In an interview with BBC News, Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz warned that basic income (citizen’s income) should not be the current priority of the Government of Scotland.

On September 5, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Scottish Government would provide funding for basic income trials in the regions of Fife, Glasgow, North Ayrshire, and Edinburgh, where pilot studies of the policy had received the support of local authorities.

During October’s Inclusive Growth Conference, Sturgeon reaffirmed the government’s commitment to supporting trials of basic income, despite acknowledging that the policy might prove infeasible in the end:

Despite the fact that this has some critics, we are going to work with interested local authorities to fund research into the feasibility of a citizen’s basic income scheme.

I should stress our work on this is at a very early stage. It might turn out not to be the answer, it might turn out not to be feasible.

But as work and employment changes as rapidly as it is doing, I think it’s really important that we look and are prepared to be open-minded about the different ways in which we can support individuals to participate fully in the new economy [1].

Stiglitz, who has served as an economic advisor to the Scottish Government since 2012, believes that pursuing a basic income would represent misaligned priorities in light of Scotland’s fiscal constraints. Instead, the distinguished economist urges the government to prioritize benefits targeted to those who need them most, job creation to ensure a job to all who want one, and a livable income for all who work full-time.

When asked about the UK’s interest in basic income during an interview with the BBC’s Sunday Politics Scotland, he replied:

I think the point of a citizen’s income is that it recognizes rights of ordinary individuals–that supporting individuals, social protection, is not aimed at those who have been left behind, but is a basic part of our society.

But I do worry about two things. One, as you say, there are fiscal constraints. Should the scarce money be used to give everyone a basic amount, or should it be targeted at those who have particularly strong needs? I think there needs to be some targeting.

Secondly, over the long run, our responsibility as a society is to make sure that everybody who wants a job can get one. And the underlying problems of the lack of employment and lack of adequate pay–anybody who works full time ought to have a liveable income–those are the issues that, in the long run, we need to address.

Stiglitz has previously been hailed in the basic income community as one of a long Nobel-winning economists who have (reportedly) endorsed basic income. His presumed endorsement took place at the World Summit on Technological Unemployment in February 2015, when he was asked if he supported basic income as a policy response to technological unemployment, and replied “Yes, that’s part of the solution,” before going on to stress that basic income alone is not a complete solution.

In October 2016, Stiglitz again said that “the idea of a basic income is a good idea” in response to a question from Vox reporter Ezra Klein (“What you do think about a universal basic income in America?”). He added, however, that he had not yet made up his mind about the question of whether it is better to target limited resources to those most in need:

If you don’t have a lot of resources, isn’t it better to try to target the limited resources you have at those who really, really need it, the people who are disabled, the people who are elderly without other sources of income, a variety of people who are seriously disadvantaged. The problem with the universal basic income is that you give a flat amount to a large amount of people, and that means, because you have so many people, you can’t give as much as you would to help those who most need it.

He went to note that, “on the other side of the coin, those who most need it have difficulty in navigating the bureaucracy” — a problem that would be avoided by a basic income.

It appears, then, that Stiglitz has not changed his mind on basic income so much as determined that, in Scotland and the UK, fiscal constraints and the need for targeted benefits outweigh the advantages promised by universality.

Watch Stiglitz field a question basic income on Sunday Politics Scotland:


[1] Quoted in Tom Martin, “Sturgeon vows to press ahead with radical benefits overhaul, despite official warnings,” Express, October 21, 2017 (accessed October 27, 2017).

Photo: “Old Scotland” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Tatters ✾

About Kate McFarland

Kate McFarland has written 512 articles.

Former lead writer and editor of Basic Income News. Now with The Ecological Citizen.