Starting this week, the government in Finland is going to do something interesting. For two years, it will be giving free money — about $590 a month — to 2,000 unemployed Finns.
It’s an effort to test the theory of “basic income,” and also an attempt to try to streamline Finland’s social welfare system, where benefits vary depending on a person’s status and change whenever the status changes. The concept of basic income posits that paying people just for being alive will make sure that no one falls through the cracks. And the Finnish government also is hoping that the experiment will provide some evidence of just what unemployed people will do if they are given money with no strings attached. Proponents of basic income hope that the money spurs unemployed people to start their own businesses and be more entrepreneurial. The skeptics expect that the lucky 2,000 Finns will spend a lot of time on their couches, watching TV and eating junk food.
I’m not sure how the free money will affect the 2,000 recipients; predicting the reactions of individuals is never easy. I don’t think $590 a month is all that much money — for example, it’s about a third of what salespeople in Finland earn, according to this chart — but if Finland has a robust social safety net, as many northern European countries do, it might be enough to allow somebody to eke out a couch-bound, video game-oriented life with a roommate or two and some generous parents. It doesn’t seem like it would be enough money to allow people to start a business, learn a new trade, or do some of the other positive, poverty-ending things that some advocates are forecasting. My guess is that if the unemployed folks had the drive, moxie, and gumption to start a new business, for example, they probably wouldn’t be unemployed in the first place.
No, I think the more predictable response will come from the people who aren’t getting that $590 a month for the next two years. Somebody is paying the taxes that fund the “free money” pot, and I’m guessing they won’t exactly be happy to be paying somebody else to simply exist. And if even a portion of the 2,000 start their own businesses, some of the taxpayers no doubt will wonder why they didn’t get the free money that would allow them to pursue their dreams. When government is picking the lucky few, there is bound to be some resentment. Pretty soon you end up with a lot of people wanting that free money from the government, the government bowing to popular demand, and perhaps not enough people who are working and paying the taxes that provide the free money in the first place.
All of which begs the question: how could the “basic income” model be sustainable in the real world? Thanks to Finland, maybe we’re about to find out.