their outcomes, has – to global disappointment – pulled the plug early on the experiment.
But not before Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty tracked down several of the country’s participants and came up with some remarkable stories, including that of Juha Järvinen.
“Ask Järvinen what difference money for nothing has made to his life, and you are marched over to his workshop,” the columnist reported before Christmas. “Inside is film-making equipment, a blackboard on which is scrawled plans for an artists’ version of Airbnb, and an entire little room where he makes shaman drums that sell for up to €900. All this while helping to bring up six children. All those free euros have driven him to work harder than ever.
“None of this would have been possible before he received UBI. Until this year, Järvinen was on dole money; the Finnish equivalent of the jobcentre was always on his case about job applications and training,” Chakrabortty wrote, the “humiliating” system giving him barely enough to feed himself, while refusing him even a glimmer of a hope of fulfilment.
“Ideas flow out of Järvinen as easily as water from a tap, yet he could exercise none of his initiative for fear of arousing bureaucratic scrutiny.”
Our collective narratives around inequality and poverty are interesting. Depending on your political and ideological worldviews, you can see poverty as the product of personal moral failure (skivers vs strivers) or, as their counterparts did in Finland, that poverty is no more than a lack of money.
With the Finnish trial now ended, Andreas Kluth, a correspondent for The Economist from 1997 to 2017; now editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global, the digital, English-language edition of the influential German business paper, is calling on other countries, including Germany, to experiment with the concept.
Polarising as it is for people on both left and right, he says, “the UBI is attractive because it promises to eradicate poverty and thus stabilise democracy.
“That is huge. Classical liberals like me also like the idea because – this point is often misunderstood – a UBI would not complement, but completely replace, the existing welfare state,” Kluth says.
“All social-security bureaucracies and other leviathans would go. The UBI thus promises a radical simplification, and limitation, of the state.”
The transition from the old welfare state to a UBI “would be fiendishly complex” and the biggest question would be how human nature would respond to guaranteed income, he adds. However, it was not a given that, if people were to stop working, societies would collapse.
Science fiction might suggest that it could just as easily unleash whole realms of new creativity, learning and adaption – and we could become kinder. • Liz Waters