Some thoughts on basic income

Finland is a strange country. Here, governments may start a policy experiment, but later decide that it was not an experiment at all. This is illustrated, for example, by the future transfer of employment services to municipalities. The government started experiments in this area, but decided that the results of the experiments were not important as such. The decision to transfer the services had already been taken. So why even experiment? After all, most of the municipalities are already involved in the experiment and therefore already implementing the transfer. This is typical of Finnish politics: it lacks any coherence and scientific approach.

However, this time I am not going to write about this still somewhat unfinished process. I want to highlight another experiment that Finland, in all its wisdom, decided to screw up. This is, of course, an experiment in social security reform to explore the possibilities of basic income. The media and policy makers around the world were interested, but perhaps didn’t realise (or didn’t want to realise) how incompetent the research setup actually was. I will therefore briefly check out Heikki Hiilamo’s text on the subject, with a few views of my own. I highly recommend you read Hiilamo’s article, as I will only take a few examples from it here. It contains a great deal of information on how the basic income experiment was implemented and how the different stages of the experiment proceeded, including the ”aftercare”.

Hiilamo writes how there seemed to be no real political interest in Finland in relation to basic income. The scientific analysis of the issue was further complicated by the fact that, at the same time as the experiment was underway, the Sipilä’s government decided to introduce tougher sanctions for the unemployed. Hiilamo also reminds us that such experiments are not always necessarily intended as the basis for any real political change. It is more about sending a signal to supporters. On the other hand, the Finnish social security system is not so different from the basic income system as in many other countries. Moreover, there is broad cross party support for the conditionality element of the system. 

Personally, I wonder whether the whole purpose of the experiment was even really to test basic income. Perhaps it was really just a gimmick without any deeper political dimension. After all, basic income should not be tried as it was experimented in Finland, by restricting it to a very small group. It should be aimed at all kinds of people. Why? The purpose of basic income is not just to reform social security, but to find a new stable compromise between labour and capital. But for one reason or another, the politicians of our time do not understand the importance of this relationship between labour and capital. Not even when they talk so eloquently about the old compromise between them: the welfare state. Or perhaps they understand all too well. On the other hand, one should never declare it an evil, which can be explained by stupidity. However, one cannot help but wonder how, time and again, the main point of the matter seems to fly over the heads. What complicates and confuses matters further is that you would think that both the left and the right would be willing to find this new compromise. Otherwise, society risks rotting away as capital cannibalises its own base. 

But what did we get out of the experiment? Even if we did not see a great success in terms of employment policy, on the other hand, the well-being of the people who took part in the experiment increased and social trust was boosted. Moreover, the experiment proved that groups who have difficulties in finding employment anyway (such as the long-term unemployed) do not necessarily experience these difficulties because of bureaucracy. However, I personally doubt that the results are partly tainted if one wants to draw conclusions about the social relevance of basic income. It is very strange to study its effects when it has been reduced to a simple labour market subsidy and not treated as a genuine reform. The real question should be: was this an experiment with a basic income at all, or just a new kind of unemployment benefit?