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The liberal case for basic income

Photographer: geralt via Pixabay

WELFARE. The idea of basic income has a long history. In Europe, during the last decades, it has transformed from a theoretical approach to the practical implementation as with the experiment in Finland during 2017-2019.

In Switzerland, a referendum in 2016 took place where citizens voted about the issue concerning the government providing every citizen with a guaranteed citizen salary. The proposal was later rejected by a significant marginal. Namely, around 74% voted against. However, despite the relevant terms basic income, citizen income or citizen salary a considerable difference within the debate.

The ongoing debate and the supporters of the basic income policy can be divided into three main categories: the economic-liberal, the welfare supporters and the economic-growth critics. In its original, the idea of the basic income, such as argued by academic Phillipe van Parijs, should be provided to each individual and citizen within the society. In practice, it means that a basic income should, by the state government, be given, for example, both a businessman who earns several million euros per year as well as to a low-income job seeker.

One of the most prominent specifics of the basic income idea is that it has broader support within the ideological sphere since political thinkers from left to the right, from freedom to authoritarian side, have been supporting the idea. The economic-liberal side of the debate has different political ambition, based on two main arguments. The first one is to reduce the overall size and expenditure of the welfare state by cutting down the size of bureaucracy and its costs. The second is to make the welfare state gentler and less paternalistic towards the individual.

Liberals in favour of basic income often argue that the individual should have the personal freedom to choose how to spend the basic income. The argument is that the individual knows better how the basic income can be used for their own personal success, welfare and future perspectives. Therefore from the economic-liberal side of the debate, the general idea is that basic income should be provided by a more limited distribution of welfare. For example, by providing basic income only for those who are outside of the labour market or who lack other kind of sufficient income. Also, there can be an age limit, such as providing basic income only for individuals in the age span of 19 – 65 years.

Historically seen the idea of basic income has had its supporters among liberal thinkers. One prominent thinker who supported the purpose of such income was Friedrich Hayek. As a classical liberal, he was against the existence of the welfare state. However, he argued that an individual should be guaranteed a basic income if for example, being left out from the labour market. For Hayek, the primary assignment of the basic income was to deal with and correct the ”imperfections” of the free market economy.

According to Hayek, the basic income could function as a protective floor to hinder the individual from falling down into poverty. For him, this was a preferable method for making things right in the free market economy where the government could provide support for the individual in a difficult socio-economic situation.  A classical liberal argument can, therefore, be presented in short as the argument that every individual member of the society should be guaranteed freedom from poverty.

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