Issue 1305 of Le Monde Diplomatique had some interesting ideas around the concept of direct payments and basic income.
Basic income is the idea that the government organises a payment to all its citizens of a sum of money without conditions or obligation. The value of the payment is subject to discussion, but let's say here it is a sum of money that is sufficient to survive, to pay rent, utilities, food and clothing. In short the basic income is sufficient to be a full functioning member of society. The income is paid regardless of the other income you have and therefore all other sources of income are in addition to your needs.
The basic income replaces all welfare and benefit payments and because it applies universally it is easier to run than varied, conditional benefits.
Does the world owe you a living? Good Protestant embodiments of the work ethic tend to say no. However there is something deeply strange about a world where you are denied a living or society doesn't regard it as a matter of importance as to whether you can live or not.
Although Europe seems to be engaged in a strange experiment to see how long it can continue to function while denying access to employment to the majority of a generation I think that society and the state does actually owe its members a living. In fact it one of the major purposes of these institutions that they create and defend the opportunity to create a life secure in the all the needs including the opportunity for leisure and self-expression.
Our current systems of social welfare are based, in essence, around the concept of insurance and bridging payments. During periods of work you are making contributions to a social fund and during periods of unemployment you are making withdrawals from that fund.
Basic income is a radical departure from this conception of welfare. Under basic income the state makes an undertaking that all members of society receive enough money to meet their basic needs.
When governments currently want to encourage the creation of jobs they often, despite their protestations, pay a subsidy to employers and business to recruit people. Why is it better to bribe a business to pay someone a wage than it is to simply direct that money straight to the individual?
When talking about basic income with people I think the biggest issue people have one of moral hazard. If people don't have to work to live then why will they work? This is a curious argument in my mind, is more moral to reduce a person to penury to force them to find work? A lot people seem to say yes, an affirmation of their experience of having to find work without support in their own lives.
It puts a strange emphasis on the importance of work, as if it was something moral or spiritual rather than a system of exchange.
If we put our personal experience aside I think it makes sense that people work. Not to survive but to help provide meaning in their lives: self-worth, companionship, to have an impact on the world which they individually could not to achieve. Most likely they would also work to switch from merely existing in the world to acquiring the capital required to become an owner of property (of both goods and land) and therefore root themselves more firmly in their society and the world in general.
These incentives remain even with basic income. Not having to work does not destroy the positive aspects of work. However the inverse is not true; as the old trade union adage has it work without leisure and rest is no different to slavery.
Basic income also aligns with conservative economic policies that attempt to remove the tax burden from the working poor and to pay benefits and tax credits on time since the poorest in society also have the highest velocity on their money. They are forced to spend almost as soon as they receive it and therefore are the fundamental liquidity of their local communities.
But what of those who were once called "feckless". In many ways we've moved beyond the fallacy that the poor are somehow deserving of their situation and are incapable of changing their circumstance. Microfinance and a genuine more humane impulse of sympathy sees that economic constraints can conspire to make it impossible to change your circumstances without external intervention. The poor are the poor not because of their moral character but simply because they were born poor.
The more challenging category of the addicted and mentally ill are not served well under a society dedicated to the primacy of paid labour. Does basic income solve their problems or does it simply enable their issues? I suspect basic income does nothing for these people except remove the delusion that they would be fine if they had to hold down a job. Dealing with mentally illness is one of the greatest challenges known to modern society as no general measures will touch the individual chaos of these lives.
However I think basic income means that help and support can be focussed on those for whom financial circumstances are only part of their wider problem.
Imagining a world without mandatory work seems challenging but thinking that our world of labour exchange is inevitable and has always existed requires a stubborn lack of imagination.