Is there any such thing as a free lunch?

Catherine Durose

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a radical solution to problems that we are increasingly aware of. For the political left, UBI is positioned as response to spiralling inequality, the levels of which are disrupting crucial social expectations. Rather than ‘if I don’t work, I don’t eat’, for many there is a real prospect that work no longer covers their basic needs. Most people hope for a better life for their children than they have had, but many now face the reality that their children will struggle to achieve those standards. Yet, universal basic income is an idea also championed by the heroes of the Right, from Milton Friedman to Charles Murray, who see it as a means of streamlining a wasteful and intensely bureaucratic welfare system. For both, UBI is a means of challenging the established order as they see it: whether this is through a more equitable re-distribution of power, which not only relieves poverty at a stroke but offers a means of collective dignity and liberation to pursue our passions and fulfil our desires, or a triumph of individual consumer choice and the forging of a new civic culture.

The bold simplicity of universal basic income has led many to see it as an ‘idea whose time has come’, but is it an idea that we are likely to see happen? Drawing on John Kingdon’s seminal work on policy agendas, such thinking seems idealised and naïve. Whilst inequality and bureaucratic waste are common themes of political rhetoric, the imperative to act to address either in a way that is genuinely transformative seems lacking. Whilst UBI has its supporters from across the political spectrum, it also has its detractors: those on the Right concerned about the impact on our work ethic, those on the Left, who don’t quite trust people to make their own choices. Any radical re-distribution of money or power is going to be confronted by those with vested interests in retaining the status quo. So without a problem imperative or political will to act, will universal basic income remain a solution in search of an opportunity?

These thoughts are inspired by the screening this week of the documentary, ‘A Free Lunch Society’ and the conversation between leaders from Citizens UK: Birmingham and students from the College of Social Sciences. For Citizens UK, UBI is not only a policy solution with the potential to transform our society, it is an idea with the ability to start a political conversation, one that has, as one of our leaders remarked at the event, the ability to help us focus more on calling to account those with power than passing judgement on those who lack it. There is the further acknowledgement that UBI may only be delivered through a different kind of political movement, one that is founded on the principles that our common advancement should also be for our collective good. As the documentary observed, ‘the future is now’: the ever-quickening pace of technological change and automation has the potential to shake our society to its core. Whilst recognising the challenges this presents, we should also see the opportunities it brings to not only think radically, but act radically to shape our future.

If you are interested in being part of the conversation about universal basic income here in the West Midlands, join us at the CoSS Citizens UK Annual Lecture by Professor Guy Standing (SOAS) on 6 June, register here.

Catherine Durose 2017Dr Catherine Durose is a Reader in Policy Sciences at INLOGOV. She undertakes research, teaching and impact work on urban governance and public services, with particular interests in participation, intermediation and co-production. She is part of Citizens UK: Birmingham’s Leadership Group and a member of Citizens UK National Council.


All view expressed in this blog are those of the author and not of INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

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