Tim Vlandas of Reading University examines potential political support for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) – an idea with a long lineage that cuts across ideological lines. He concludes that a UBI could potentially find backing from a coalition between centrist and left-leaning individuals, ideally with additional support from trade unions

Universal Basic Income (UBI) has a long history. The idea to provide all citizens with an unconditional and regular income cash benefit without means-test or requirement[1] has been discussed as far back as the 18th century[2]. Thinkers on the right are attracted to its simplicity, which contrasts with the current complex welfare state arrangements in most advanced economies, its minimalism and its low adverse effects on work incentives, since it is paid irrespective of labour market participation. On the left, people emphasise its universalism and unconditionality which would reduce the gaps in coverage of current benefits and ensure labour is decommodified, thereby increasing the power of workers to bargain for better working conditions and wages.

Its detractors are similarly located across the ideological spectrum. Many liberal economists see UBI as prohibitively expensive and inefficient insofar as it directs resources to those who may not need them. Others on the left see UBI as a dangerous legitimisation of capitalism and an implicit acceptance that not everyone will be provided a job. They also emphasise UBI’s limited ability to address all the social risks that individuals face in a market economy. Finally, some trade unions, particularly in Bismarckian welfare regimes, oppose what they see as releasing employers of their social responsibility. Trade unions also voice concerns that this will reduce their institutional power which lies in their key role in managing the administration of social insurance benefits.

The missing politics of UBI

Yet, what both advocates and detractors currently miss is the question of which social coalition could support its introduction in the short term and sustain its political viability over the long run. Ongoing experiments, for instance in Finland, are crucial to analyse what effects UBI have on poverty, labour market participation as well as mobility, and entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, ‘good’ public policies may be more likely to be chosen by governments, but the characteristics and positive effects of a policy alone are never enough to guarantee its introduction. Equally, governments regularly make poor policy choices because they – rightly or wrongly – believe they have significant electoral support.

Moreover, the question of its fiscal viability, which is the focus of most debates, is important but does not itself rule out or guarantee that UBI have a future. After all, the fiscal viability of any version of UBI is ultimately determined by three – partly endogenous – factors: (1) the willingness and ability of the electorate to bear higher taxes; (2) the level at which UBI will be set; and (3) the extent to which UBI replace existing social security arrangements. Thus, even fiscal viability is ultimately a political rather than an economic question.

A survey of individual support for UBI

While surveys are of course imperfect tools for appraising what people want and believe, and what they are likely to accept electorally, they are nevertheless superior to abstract discussions of what ‘people’ are assumed to want. Until recently, we had no adequate cross-national surveys exploring individual preferences for UBI.

The latest wave of the European Social Survey (ESS), a high quality and widely used cross-national survey of European Union member states, has for the first time included a question about UBI. Respondents are presented with the following statement: Some countries are currently talking about introducing a basic income scheme. In a moment I will ask you to tell me whether you are against or in favour of this scheme. First, I will give you some more details.” The following features of the scheme are then explained to respondents:

  1. The government pays everyone a monthly income to cover essential living costs;
  2. It replaces many other social benefits;
  3. The purpose is to guarantee everyone a minimum standard of living;
  4. Everyone receives the same amount regardless of whether or not they are working;
  5. People also keep the money they earn from work or other sources;
  6. This scheme is paid for by taxes.

The interviewer then asks respondents whether overall they would be against or in favour of having this scheme in their respective country. Over 32,000 individuals responded to the question (there are about 2,600 missing cases). The ESS provides clear guideline for how to use weights, which need to be applied before calculating any percentage responses to the question for different characteristics of individuals. Throughout the rest of this article, I have applied design weights which adjust for different selection probabilities. In addition, where EU wide averages are presented, I have also applied the population size weights, which the ESS recommends should be applied when looking at averages for two or more countries combined.

Two caveats before discussing the results:

  • The validity of the results discussed below is only as good as the survey (i.e. the quality of the question, the sampling, the ability to translate similar meanings in countries with different pre-existing institutions and languages, etc). Notwithstanding these challenges, in my view this survey gives us a better sense of what people believe than no survey at all. The ESS is also one of the best cross-national surveys available;
  • Different variables have different number of missing values. As a result, the overall average percentage of supporters differs when cross-tabulating support for UBI with different individual characteristics that may have more or less missing values.

