Covering All the Basics

British Columbia channels the Social Guarantee

An intriguing trio of leading thinkers - Adam Smith (1759), Chief Joseph Gosnell of Canada’s Nisga’a Nation (2003) and Elizabeth Anderson (2017) - are cited in support of findings from British Columbia’s Expert Panel on Basic Income, now available online. The 500-page report offers strong support for many of the ideas underpinning the Social Guarantee.

Charged with testing the viability of basic income as a way of reducing poverty and achieving a ‘more just society’, the panel concludes that ‘moving to a system constructed around a basic income for all as its main pillar is not the most just policy option’. It takes the view that people’s needs are ‘too diverse to be effectively answered simply with a cheque from the government’ and instead recommends ‘generally available basic services addressing unmet basic needs’.

The panel explains that it was guided by Adam Smith’s vision of mutual dependence and reciprocal assistance so that ‘society flourishes and is happy’, by Chief Gosnell’s principle that since ‘everyone relies on the same resources and community, all must contribute’ so that ‘no one is left behind’ and by Anderson’s framing of what we owe each other as fellow citizens: ‘the rights, institutions, social norms, public goods, and private resources that people need to avoid oppression (social exclusion, violence, exploitation, and so forth) and to exercise the capabilities necessary for functioning as equal citizens in a democratic state.’

A basic income is considered ‘a very costly approach to addressing any specific goal, such as poverty reduction’. Many advantages claimed by its protagonists are found to be ‘hard to substantiate’ while the policy goals implied by their claims can ‘be achieved as well or better with other approaches’.

The panel observes that, while ‘basic income emphasizes individual autonomy—an important characteristic of a just society’ it also ‘de-emphasizes other crucial characteristics of justice’ such as ‘community, social interactions, reciprocity, and dignity’, and implies a more individualistic approach ‘than the way we believe British Columbians see themselves’.

A basic income pilot is not warranted, finds the panel. Basic services should be combined with ‘targeted programmes that combine cash transfers with wrap-around social support’ for groups who need such assistance. It calls on government to support ‘a strong sense of mutual concern, striving to use the full set of tools at its disposal to balance the desire for individual autonomy and the need for community.’

Covering all the Basics: Reforms for a More Just Society

Final Report of the British Columbia Expert Panel on Basic Income

December 2020.

Ian Gough is Visiting Professor in Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion and an Associate of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, both at the London School of Economics.