You can have radical social and economic reform, or you can have ‘fiscal responsibility’. You can’t have both. Because ‘fiscal responsibility’ is a euphemism for maintaining the status quo. The definition of ‘fiscal responsibility’ is rigorous avoidance of anything that might rock the boats of those fortunate to have a boat that isn’t already sunk or in imminent danger of being inundated. You cannot be both radical and timid. You cannot introduce a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and concern yourself with what others denounce as fiscally irresponsible.
Stating the aim of a UBI scheme as “reducing poverty and providing a possible route to a fairer and simpler welfare system” is timid in the extreme. It is pandering to the regressively conservative view that whatever you do you must not frighten the horses. By a strange coincidence the thing that threatens the placid demeanour of the horses always happens to be something that the economically powerful regard as contrary to their interests. Apparently, horses are as easily frightened as boats are rocked. The most ‘fiscally responsible’ thing to do is to take no action at all. Or to take action which is merely cosmetic and actually changes nothing.
We already have schemes intended to reduce poverty. We have always had such schemes. (‘Always’ being as far back as matters in the context.) We have had a succession of such schemes. Their success is indicated by the fact that we’re still talking about schemes to reduce poverty. Why?
‘Reducing poverty’ is a glittering generality. It is the sort of thing that the stereotypical beauty pageant entrant breathlessly proclaims as their greatest aspiration – alongside world peace and rescuing maltreated donkeys. As the stated aim of socioeconomic reform ‘reducing poverty’ is just as meaningless; no matter how many sincerity pills you swallow before saying it.
How do you reduce poverty? By how much must poverty be reduced for it to stop being a blight on society? What is an acceptable level of poverty?
How is poverty measured? How do you know when poverty has been reduced? How do you gauge the impact of whatever reduction in poverty you claim to have achieved?
If poverty is absolute, then no amount of poverty can be tolerated. If poverty is relative then it will still be relative poverty no matter how much you reduce it.
Is poverty even the problem? Is it poverty which has the deleterious effect on people and society? Is being poor always a ‘Bad Thing’? Is it the same ‘Bad Thing’ with the same effects wherever it exists? If not, how can twiddling with a metric or two make any predictable difference?
Poverty is not the problem. It can be a problem. But it is not the problem. Poverty can blight lives. But it does not invariably do so. The largest part of the world’s population lives in what we would call poverty and does so with just as much variation in the experienced quality of their lives. Some are reasonably content. Some are quite dissatisfied. Some rage against their condition. Some consider it a blessing. But exactly the same could be said of that part of the population we don’t regard as poor. Being poor clearly isn’t the root problem. Poverty is seldom a ‘Good Thing’. But it isn’t necessarily and invariably a ‘Bad Thing’ worthy of capitalisation.
To find the root problem we need to examine what it is that differentiates those who are relatively unaffected by poverty and those for whom it is akin to a debilitating disease – despite the fact that by our measures their levels of poverty are identical. We need to discover the common factor – the common variable – which determines the discontent and dissatisfaction across the whole of society.
I think you’ll find that the problem is not poverty but insecurity. It is insecurity which is the bloated bluebottle in our socioeconomic ointment. People can cope with poverty so long as they can be sure of what they have. People who are relatively wealthy will suffer the same symptoms as those in poverty if their condition is insecure. Insecurity and the stress which stems from responsibility coupled with powerlessness is the real ‘Bad Thing’.
Which is unfortunate. Because we have contrived an economic system – and associated social structures – which is powered by inequality, inequity and insecurity. If socioeconomic reform does not address this, then it changes nothing. If the specifications for a Universal Basic Income scheme don’t include “eradicating insecurity” then it is unlikely to be more than a cosmetic measure at best. If UBI doesn’t eradicate insecurity then it is a futile exercise in socioeconomic tinkering when what is needed is a bold adventure in socioeconomic engineering.
And to those who bleat about ‘fiscal responsibility’ I would say, get back to me when you’ve included the costs of insecurity in your calculations.
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