A surprisingly large appeal but with important differences across countries

The EU-wide average responses reveal a number of striking features (figure 1). First, there are very few people that are strongly against UBI (less than 15% of respondents), which is important as strong opposition to the fate of a policy initiative is sometimes more determinant than the presence of strong support. Second, the response with the largest number of respondents (more than 45%) is composed of those in favour of the scheme. Third, when added to those who are strongly in favour of the scheme, there is a slight majority in favour (i.e. in favour or strongly in favour) of the scheme.

Turning to the cross-national variation (table 1), we can observe that this EU-wide average obscures the fact that there are slightly less countries with a majority of respondents being favourable to the scheme. (Note that Israel and Russia have been excluded from cross-national analyses throughout but not from the overall average.) Countries with a majority of supporters range from Slovenia with a striking 65% in favour to the UK with almost 51%. There are no obvious commonalities in this group of countries: Slovenia, Belgium, Poland, Ireland, Finland, Czech Republic and the UK. It includes both eastern and western Europe, liberal and coordinated market economies, and cover all three types of welfare state regimes (bismarckian, liberal and social democratic).

A second lesson from the cross-national variation is that even in countries with less than 50% total support, there are very high percentage of respondents that are supportive of UBI. Indeed, six countries have more than 40% support: Netherlands, France, Estonia, Austria, Iceland and Germany. Only three countries have lower levels of support: Sweden, which is characterised by one of the most generous welfare state; Switzerland where there has recently been an unsuccessful referendum on this question for a very generous version of UBI; and Norway which ironically is probably better placed fiscally to implement such a scheme and has one of the largest sovereign wealth funds.

Figure 1: Support for UBI in Europe.

 

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. The following countries are covered by this wave of ESS: Austria, Belgium, Switzerland    , Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Finland, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Israel, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russian Federation, Sweden, and Slovenia. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1.

 

Table 1: cross-national variation in support for UBI

Country Percentage in favour
Slovenia 65.1
Belgium 58.6
Poland 58.5
Ireland 56
Finland 55.8
Czech Republic 52.2
United Kingdom 50.8
Netherlands 49.8
France 48.9
Estonia 46.7
Austria 46
Iceland 46
Germany 45.8
Sweden 37.5
Switzerland 34.7
Norway 33.6

Note: design weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1.

Labour market position and support for UBI

The ESS also asks respondents several questions about their labour market positions which makes it possible to cross-tabulate support for UBI with respondents’ labour market status. One question concerns their history of unemployment. On the one hand, the unemployed have increasingly been ‘activated’ by authorities which impose various sanctions when they refuse often unappealing job offers. In addition, job seekers sometimes face high marginal tax rates when taking up employment as their unemployment benefits get withdrawn to varying degrees depending on the country where they received the benefit. These considerations should make them particularly favourable to UBI. On the other hand, if respondents expect UBI to replace unemployment benefits that might have been fairly generous, they may also have good reasons to oppose the introduction of UBI. This can be a consideration since characteristic 2 of UBI that is presented to respondents mentions that UBI “replaces many other social benefits” (see above).

As table 2 shows, respondents who have experienced a period of unemployment and work seeking within the last five years (regardless of whether they are unemployed at time of interview) are much more favourable to UBI than those who have not (almost 65% compared to about 56%). Perhaps more surprisingly, as table 3 shows, employees are slightly more supportive (about 55%) than the self-employed (53%) who are in turn more supportive than those working for own family business (51% – though note the smaller sample size of this group). Among respondents with ‘unlimited duration’ employment contracts, about 54% favour or strongly favour UBI, compared to slightly above 56% among respondents with ‘limited duration’ employment contracts (see table 4).

Table 2: Period of unemployment and support for UBI

Any period of unemployment and work seeking within last 5 years Strongly against Against In favour Strongly in favour N=
Yes 10.2 25.4 50.5 14 4546.1
No 11.4 33.3 46.5 8.8 6025.9

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1. List of countries included in note to Figure 1.

 

Table 3: Employment relation and support for UBI

Employment relation Employee Self-employed Working for own family business
Strongly against 11.3 13.3 12.5
Against 33.5 33.7 36.4
In favour 46.3 42.5 46.8
Strongly in favour 8.9 10.5 4.2
Total 100 100 100
N= 29772.6 3815.5 533.5

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1. List of countries included in note to Figure 1.

Table 4: Employment contract and support for UBI

Employment contract unlimited or limited duration Unlimited Limited No contract
Strongly against 11.8 10.5 8
Against 34.3 33.2 28.6
In favour 45.3 46.2 53.8
Strongly in favour 8.5 10.1 9.6
Total 100 100 100
N= 22945.9 4626.6 2637.8

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1. List of countries included in note to Figure 1.

