The Dutch city of Utrecht wants to run a scientific experiment on its residents.

The researchers want to test a concept known as "basic income." Their hypothesis? People aren't all that bad.


Photo by FuFu Wolf/Flickr.

Basic income is "an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement," according to the Basic Income Earth Network, a global network focused on basic income research, education, and advocacy.

The idea is to cut out all the rules and complexity of systems like social security and create a stable socioeconomic floor — a minimum standard of living that's available to everyone, rich, poor, and in between — by simply giving money to people.

To some, it sounds like a fantastic idea. ("I'll vote right now!")


Others, especially those who are generally against government assistance programs, grow prickly at the thought. ("Free money? Try getting a job, leech!")

GIF from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

The Dutch researchers believe those fears are misguided. In the Netherlands, they say, current welfare policies do something they shouldn't: assume the worst of people.

Jacqueline Hartogs, a spokesperson for the alderman who oversees Utrecht's work and income programs, spoke with Business Insider about the idea:

"The current rules in welfare are bureaucratic and, in a way, based on mistrust. In our scientific experiment, we will approach people with less or no rules, to see whether they still make an effort."

Let's paint a quick picture to see why basic income is an idea at least worth exploring.

Imagine you're one of several dozen worker-shareholders at a technology start-up. Your company is doing something innovative (and doing it well) and has found its place in the market.

Then one day, you get bought out by a giant tech conglomerate and, overnight, your founders join the " three comma club," and you and dozens of worker bees become plain old millionaires — if you're lucky.

Photo by Jan Persiel/Flickr.

If you follow business or technology news, that probably sounds like a familiar scenario. On one hand, it is a fairly common story these days. Though finance geeks call them "unicorns," they've become a lot less rare or mythical than once upon a time.

On the other hand, deals like this are still only slightly more common than winning the lottery. This is a much larger hand. You can slap the entire world in its mostly poor face with this hand.

Technology is reducing the need for a human workforce.

And it's going to continue to do so as we find ways to make it more powerful.

"They took err jerrrbs!" Industrial robots spot weld BMW cars in a factory in Leipzig, Germany. Photo by BMW Werk Leipzig/Wikimedia Commons.

And that's the idea, right? Technology is supposed to make our lives easier. I'd argue that not having to work a job in order to meet our most basic human needs would make life immensely easier.

Technology. Making life easier.

I'd also argue that anyone who desires the perks and comforts of greater wealth will be motivated to work toward that goal.

The ironic thing is most people on earth don't even like their jobs. There's something plainly unsettling about an economy designed to make people unhappy.

But alas, the rules of the economy lag behind technology, and for the time being, financial security for most of us hinges on having jobs.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich explains why this doesn't make entire sense, citing a real-world example:

"[T]he model we're rushing toward is unlimited production by a handful, for consumption by the few able to afford it. The ratio of employees to customers is already dropping to mind-boggling lows.

When Facebook purchased the messaging company WhatsApp for $19 billion last year, WhatsApp had 55 employees serving 450 million customers. When more and more can be done by fewer and fewer people, profits go to an ever-smaller circle of executives and owner-investors. ...

This in turn will leave the rest of us with fewer well-paying jobs and less money to buy what can be produced, as we're pushed into the low-paying personal service sector of the economy."



Based on his views, I imagine Reich would think basic income is a great idea. He even proposes that, in the U.S., it could be paid for, not with higher income taxes, but with a percentage of the profits from all patents and trademarks, which have made some people very rich.

Basic income could solve growing income inequality and poverty in a world where technology makes jobs with living wages harder to come by.

Research by the International Labour Organization shows that, globally, wages are flatlining and more than 200 million people are unemployed. And the lack of a safety net, like basic income, is stoking the flames of social unrest.

The ironic thing is most people on earth don't even like their jobs. There's something plainly unsettling about an economy designed to make people unhappy.

GIF from "Office Space."

But does it have to be this way? There's no telling what sort of world-bettering creativity and innovation could be unleashed if masses of people were freed from working jobs they hate just to survive and have the free will to pursue the things they believe are most important.

"If development is about freedom, one should challenge sceptics to show a better way to expand it."

What better way to find out if basic income works than by actually testing it?

Plus, there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful. A 2013 UNICEF-funded basic income experiment in India resulted in higher economic activity, work, and entrepreneurship; and the socioeconomic boost was especially visible for women, seniors, and people with disabilities.

The researchers also found improved nutrition and health, school attendance and performance, and even sanitation.

A family in Orchha in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Photo by Rebecca Conway/AFP/Getty Images.

But there's more: Basic income was liberating in the most literal sense of the word, with some families being able to escape or make significant strides out of debt bondage.

"The primary value of a basic income would be its emancipatory effect," wrote Guy Standing, one of the researchers behind the UNICEF study. "If development is about freedom, one should challenge sceptics to show a better way to expand it."

A basic income experiment conducted almost 40 years ago in Canada produced amazing results, too. And today, countries like Finland and Switzerland are considering adopting basic income systems.

Let's hope Utrecht gets this experiment off the ground.

Because they wouldn't just be addressing a question of whether all Utrecht residents should have access to a basic and dignified standard of living. They'd also be demonstrating some truth about human integrity.

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