Basic Income Pilot Projects Won’t Work

by Jonathan Brun

For many years basic income advocates have lobbied for pilot projects to demonstrate the power of giving money to all citizens. Advocates all seem to use the short lived Dauphin, Manitoba project in the 1970s as an argument for further pilot projects. This lobbying by advocates of Basic Income led to two pilot projects – one in Finland and one in Ontario. Both are already over. The recent ending of the pilot project in Finland and the cancellation of the pilot project in Ontario, Canada mark significant setbacks for the Basic Income mouvement around the world.

The purpose of these pilot projects was to gather meaningful scientific data on the effects of basic income and use that to convince the public, bureaucrats and politicians that basic income was a feasible and logical idea. However, reason rarely works in the public sphere. Instead, both projects were shutdown or ended. The reason they were ended was certainly not financial or scientific, but rather political. Therein lies the problem, if basic income projects are launched by politicians, they will be shutdown by political situations.

Both of these pilot projects made a fundamental mistake – they targeted poor people. The projects were designed to show the benefits of a basic income over the traditional welfare system. They were not designed to show the benefits of a basic income for a wider part of society such as students, taxpayers or elderly people. By restricting the projects to people on or near welfare levels, the projects positioned themselves as yet another welfare program for the poor. As in most countries, the hard working, tax paying middle class has limited patience for welfare recipients. This is partially due to constricting disposable income and partially due to pure human nature. We have seen country after country downsize their social welfare programs in an attempt to balance budgets, gain votes or free up cash for other programs such as tax cuts. Almost no country in the past thirty years has increased the size of their welfare programs. This should be a (big) hint to basic income advocates.

It’s actually quite simple, most taxpayers have limited patience for people who do not work (for money). To think otherwise is simply idealistic and not aligned with the average (voting) population. At a recent discussion on basic income debate in Montréal, Québec, I asked the famed basic income expert Evelyn Forget how she thinks we should pay for a basic income. Her response was that we should raise taxes on corporations and on people. When I replied this seemed challenging in the current political and economic situation, she responded that it was the best way to do it and people would just have to “deal” with higher taxes.

I strongly believe that the way you finance a basic income is THE defining feature of a basic income. If you finance it through taxes, it will be viewed as another social welfare program not terribly different from numerous existing programs. This is a major problem. The entire idea of basic income is that it is different from other programs. If you finance it in the same way, through tax and redistribution, you are undermining the argument that makes basic income so appealing. Basic income is supposed to break the mold, join the left and right, simplify bureaucracy and give more freedom for individuals to build up their lives. If you fund it through taxes on workers, it will be viewed (rightfully so) as a transfer from workers to non-workers.

As an analogy to basic income advocacy, we can look at advocates for affordable housing. Both groups of advocates believe that what they are proposing is a basic right and should be made readily available. In the first case, basic income advocates argue that all members of a developed nation should have a minimum level of income that assures the essentials in life. Affordable housing advocates lobby that housing is a right, not a privilege, and it should be affordable for all members of society. I agree with both, but the way you go about implementing either is fundamental to the perception of the project by the general public.

For example, affordable housing levels in most western countries has actually decreased as an overall percentage of the housing market. This is due to the fact that affordable housing advocates are taking the same approach as the basic income advocates – namely that affordable housing is there to alleviate the stress of expensive housing and that the affordable housing should mostly benefit the less fortunate. By casting their lot in with the poor, they are severely limiting the base of their political support.

Contrast that with Vienna, Austria. In Vienna, about 50% of the housing stock is owned, managed and maintained by the City. Basically, 50% of the housing stock is a public good, not a private good. Rents are remarkably affordable for a world class city and this brings dynamism and diversity to all the neighbourhoods. However, the main reason this was possible (besides WW2) was because both the middle class and lower economic classes have a vested interest in the success of this public housing. This much larger political base assures that the affordable housing projects continue. Basic income needs to take the same approach and stop advocating for basic income pilot projects as welfare replacements or as a poverty alleviation tool. It may indeed by that, but you should not advocate for basic income in that way.

Contrast the success of these basic income pilot projects with the Alaskan Dividend Fund, that was instituted in 1976. The fund remains tremendously popular and has little risk of disappearing. Why? Because everyone gets it! No pilot project was done prior to the institution of the Alaskan dividend fund and no negative effects have emerged post implementation. If there is one path forward for basic income, it is through the implementation of a lower level of basic income, but that goes to everyone – especially hard working taxpayers who vote.

It is time for basic income advocates to change their tune and thing strategically about how they plan to convince the average person to vote for this. It may take a distinct political party (for another post) or a clear advocate of basic income such as Andrew Yang in the United States, who has placed basic income at the center of his presidential campaign. No matter how you look at it, trying to get basic income to become reality through the path of replacing or supplementing welfare payments is a doomed idea that will never work. Get the middle class on your side and you will win the war, do otherwise at your own peril.