In an age of austerity and the rolling back of social policies, this idea may sound radical – but it is gaining momentum. Advocates of a universal basic income are already piloting it at a national level in Finland, and similar projects are planned by the Canadian province of Ontario and the Dutch city of Utrecht.
In the developing world, the charity GiveDirectly has committed to a randomised control trial in Kenya, comparing four villages, one of which will get a basic income.
Amid all this hype, policy talk has focused on the potential consequences of a basic income: things like population growth, a spike in divorce rates, increased entrepreneurship or additional leisure time. Such diverse possible outcomes should be expected. After all, the ambition of a universal basic income is to fundamentally alter the basis of social and economic integration.
What is surprising is the relative silence over its effects on the social bonds that tie people together in a community. How will people’s sense of community and togetherness be affected by such an ambitious scheme?
Sociological evidence points to a decline in solidarity for decades across many societies. Collective institutions – such as unions and churches – have faced dipping membership. Loneliness is on the rise. Since the 1960s, individualistic values, such as personal enrichment, have become more important to people than being engaged members of a community, bound by lasting social ties, common values and civic duties.
It could go either way
Given such trends, whether a basic income undermines or advances solidarity is a question worth asking. For some, it will erode solidarity. There is a belief that individualism is so entrenched in some countries that a basic income is likely to do little to transform society. Decades of policies have eroded community and increased selfishness: income taxes becoming less progressive, unions being weakened, markets becoming less regulated to support private enterprise as opposed to public good.
After decades of these policies, we might ask whether the introduction of a basic income is really going to make people more socially connected overnight. Selfishness, greed, and personal ambition might just be too embedded in our societies – and reinforced every day by advertising and celebrity culture – to be reversed by basic income policies.
In fact, basic income might even make this individualism worse. If we parachute it into societies underpinned by individualistic values, people might use their monthly parcel of income on plans for their own advancement, rather than communal projects. People might become lonelier, since they might also lose the social ties they had once acquired through work (even if that work was exploitative or difficult).
Then there’s the distinct possibility that basic income policies are used by politicians to dismantle social democratic institutions – such as public healthcare, education and welfare – which provide some of the few remaining sources of social support.
There is another view of basic income, though – that it could be “solidarity-enhancing”. Rather than individualism being taken as a given, the introduction of a basic income might catalyse the creation of stronger social ties. If we think that work distorts social relationships for many – because of the pressure it puts us under and the time it takes away from leisure and family – then a basic income might help to remedy this (assuming, of course, that a basic income is enough to live on).
Plus, this alternative view suggests that the time that a basic income would free up for people would also help to build solidarity between them. With the security of a basic income, the argument goes, people would be able to pursue that arts project or small business or relationship that they always wanted to pursue. Social connections would be bolstered.
Ultimately, whether we think basic income will be solidarity-eroding or solidarity-enhancing depends on how deeply embedded we think individualism is in society. Even so, just as the rise of an individualistic society was constructed through a series of political actions, so the strengthening of social bonds can be the outcome of renewed government intervention.
Governments designing basic income programmes and pilots must ensure that they measure the effects of a basic income on social capital, cohesion, and related indicators such as loneliness. Some of these social consequences of a basic income might only become clear over a long period of time.
But governments need to ensure that solidarity is a priority when implementing basic income policies. If a universal basic income can enhance solidarity at a time when it is sorely needed, it may just be able to fulfil its transformative promise.