Education, sources and level of income, and support for UBI

Another way to explore what affects support for UBI is to consider the impact of education and income. Though no clear picture emerges, Figure 2 shows that support is more or less stable for respondents with between 8 and 15 years of education, but that support falls slightly thereafter (with an increase in support for the very highly educated). In terms of sources of income (table 5), support is highest among those whose main source is unemployment benefits (65%) and any other social benefits (66%), followed by those earning wages/salaries (about 57%). Next, comes pensioners (about 53%), while support is low among those receiving income from self-employment (49.5%) and farming (48%), and lowest for those receiving main income from investments/savings which indirectly identifies high income respondents (about 37%). Finally, it is clear that the position in the income distribution affects preferences for UBI. Whereas about 60% of respondents in the bottom 10% of the income distribution support UBI, only 55.7% support it in the fifth decile, and the share of supporters drops to 45% in top decile (table 6).

Figure 2: Years of education and support for UBI

 

 

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1. List of countries included in note to Figure 1.

 

Table 5: Main source of household income and support for UBI

Wages or salaries Income from self-employment (excluding farming) Income from farming Pensions Unemployment/redundancy benefit
Against 32.5 37.3 35.5 34.5 26.6
Strongly against 10.8 13.2 16.4 12.7 8.3
In favour 47.3 38.9 44.6 45.4 47.9
Strongly in favour 9.4 10.6 3.5 7.4 17.1
Total 100 100 100 100 100
N= 22985.5 1940.3 362.6 8673.3 621.3

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1. List of countries included in note to Figure 1.

 

Table 5 (continued): Main source of household income and support for UBI

Any other social benefits or grants Income from investments, savings etc. Income from other sources
Against 24.5 51.7 32.8
Strongly against 9.5 11.1 6.6
In favour 52.4 31.8 50.4
Strongly in favour 13.6 5.4 10.1
Total 100 100 100
N= 953.3 251.5 567.6

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1. List of countries included in note to Figure 1.

Table 6: Household income and support for UBI – bottom of income distribution

Household’s total net income, all sources 1st decile 2nd decile 3rd decile 4th decile 5th decile
Strongly against 11.9 9.2 9.1 9.6 9.8
Against 28.2 34.1 32.2 33.7 34.5
In favour 50.9 46.9 50.6 47.3 47.4
Strongly in favour 9 9.8 8.1 9.4 8.3
Total 100 100 100 100 100
N= 2498.7 2531.9 2581.7 2900.7 3303.3

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1. List of countries included in note to Figure 1.

Table 6 (continued): Household income and support for UBI– upper half of income distribution

Household’s total net income, all sources 6th decile 7th decile 8th decile 9th decile 10th decile
Strongly against 11.7 10.2 12 13.7 16.2
Against 34.2 31.4 31.6 38.4 38.8
In favour 45.6 49 46 40.1 35.4
Strongly in favour 8.5 9.4 10.5 7.8 9.5
Total 100 100 100 100 100
N= 3320.9 4044.6 4043.9 2900.3 2728.7

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1. List of countries included in note to Figure 1.

Left-right ideology, trade union membership and support for UBI

The relationship of the Left to UBI is controversial. I focus on two aspects. One is the self-placement on a left-right spectrum (in an 11-points scale ranging from Left-0 to Right-10); the other is membership of a trade union.

Table 7 shows that those on the left (0, 1, and 2 in particular) are much more supportive of UBI and that there is still a majority in favour among those who position themselves in the centre and/or mild centre right (scores of 5 and 6 on left-right scale). Surprisingly, people who identify as strongly right (score of 10) are also overall favourable (though with very few ‘strongly in favour’). However, what might matter most with respect to ideology is not so much whether left-wing or right-wing individuals are more or less supportive of UBI, but rather where support for UBI in numerical term comes from, in other words where supporters of UBI locate themselves in the left-right spectrum. As table 8 shows, 33% of strong supporter (strongly in favour), and 37% of supporters (in favour), choose a centrist position (5), while 20% of strong supporters are ‘extreme left’ (0 to 2) compared to only 10.6% being ‘extreme right’ (8 to 10). Thus, a centre left coalition is probably best placed to mobilise (strong) supporters of UBI.

