Today the Social Prosperity Network at UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity publish their first papers on Universal Basic Services.
Robots, automation, ageing, social care, and a housing crisis are all taking their toll on our creaking old social security system, and these pressures will only increase in the coming decade.
Combine those conditions with climate instability and pressure on budgets and you have a perfect storm developing that threatens the cohesion of our societies.
How are we going to adapt? Is some form of universal safety net going to be needed? If so, does that take the form of an income or a collection of services, or both?
These are the questions addressed by the Social Prosperity Network, and this first output provides an introduction to the concept of Universal Basic Services which they are researching as a possible solution. The Social Prosperity Network is looking at models for social welfare in this new century: sustainably delivering the necessity of social cohesion, while also preserving the motivations necessary for successful specialisation.
Jonathan Portes’ paper discusses the failure of various policy approaches over the last 30 years to make sufficient progress in delivering the balanced society we aspire to, and which we will need to navigate the challenges looming ahead of us now.
As Jonathan describes, the UK has been through pendulum swings characterised by emphasis on the promotion of specialisation (1980s) and the re-emphasis of social cohesion (2000s). While it is not possible to define either as complete failures – partly because they did attend to one or other of the essentials for success, and partly because our democracy allowed an excess in one direction to be corrected through transition to a different government – neither can claim to have been successful either, and since 2008 progress has stagnated further. Looking at the chart on the first page of Jonathan’s paper tells us that there was no alchemy achieved in the Reagan/Thatcher “individual consumer” revolution, nor in the Clinton/Blair consensus that social cohesion would emerge from a “redistribution + skills” agenda funded from the spoils from a financialised economy.
Evidently we need a new vision that achieves a better balance between cohesion and specialisation. One that accepts the inevitable march of technology and demographics, and still provides both the essentials for social safety and honours the requirement for individual motivation.
The safety net of a modern society must be just as modern as its economy. And universally available public services have the potential to provide the flexible, need specific, and responsive support that could replace much of conditional benefits, while also preserving the value of remuneration, conforming with public attitudes, and building social institutional fabric at the same time.
An economy that leverages technology enables the micro-customisation of services, fostering the efficiency we will need to deliver effective social support within the constraints of public expenditure. But such an economy also requires a commensurately more flexible and effective support system than conditional benefits can achieve.
It cannot be sufficient to excuse hungry school children or an uncared-for elderly population with a notion of “unaffordability” in a society that is as rich as any that has ever existed.
A “larger life for the ordinary person”, described by Prof. Roberto Unger as the core purpose of progress and the key role for government, fits with our view of the meaning of “social prosperity”. And we believe that the extension of universally accessible services to purposefully include components that enable citizens to live a larger life is the path to our greater prosperity.