Return to site

The Basic Income debate

January 6, 2016

What this debate was about
Replacing welfare benefits that are given only to people deemed to be most in need with a basic income that everybody would get, whatever their circumstances. The idea has been around for decades, but when it was announced at the end of last year that Finland would be trialling a universal income as one of several potential alternatives to its current benefits system, we saw more people talking about it on social media than ever before. This, combined with the controversy of the current government's welfare reforms right here in the UK, made us think that many Londoners would have something to say about this subject - and we were proved right by what was the second largest turnout we have ever had at a public debate. 
The speakers
We asked four members of our training programme, the Great Debaters Club, to volunteer to speak in this debate and then we decided which position they would take. The result was that few of the speakers actually believed the position they were defending, which is really important to us because we want our debates to help people question their own opinions by requiring them to take the other side.
None of them had any prior expertise in the subject, which is also important to us. This is because decisions like this that stand to affect so many people cannot be taken without broad public support and getting that means involving the public in debates like these and not freezing them out just because they are not experts. After all, expertise only get you so far. In this case, experts can tell you whether the policy will achieve its objectives, but they can't tell you whether we should prioritise greater financial freedom for the majority over protecting the welfare of the minority, a running theme of this debate. This is a decision that every society must make for itself through civic debate.
The audience
In an ideal world, public debates would only ever be judged on the merit of the speakers' arguments. However, it is not reasonable, nor realistic, to ask the audience to disregard their own personal opinions when they attend a debate. Instead, we ask them to declare where they stand on the issue before the debate starts, so we can at least measure how persuasive the speakers were when we take our final vote at the end. 
'Replace welfare benefits with a universal basic income'
The arguments
The results
'Replace welfare benefits with a universal basic income'
Who changed their mind and why
Our analysis
One of the dangers of public debate can be the reduction of a complex issue to a few simplistic arguments rooted in bias. In the universal income debate, that normally goes one of two ways: either people are opposed to subsidising someone else's decision not to work OR they object to giving 'free money' to rich people who don't need it.
We were lucky in this debate because the speakers genuinely considered the consequences of each others' divergent proposals. So, even though the opposition did protest giving Richard Branson £5,000 he clearly doesn't need, they qualified this by explaining that the government has only finite resources to distribute across all those who need it. As a result, giving a basic income to someone who didn't need it would directly take away from someone who did need it. This allowed the proposition team to explain that benefits for the most vulnerable would be protected, while savings made on the administration of the basic income would be reinvested into the system.
Unfortunately, it wasn't until the end that an audience member brought up other examples of universal benefits, such as the NHS in order to compare the merits of a universal benefits with means tested ones. If we had heard the speakers make this comparison and explore its relevance to this debate, there is a good chance more people would have been persuaded to reconsider their position.   
All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!