Consistent with the scepticism of some trade unions to UBI, table 9 reveals that current trade union members are less supportive (almost 52%) than both previous trade union members (about 58%) and non-members (roughly 56%). However, the extent of support among current trade union members varies strongly across countries, ranging from 66% in Slovenia to 32% in Norway. Trade union members in several more coordinated market economies (e.g. Germany, Sweden, Norway, Austria) tend to have lower support, but in other CMEs, such as Finland, support is very high. By contrast, both Ireland and the UK have intermediate levels of support. Strikingly, two countries with Ghent unemployment benefit systems (Finland, Belgium), where trade unions manage their unemployment benefits exhibit high support among trade union members. Finally, there is no clear pattern among Central and Eastern European Countries with both high and low support among union members depending on the country under consideration.

Table 7: Placement on left right scale and support for UBI

Strongly against Against In favour Strongly in favour Total N=
Left 11.2 28 47.1 13.7 100 1091.4
1 6.8 28.2 43.6 21.5 100 582.8
2 8.4 29.3 46.8 15.5 100 1864
3 10.1 33.3 46.6 9.9 100 3206.9
4 10 37.2 46.1 6.7 100 3401.7
5 10.9 34.1 47.1 7.9 100 11681.9
6 13.1 36.7 43.8 6.5 100 3211.6
7 16.4 37.6 38 8 100 3123.7
8 15.9 34.4 42.6 7.1 100 2203.1
9 17.2 33.2 41.4 8.2 100 603.3
Right 15.9 28.9 47.4 7.9 100 1113

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. List of countries included in note to Figure 1. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1.

 

Table 8: Left-right self-placement and Support for UBI

Left-right self- placement Strongly against Against In favour Strongly in favour
Left 3.2 2.8 3.5 5.4
1 1 1.5 1.7 4.5
2 4.1 5 6 10.4
3 8.5 9.7 10.3 11.5
4 8.9 11.5 10.8 8.2
5 33.3 36.4 37.9 33
6 11 10.7 9.7 7.5
7 13.4 10.7 8.2 9
8 9.2 6.9 6.5 5.6
9 2.7 1.8 1.7 1.8
Right 4.6 2.9 3.6 3.2
Total 100 100 100 100
N= 3811.1 10966 14523 2783.2

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. List of countries included in note to Figure 1. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1.

Table 9: Trade union membership and support for UBI

Member of trade union or similar organisation No Yes, previously Yes, currently
Strongly against 11.1 10.4 13.7
Against 33.1 31.7 34.5
In favour 46.6 48.3 43.7
Strongly in favour 9.3 9.5 8.1
Total 100 100 100
N= 22827.2 9006.8 5076.7

Note: design and population weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. List of countries included in note to Figure 1. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1.

 

Table 10: trade union membership and support for UBI in different countries

Member of trade union or similar organisation, Yes, currently Strongly against Against In favour Strongly in favour Total favour
Slovenia 3.1 30.6 56.2 10 66.2
Finland 4.8 37.7 51.8 5.7 57.5
Belgium 7 35.8 50.4 6.8 57.2
Poland 10 33 54.7 2.3 57
Netherlands 7.8 36.6 47 8.6 55.6
Czech Republic 25.1 21.6 44.1 9.2 53.3
France 17.1 31.6 42.1 9.2 51.3
Ireland 13.5 35.3 42.8 8.4 51.2
Austria 14.4 36.4 32.7 16.5 49.2
United Kingdom 12.9 39.2 42.6 5.3 47.9
Estonia 5.5 47.2 40.7 6.6 47.3
Iceland 13.4 39.5 40.2 6.9 47.1
Germany 14.3 44.7 33.1 7.9 41
Switzerland 17.2 42.6 33.6 6.6 40.2
Sweden 35.4 28 31.2 5.5 36.7
Norway 17.3 50.5 28.7 3.5 32.2

Note: design weights have been applied to calculate these percentages. Source: ESS8-2016, edition 1.

The political future of UBI
While not without problems or detractors, the political feasibility of UBI should on the basis of this analysis not be ruled out. In many countries, support appears to be important. This is especially true among respondents with more precarious conditions such as those in temporary contracts or in unemployment, but more generally employees are also at the margin more supportive. The majority of respondents in several income groups appear favourable to UBI, and even pensioners – a key veto player in many welfare systems – are not overall strongly opposed to UBI. A coalition between centrist and left-leaning individuals seems most likely, but its feasibility will depend on whether most union members are also favourable in these countries.

Dr Tim Vlandas is Associate Professor in Political Economy at the University of Reading.

[1] This definition is taken from http://basicincome.org/basic-income/

[2] And in some ways even earlier, see: http://basicincome.org/basic-income/history/