Basic income is needed to underpin a fairer society

By Jamie Cooke

The year 2020 has demonstrated why the expression “May you live in interesting times” is seen as a curse. As the world reeled under the loss of life, economic impacts and the removal of opportunities many of us have taken for granted, the desire to move back to more stable times has appeared attractive.

Yet the chaos we continue to live through also offers us a chance to reimagine the world we live in — to challenge the dominant presumptions we entered the pandemic with, and to implement new policies to ensure we build forward better.

One of the key ideas that I believe can underpin a fairer, more secure social contract for the post-COVID world is basic income — a deceptively simple, yet effective idea of providing each individual with a regular, secure and unconditional cash payment. An old idea, it had already been gaining traction before the pandemic struck — COVID-19 has hurtled it to the top of the policy agenda across the world, with our Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, describing it as “an idea whose time has come.” Canada has been a leading light within that global discussion — I’ve written previously in this publication about the bravery and creativity of those who participated in the Ontario Basic Income trials; and more recently there have been calls for basic income on both a federal and provincial level in Canada.

Jamie Cooke
Jamie Cooke, Head of the Royal Scottish Academy in Scotland and a leading basic income advocate

Basic income has developed this momentum because the pandemic has highlighted fundamental flaws in prevailing economic and social systems. Insecure jobs have forced people to keep working even when medical advice is to stay at home, particularly as highly conditional social security and welfare systems (with far too many rules to be fair) have left them with little recourse to state-level support. Inequality has been painfully obvious on a national level, where the impacts of COVID-19 have been most stark for deprived and excluded communities, and globally in the hoarding of vaccines by richer countries. The undermining of collective support within the economy, particularly in the diminished position of trade unions, has left workers vulnerable.

This pandemic has been a horrendous loss of life and minimizing further loss must be our priority. However, a crisis also offers an opportunity for real change, if we are brave enough to seize it. That change should be rooted in collaboration — bringing together communities, trade unions, business and wider civic society as a coalition for progress. It offers us a chance to reinvigorate our strained social contracts in a new sense of trust and connectivity, reflecting the powerful empathy and sacrifice we have witnessed from our communities during this crisis, and rooted in an economy that places well-being at its heart.

As a Scot, my affinity and connection to Canada is a natural one. COVID-19 has shown that we are all facing the same storms together, even if our boats may be different. As we look to create a new, fairer world, with a basic income at its foundation, the link between our two nations, and the people who comprise them, will be powerful— and I, for one, can’t wait to see where that will take us as we build forward from these interesting times.

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