Finland may hold answers to the most talked about question economists are asking today: the question of universal basic income and its effects on society, economy and citizens. And if Finland pulls this off, the entire world might change for the better. But if they fail – economists are going to have a field day. So what’s it going to be?
Well, in a speck of a village deep in the Finnish countryside, a man gets money for free. Each month, almost €560 (£500) is dropped into his bank account, no tricks, no clauses, free money in the true sense of the word. He can do with it as he pleases. The benefactor? The Helsinki government. Might sound like the beginning of a dystopian future movie, but Juha Järvinen’s story is ultimately more exciting. This Finn is the lab rat in an experiment that could help to shape the future of the west.
Last Christmas, Järvinen was selected by the state as one of 2,000 unemployed people for a trial of universal basic income. You may have heard of UBI, or the policy of literally giving people money for nothing. It’s an idea that lights up the brains of both radical leftists – John McDonnell and Bernie Sanders – and Silicon Valley plutocrats such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. And in the long slump that has followed the banking crash, it is one of the few alternatives put forward that doesn’t taste like a reheat.
Finland is the first European country to launch a major dry run.They will not publish any results until the two-year pilot is over at the end of 2018. In the meantime, we rely on the testimony of participants such as Järvinen.
Ask Järvinen what difference money for nothing has made to his life, and you are marched over to his workshop. Inside is film-making equipment, a blackboard on which is scrawled plans for an artists’ version of Airbnb, and an entire little room where he makes shaman drums that sell for up to €900. All this while helping to bring up six children. All those free euros have driven him to work harder than ever.
Until this year, Järvinen was on dole money and as such he was neither a good spender nor a good taxpayer, which economists know can spiral out of control if a lot of the population suffers from that. It’s exactly how crises are made.
The Finnish equivalent of the jobcentre was always on his case about job applications and training. Ideas flow out of Järvinen as easily as water from a tap, yet he could exercise none of his initiative for fear of arousing bureaucratic scrutiny.
In one talked-about case last year, an unemployed Finn called Christian was caught carving and selling wooden guitar plectrums. It was more pastime than business, earning him a little more than €2,000 in a year. But the sum was not what angered the authorities, it was the thought that each plectrum had taken up time that could have been spent on official hoop-jumping.
That was Järvinen, too, until this year. Just as with so many Britons on social security, he was trapped in a “humiliating” system that gave him barely enough to feed himself, while refusing him even a glimmer of a hope of fulfilment.
So what accounted for his change? Certainly not the UBI money. In Finland, €560 is less than a fifth of average private-sector income. “You have to be a magician to survive on such money,” Järvinen says. Over and over, he baldly describes himself as “poor”.
His liberation came in the lack of conditions attached to the money. If they so wish, Finns on UBI can bank the cash and do nothing else. But, in Järvinen’s case at least, the sum has removed the fear of utter destitution, freeing him to do work he finds meaningful.
It sounds simple. It is simple. But to this visitor from Austerity Britain, with its inglorious panoply of welfare scandals stretching from universal credit to Concentrix to Atos, it was almost fantastical.