Advancing universalism in neoliberal times? Basic income, flat-rate entitlements and the politics of conditionality

Stream: Basic income, policy experiments and the competition state
Date: Monday, 9 September 2019
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.10 pm


Proposals for a Universal Basic Income express a complex relationship to neoliberal reform. Advocates of Basic Income span the spectrum of economic philosophies, and some of the most promising attempts to introduce the proposal were championed by prominent economic liberals. This paper examines Basic Income against more conventional frameworks for evaluating the welfare state. This focus highlights a potential tension between the universalist ambitions of the proposal and its structure as a flat-rate benefit.

The paper reflects on the shifting definitions of universalism through the welfare reform experience of the Antipodes, and especially Australia as a foil to contextualise the recent Finnish trial. The Antipodes have previously been identified as combining a focus on flat-rate and means-tested benefits with a politics of genuine universalism. Reforms in these countries have seen both the expansion of workfare for the unemployed alongside significant increases in highly redistributive and non-stigmatised welfare payments. Focusing on reforms to family benefits and unemployment benefits, the paper argues feminist social movement pressures intersected with a pro-competition state to produce a more inclusive form of means-testing, called affluence-testing, which proved politically robust to workfare reforms despite subsequent movement decline. Returning to recent experiments in Finland, it argues the Australian experience can help us understand the relationship between basic income as a utopian political project and as a model of technocratic experimentation, suggesting both opportunities and dangers for advocates of equality.


Ben Spies-Butcher (Presenter), Macquarie University
Ben Spies-Butcher is Associate Professor and Head of Department at the Sociology Department, Macquarie University. He has a PhD in Political Economy from the University of Sydney and his work focuses on the politics and economics of the welfare state. Ben is a Research Associate at the Retirement Policy and Research Centre at the University of Auckland. His most recent co-authored book is Market Society published by Cambridge University Press.