In a speck of a village deep in the Finnish countryside, a man gets money for free. Each month, almost €560 (Dh2,387) is dropped into his bank account, with no strings attached. The cash is his to use as he wants. Who is his benefactor? The Helsinki government. The prelude to a thriller, perhaps, or some reality TV. But Juha Jarvinen’s story is ultimately more exciting. He is a human lab rat in an experiment that could help to shape the future of the West.
Last Christmas, Jarvinen was selected by the state as one of 2,000 unemployed people for a trial of universal basic income (UBI). You may have heard of UBI, or the policy of literally giving people money for nothing. It’s an idea that lights up the brains of both radical leftists — John McDonnell and Bernie Sanders — and Silicon Valley plutocrats such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. And in the long slump that has followed the banking crash, it is one of the few alternatives put forward that doesn’t taste like a reheat.
Yet, hardly anyone knows what it might actually look like. For all the fuss, Finland is the first European country to launch a major dry run. It is not the purists’ UBI — which would give everyone, even billionaires, a monthly sum. Nor will Finland publish any results until the two-year pilot is over at the end of 2018. In the meantime, we rely on the testimony of participants such as Jarvinen. Which is why I have to fly to Helsinki, then drive the five hours to meet him.
Ask Jarvinen what difference money for nothing has made to his life, and you are marched over to his workshop. Inside is film-making equipment, a blackboard on which is scrawled plans for an artists’ version of Airbnb, and an entire little room where he makes shaman drums that sell for up to €900. All this while helping to bring up six children. All those free euros have driven him to work harder than ever. None of this would have been possible before he received UBI. Until this year, Jarvinen was on dole money; the Finnish equivalent of the job centre was always on his case about job applications and training. Ideas flow out of Jarvinen as easily as water from a tap, yet he could exercise none of his initiative for fear of arousing bureaucratic scrutiny.
In one talked-about case last year, an unemployed Finn called Christian was caught carving and selling wooden guitar plectrums. It was more pastime than business, earning him a little more than €2,000 in a year. But the sum was not what angered the authorities, it was the thought that each plectrum had taken up time that could have been spent on official hoop-jumping. That was Jarvinen, too, until this year. Just as with so many Britons on social security, he was trapped in a “humiliating” system that gave him barely enough to feed himself, while refusing him even a glimmer of a hope of fulfilment.
So what accounted for his change? Certainly not the UBI money. In Finland, €560 is less than a fifth of average private-sector income. “You have to be a magician to survive on such money,” Jarvinen says. Over and over, he baldly describes himself as “poor”.
His liberation came in the lack of conditions attached to the money. If they so wish, Finns on UBI can bank the cash and do nothing else. But, in Jarvinen’s case at least, the sum has removed the fear of utter destitution, freeing him to do work he finds meaningful.
It sounds simple. It is simple. But to this visitor from Austerity Britain, with its inglorious panopoly of welfare scandals stretching from universal credit to Concentrix to Atos, it was almost fantastical.
This UBI trial was introduced by a centre-right government that is bringing in its own version of austerity, including big cuts to benefits and schools. Yet, try as I might to imagine British Prime Minister Theresa May or Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond allowing even loose change to be given to the poor with no questions, I still draw a blank.
I visit Finland’s equivalent of Iain Duncan Smith (IDS), the Social Affairs Minister Pirkko Mattila. A recent escapee from the populist True Finns, she carries no discernible hippy tendencies — not a whiff of joss stick. Yet, she seems genuinely bemused that there could be any political resistance to handing poor people some money to sit at home. “I personally believe that in Finland citizens really want to work,” she says.
What this underlines is how debased Britain’s welfare politics have become compared with much of the rest of Europe. Blame Tory austerity, or New Labour’s workfare, or Thatcherism’s trite exhortations to get on your bike — but we have ended up with a system shot through by two toxic beliefs.
One, that poverty is the product of personal moral failure. For the former British chancellor George Osborne, it was about skivers v strivers. For IDS, poverty was the rotten fruit of broken families, addiction or debt. Neither man, nor the rest of their party, can accept what their right-wing counterparts in Finland do: that poverty is no more than a lack of money.
What flows from that is the second bogus British belief: The idea that social security isn’t a safety net for all, but a cash-starved and demoralised triage system for the lazy and feckless right at the bottom.
Treating the poor as criminals in the making places welfare as an adjunct to the criminal justice system. It means declaring dying people as fit for work. It leaves disabled people living in mortal fear of their next Esa or Pip assessment; jobless people being sanctioned for no good reason. And it is all next to useless. Bureaucracy and costs are displaced everywhere from the National Health Service to local councils to citizens advice bureaux. The British government has, on its own assessments, failed to make a fraction of its proposed savings from reforming disability benefits. Think about all those ordinary people’s lives ripped up and ruined — and barely a penny saved.
If that was the philosophy of the Finns, they would never have got this experiment off the ground, and Jarvinen would not now be dreaming up dozens of schemes.
Go to Finland for answers on universal basic income, by all means. But be prepared to come back with even more questions about why Britain abuses its poor.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Aditya Chakrabortty is senior economics commentator for the Guardian.