Basic Income and migration

My seeing the relevance of a Basic, Citizens’ Income where no one else does is no longer a joke. It really should be part of the migration debate.

We are witnessing the biggest movement of populations since the end of world war 2. At worst it is due to realistic fear of death or persecution. A distinction is normally made between these ‘refugees’, and ‘economic migrants’ who are merely living in grinding poverty, but who have a very clear awareness of prosperity elsewhere.

All sides agree on the scale of the problem. The right wing response is that we dare not show any vestige of humanity lest we encourage the problem to get even worse. I believe similar arguments were heard during the Irish potato famine. But one driver of anti-immigrant attitudes is insecurity. UKIP’s electoral successes are due not to Europe per se, but to their promise to halt migration. If that were possible, the Conservatives would have done it, but that UKIP’s promise cannot be fulfilled is beside the point. Leaving Europe will not affect the factors driving migration or illegal methods. UKIP support shows the limits of a humane answer to this gigantic problem.

Objectively, of course the rich countries could cope with far more than they now dare accept, though comparisons with the 1939 Kinder Transport overlook the fact that the populations now seeking to escape poverty or worse have expanded rather faster than those of the host nations.

In the absence of anything more positive, what happens will not be due to policy. There will be more deaths on the way, but already in Germany, arson attacks on hostels for migrants are an intermittent feature.

If there is to be a solution to this impasse, we must start from a totally different point. Once upon a time, all human populations were where they were because there were sufficient resources. Anthropologists have demonstrated that for many millennia hunter gatherers enjoyed an affluent society, with 15 hours work per week sufficient for their needs.

To cut short the story of why this came to an end, populations were rising, albeit slowly, so that in some areas tribes were forced to the desperate, laborious practice of growing food, and  looking after animals instead of just hunting  them. Eventually this allowed their populations to continue growing. It was much harder work, but it gave them an advantage over tribes which remained as hunter gatherers, so that eventually the latter only remained in areas where agriculture was not practicable.

All this was a long time ago, but there is one element hunter gatherers could take for granted. We can and must urgently reinstate a guarantee of basic needs for everyone, everywhere. This may seem preposterous to many, and admittedly there are several problems to be overcome. It has even been suggested to me that one effect would be to make migration easier. But migrants do not lightly tear themselves away from their roots. There could be a warning that the scheme would have to be terminated if that did happen. There is an immediate major problem that the countries which need help most desperately, notably Syria, are the last places where this could be tried. That may have to wait in the short, possibly in the medium term, until the principle has been show to work elsewhere.

But two aspects which must be addressed are work, and population. In an affluent developed nation the persistent jibe  “No one would work” is the opposite of what will happen. Means testing failed to deter all but a tiny minority from finding work, until jobs became scarce. As I explain in other blog posts, the only satisfactory way to remove that disincentive is to give everyone a Basic Income, and recover it through the tax system. But the dynamics in countries from which economic migration is a feature are very different. However the examples in India and Namibia suggest that on the contrary, a Basic Income tends to facilitate entrepreneurship rather than idleness. I discuss some aspects in more detail in my blog post on 2.8.2015, which was in response to the attempted mass breakout by migrants at Calais.

In rich countries, population has tended to stabilize, once people have confidence that two children will reach adulthood, and help with contraception is readily available – and culturally acceptable. This cannot be taken for granted in poor countries. There will have to be help with family limitation, to give people the same expectations. Cultural norms can change. Brazil and Bangladesh have already bucked the trend towards large families. In Brazil, this seems to have been the completely unintended consequence of a TV soap series! (Thank you, Karin Kuhlemann, of Population Matters, for this revelation.)

Just as the Basic income will cost the better off individuals within one country more than they pay in tax now, in the same way, the rich nations will have to subsidize both the Basic Income, and the help infrastructure. But also as within one country, the rich nations will remain far richer than the beneficiaries. There are many countries in dire poverty where a Basic Income could work, as demonstrated by the small scale examples in India and Namibia, though the population aspect is not yet a factor. Once it has succeeded, anywhere, the idea will spread. Eventually, it will even make sense in Syria.

Until we try, we shall not know whether an inducement to stay where they are will work. If it is not tried, I fear the de facto answers to the migration crisis will not be pleasant.


3 responses to “Basic Income and migration

    • I don’t know whether I have managed to sign the petition or not. A bit too much of an intelligence test. It said I had not signed until I clicked on the email link, but there wasn’t any way back.But the number of signatories had gone up by one when I tried again.

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