The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Everyone Gets a Chicken – Mincome’s Counter-intuitive Effect

In one of Terry Pratchett’s marvellous ‘Discworld’ novels, a character promises his supporters that, if he comes to power, every household will receive a free chicken. I’m not sure if Mr Pratchett was aware (he probably was), but this isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds – it could have been lifted right out of any number of rousing speeches made by pretenders to various thrones in South and Central Asia in the last century or so. It speaks also to a fundamental function of any kind of government of any political persuasion: social welfare.

Over the years there have been a number of experiments, worldwide, testing the idea of providing citizens with an unconditional minimum income (mincome). There have been many variations in sample size, selection and implementation, but the basic idea remains the same. The government guarantees a minimum income level and will top up those who fall short of it in their own earnings. So, let’s say the mincome is $1000 per week and you earn $900. The government will give you $100.  If you earn $1000 you get nothing.

Sceptics predicted disastrous results. They pointed out that this kind of disbursement was tantamount to a disincentive to work and that the upshot would be an entire population sitting around watching daytime television while waiting for a cheque. Which seems to make sense – it’s very difficult indeed to poke holes in their logic. Largely because their conclusion is logical. But what it also is is limited.

The actual results of the various experiments showed no such trend. In the most famous example (Manitoba) there was a small drop off in labour participation for young males which, at the time, was presented as a catastrophic reduction in labour supply (Forget, The Town Without Poverty). The reality, however, was that this was pretty well entirely accounted for by a larger proportion of young men opting to continue their education, which has a positive impact on lifetime earnings (ibid.). Another problem with the Manitoba data is that it was never subjected to analysis, as changes in the political climate meant that dismissing the idea as ridiculous because ‘freeloaders’ became acceptable, and the experiment was de-funded and shut down without coming to any conclusions. Which is, if you like, a fairly good example of the kind of idiot tax we regularly pay for reactionary ideologies.

Fortunately, the experiment has also been trialled in different forms in India and parts of Europe (yes, Scandinavia, obviously…) and the general trend of results has been remarkably similar. I’ve bullet-pointed them below.

  • Minor drops in labour availability (continuing education) followed by significant drops in welfare participation
  • Significant improvement in health and wellbeing
  • Significant improvement in primary school test scores
  • Significant increases in individual earnings

Basically, it works. Guaranteeing a mincome frees people from existential anxieties and better equips them to do whatever it is that they want to do. And what that overwhelmingly proves to be is productive participation in society in some shape or form. There is always a hardcore of welfare recipients who do not want to participate in society (non-functional addicts, etc.) and those who cannot participate as much as they might like to (the disabled, the very elderly), and this is often pointed out as a negative. ‘Why give them a free ride?’ is the question most often asked. The thing is, though, we already do. Largely because we believe we should. Mincome or no, these people are still going to collect welfare. But with mincome, the number of other kinds of welfare recipient drops to nearly zero. So, in a weird, counter-intuitive way, offering more free money means having to pay out less.

And it’s not just welfare – the effects on health care spending seem also to be significant. Basically, poverty creates a situation where the poor do not engage with health care until they absolutely have to, which is expensive for any state that subsidises health. With a mincome, healthier lifestyles and earlier interventions become possible, meaning a potentially smaller health care spend overall.

On top of this, the cost of the whole project proved to be far from prohibitive. It’s difficult to quantify some of the savings (crime prevention, health care, mental health care, etc.), but the bill for implementing mincome was pretty similar to the bill for ordinary welfare programs in many of the experiments conducted. You’ll note, however, the prevaricative nature of my language. The problem here is that the data is very difficult to draw conclusions from due in some cases to the conduct of the experiment, and in other cases, to the experiments being incomplete. The South Asian experiments are riddled with scientific problems. The Manitoba experiment was interrupted by the moralising right. The current experiment in Utrecht only includes current welfare participants. This is extremely frustrating – it’s almost as if governments don’t want this idea to be properly tested in case it turns out to be as good as its early indications seem to promise. Like they’re afraid of having to try to sell it to an electorate, after generations of being elected on ‘tough on welfare’ platforms.

But why would this idea be so unpalatable to the electorate? Why is it that, immediately upon mentioning it to people, the reflex response is almost always extreme scepticism? I think it has to do with the long term conditioning of the way in which we think about welfare. We think it’s about providing a safety net for the weak and feckless. This means that a habit of stigmatising, patrolling and punishing recipients of welfare, or, to put it in more human terms, ‘keeping those bastard dole-bludgers honest’, is intrinsic to the way in which we view state welfare. It’s a disturbing insight into  the soul of the modern polity.

Basically, the main reason we don’t think mincome can work is because we believe that the human race is made up mainly of lazy, feckless opportunists who will take a mile from every grudgingly ceded inch. So what do you believe? Do you believe that human beings are:

a) Basically good and imbued with a wish to participate and contribute?

or

b) Grubby malcontents who will take everything they can get and give nothing in return?

At the moment, most data would suggest that option ‘a’ is the correct one. So why are so many of us convinced that it’s option ‘b’? Why can’t we get our heads around the idea that the world would be a much better place if we just gave everyone a chicken?

Category: Politics

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