by Tim Vlandas
Why care about the politics of UBI?
The idea of giving a universal and unconditional income to everyone is not new, but it has recently attracted more attention during the covid-19 crisis. While there has been a long-standing debate in academic and policy making circles about the normative merits and economic effects of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), this does not tell us about the likelihood of a UBI being introduced.
Indeed, whether or not a UBI has any political future will be contingent on the ability of a large political coalition to support it in the democratic arena. This raises the question of why some individuals support UBI while others do not.
In a recent article, I investigate whether the expectations from a large literature in political economy focusing on individual preferences for existing welfare state benefits can also help us make sense of support for UBI in Europe.
What to expect?
One the one hand, traditional political cleavages could be expected to travel to the case of UBI. Indeed, UBI is a strongly decommodifying policy, allowing individuals to survive without working, and has the potential to add to the redistributive effectiveness of the welfare state.
If that is the case, we would expect that low income individuals facing high labour market risks should be most supportive. Similarly, younger and female respondents, who are typically less well-protected by existing welfare state institutions than others might see UBI as a more effective safety net.
On the other hand, there are several reasons why we might observe different cleavages for the case of UBI. First, this policy does not yet exist, raising questions about how individuals might perceive its costs and benefits. Second, its distributive and protective effects depend crucially on whether it replaces existing benefits and how it is financed. Thus, the net effects are a priori uncertain.
If this is true, we might expect the current beneficiaries of the welfare state, low income and individuals facing high risk of unemployment to be most opposed to UBI. The dilemma is especially acute for trade unions: protecting workers from the risk of unemployment would strengthen their bargaining power, but a UBI would also bypass many existing welfare state benefits and undermine participation in the labour market which constitute the core of trade union interests.
My empirical analysis examines variation in individual support for UBI across 21 European countries using the eighth wave of the European Social Survey (ESS). The results are partly consistent with the expectations of previous social policy and political economy literatures. Younger, low-income, left-leaning individuals and the unemployed are more likely to support a UBI.
Next, I also explore how support for UBI correlates with other social and political attitudes. My findings show that individuals with positive views of benefit recipients, and/or high trust in political institutions are also more supportive, while anti-immigration attitudes are associated with lower support.
Figure 1: Factors associated with individual level support for UBI
However, other results are not in line with expectations. First, the patterns across occupations is mixed. Second, male respondents appear slightly more supportive, contrary to what we would expect.
Third, trade union membership is also not statistically significant, consistent with the presence of contradictory effects: unions typically support new welfare state policies but they also have a key role in many existing welfare state schemes and may worry about individuals’ attachment to the labour market.
Finally, in the article I also attempt to account for cross-national variation in support. At the country level, support tends to be higher in two – partly related – scenario where the benefit system does not protect individuals effectively. First, countries where the activation of unemployment benefits, in the form of greater conditions for receipt of benefits and more sanction in cases of non-compliance, is associated with higher support for UBI. Second, support for UBI appear higher when unemployment benefits are less generous.
Why is this important for political economy of welfare state policies?
First, previous literature has already and extensively shown that self-interest is crucial to identify the conflict lines in the support for existing social policies. However, the distributional consequences of a basic income, a scheme that does not exist, are less clear than for other schemes that are already in place. This lower clarity in turn makes the basic income a hard case for self-interest to shape individual policy preferences because it should be more difficult for individuals to predict the likely net effects of a basic income on them. The fact that the expectations from this literature travel even to a scheme that does not yet exist is an important finding because it further demonstrates the explanatory power of self-interest for individual attitudes towards welfare state policies.
Second, the UBI represents a particularly relevant case on which to apply these theories for an additional reason related to its ideological ambiguity and the complexity of its possible effects. As a result of the latter, one cannot posit ex ante whether respondents see a UBI as a redistributive policy, partly because the net effects of a UBI would depend on its precise implementation, and partly because the scheme itself finds its origins among both protagonists and opponents of the welfare state. The empirical analysis shows that the scheme is seen as both redistributive and protective, since respondents with high labour market risks, low income, and/or of a left leaning persuasion support it.
What does this all mean for the political future of UBI?
Overall, these findings should give us cause for optimism when it comes to the level of support, but pessimism when it comes to the political feasibility of mobilising this support effectively.
With the increase in the share of the population facing low income, labour market risks and precariousness, we can expect a growing pro-UBI coalition. Equally, if we look at the evolution of welfare state policies over time in Europe, we observe that unemployment benefits have been retrenched in many countries, while activation has tended to increase. Thus, the increasingly insufficient protective nature of existing welfare state policies may lead to higher support for UBI
However, these results also suggest one possible reason why even countries with large support for a UBI have not introduced it. The multiple conflict lines and the non-significant association between trade union membership and support for a UBI reveals a complex relationship between the Left and UBI.
Those who self-identify as left leaning are more supportive of a UBI, but there may be a split within the left camp. Trade union members are not unambiguous supporters, even though low-income workers and those with high labour market risks tend to be more favourable to a UBI. By contrast, the pro-immigration and pro-welfare attitudes associated with the libertarian left are correlated with support for a UBI.
Thus, left leaning UBI supporters may not be a sufficiently large group in the absence of clear support by parts of the left, most notably some union members. So a pro-UBI coalition has to draw on right-wing parts of the electorate.
One possible challenge for UBI advocates might then be that those who support a UBI on the Right may do so for quite different reasons: for instance, because they expect it to lead to limited tax increases and/or extensive replacement of welfare state benefits that are currently supported by parts of the Left.
In other words, the fact that a UBI can mean different things to different people may explain both the fairly high support for the scheme in some countries and the difficulty in finding a politically viable coalition to support its introduction when the financing of a UBI and its interaction with existing welfare state benefits have to be specified.
The wide political appeal of the UBI might also be its greatest weakness: because many people support a UBI for very different reasons, the basis of support are politically and ideologically fragmented and may therefore be irreconcilable.
This blog post is based on an article published in the Journal of European Social Policy.