By Robert Hickson 08/11/2017

We’re gonna’ need a bigger band wagon. Faced with predictions of mass unemployment due to increasing automation calls to implement a universal basic income have been growing. This involves giving everyone an income regardless of whether they work or not.

Though it is getting a less favourable welcome in Australia, because of what it may cost and its effectiveness.

The International Monetary Fund thinks it may be feasible in some countries but not others. Several trials are underway to see if it achieves what it is supposed to, so it isn’t something to rush into.

The assumptions being made about mass unemployment also need to be looked at closely, as I’ve noted previously.

Nicolas Colin makes excellent points about not seeing the universal basic income as a simple and effective solution. He acknowledges that increasing automation may make unemployment worse, but disdains the “Silicon Valley engineering” solution of a “simple” basic income. He points out that politics will get in the way, and reminds us of the wise words of former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who warned of the dangers of policies that create a “them” and “us” distinction in society.

Nicolas suggests that a more fundamental change to social policy is required, rather than a quick fix income scheme. The existing system, here and elsewhere, was developed for the 20th Century industrial society. A single income tinker won’t do for the rest of this century.

He advocates for an approach along the lines of that adopted by the Danes – flexicurity. Their approach has been to reduce the risks of change. Making it easier for people to change or train for new jobs, while not losing their social support such as healthcare. In many respects it has worked quite well so far, although it isn’t without a downside.

Colin suggests this approach isn’t about the state addressing market failures, but the state working with the market to create a more flexible, and innovative workforce.

“By assuming public responsibility for the mitigation of certain basic kinds of risk—by dealing with health care, say, not at the level of an individual or a company but rather at the level of society as a whole—such an activist approach actually fosters a more fluid and entrepreneurial economy, with all the benefits that flow from that.”


A critical factor for it to work is for dialogue and agreement between government, industry groups and worker representatives, so it’s not as simple approach as creating a UBI.

In New Zealand we have some experience with such consensus decision making – in principle at least if not always in practice. So more thinking about and testing that type of approach is warranted.

Flexicurity may not be the right solution, but he is right to encourage us to look more broadly at the issues and potential solutions. There is common agreement that the world has changed.

Nicolas also makes the point that it may take a fight rather than a think piece (or tweet)to get change. Referring to the welfare changes of last century he noted:

“What the labor movement demanded was not that the government preserve the old social order. It demanded a radical effort in innovation—the building of radically new institutions.

But a fight is needed to build institutions, and I still don’t see today’s equivalents of workers and employers in the hypothetical fight around basic income.”


That last sentence is echoed in a review in The New Yorker,  which notes the declining effectiveness of protests (at least in the US). Some see protests over the last few decades as going from “politics to pastime”

“… the movements that succeed are actually proto-institutional: highly organized; strategically flexible, due to sinewy management structures; and chummy with the sorts of people we now call élites.”


So, some 20th Century strategies and tactics may still be useful for addressing 21st Century problems. We just have to work at it.


Featured photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash