What if the right to an income was as basic as the right to vote?
In Australia you don't get money unless you work, or can prove you've been trying to find work or are disabled or jump through some other sort of hoop. At 65 you get the pension.
In Alaska every citizen gets $US2000 a year, no questions asked. It's a dividend from royalties from oil extracted in the Arctic Circle. In Kenya a $30 million trial is about to give 6000 citizens a basic income for 12 years to find out what difference it makes. An earlier trial found it lowered their stress hormones, improved their psychological health and cut their spending on alcohol and tobacco. A trial in Uganda found those who got automatic payments invested more in education and starting up their own businesses. Four years on they earned 40 per cent more than those who hadn't.
That shouldn't be surprising. Many of us who start up businesses or enrol in courses rely on the income of a partner or parent to make it possible. Those denied that support can't do it.
Yet in Australia we seem to believe that if we simply hand out money, people won't work. Social Services Minister Christian Porter revealed on Friday that in the past year 3000 Newstart recipients had turned down offers of employment – that's 3000, out of roughly half a million. Even if we can accept that most people on benefits actually do want to work (either in paid employment or in equally valuable voluntary caring roles) many of us still seem to feel there's something morally wrong in delinking rewards from work.
Yet if we are honest, those of us with good jobs should probably admit that we have them largely through luck and the accident of where we were born. Much of our income isn't the result of our own efforts, it's a dividend from our society – a dividend we deny those without those jobs.
Switzerland just had a referendum on providing each of its adults with a basic income of $3450 per month. It failed. Finland, Canada and the Netherlands are about to run trials. In Australia, and New Zealand where the idea is being promoted heavily, the basic income might be $12,000 per year – not enough to live on, but a fallback that would enable hard-up jobseekers to turn down potentially dangerous or illegal jobs such as prostitution.
Yes, it would also go to the most well-off, Gina Rinehart and James Packer among them. But that's how it is with rights – they're universal. And we already hand those well-off Australians benefits such as tax-free thresholds. If a basic income replaced the tax-free threshold and was extended to all of us, Rinehart and Packer would be no better off and the payments wouldn't be too expensive.
The French poet Victor Hugo famously proclaimed there was "nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come". As automation steadily eliminates even the kind of well-paid jobs most of us have always wanted, that time may be approaching.
Peter Martin is economics editor of The Age. This story first appeared on The Age.