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January 14, 2020

Universal services

When Labour published its manifesto for December’s General Election, one of the commitments that caught the eye of the commentariat was the promise of free broadband for everyone. Given the extent to which the internet has become so intensely marketised, the notion that everyone might be provided with high speed broadband free of charge seemed utterly implausible. And yet we have come to accept that healthcare and education should be provided free at the point of delivery. So why not other basic services as well?  Why not indeed.

The idea of Universal Basic Services (UBS) was only coined in 2017, but has been taken up unusually quickly. It’s given a name to something people were already aspiring to. The Labour Party have taken it the furthest, adopting it as a pillar of their economic thinking at their conference this year. Though their manifesto doesn’t use the term, it’s there in the ideas of free bus travel for under 25s or universal free broadband access.

I’ve explored the idea in this previous post, and that’s where I raised some questions about it too. Is this just riding on the interest in a Universal Basic Income to justify government spending? Do we want the state running the buses and the broadband? I wanted more detail, and that is helpfully provided by Anna Coote and Andrew Percy’s new book, The Case for Universal Basic Services.

It’s not a long book – 134 pages until you hit the notes. It explains basic services and why they are needed. Then it goes on to explain how it would work and how it could be rolled out. The book is written in admirably plain English, making it a fine introduction to a potentially important idea.

Basic government services already exist. In Britain we get our education for free, and healthcare for free. Police and emergency services are free. But what else should we consider basic? In the connected 21st century, should internet access be considered basic? What about access to travel? Or childcare? The UBS approach invites us to work out what we might consider “everyday essentials that everybody neess to live a decent life”, and then pool our funds so that they are “available and affordable for everyone.”

It’s important to note that affordability and accessibility are the main thing here. It doesn’t mean that everything necessarily has to be free of charge. The book considers housing, and there’s no discussion of the government building free houses for everyone. But it shouldn’t be beyond us, in a wealthy nation, to make sure that everybody has an affordable and comfortable home. The same goes for childcare. Couples in Britain who rely on childcare for both of them to work typically spend a third of their income on childcare. That means only those in highly paid jobs can consider it. A UBS approach would mean that anybody who wanted to work and needed childcare would be able to get it at a price that they could afford.

This doesn’t always mean state provision either. The book mentions things like housing co-ops, the model used in Denmark and that I wrote about recently with the LILAC project. UBS would call on a wide ecosystem of community owned enterprises, charities, businesses, mutuals, etc to deliver its services.

As the book describes, organising things collectively lowers costs. People get more for their money if services are provided universally than if we all had to pay for everything individually. That makes UBS, in the authors estimation, better than a Universal Basic Income. It also addresses inequality better, since those on lower incomes would benefit more, whereas a basic income goes to everybody whether they need it or not.

One thing I like about UBS is that it is preventative. Too often government spending goes to patching up things that have been broken elsewhere. The housing market fails the poorest, and government housing benefit steps in. Companies pay low wages, and the state tops them up. UBS gets ahead of the issues. By making sure that all children get a good start in life through generous childcare, you cut off all sorts of future costs in policing or healthcare. If everyone has a decent home, you ultimately save on all the damage caused by cold and unhealthy homes. This kind of preventative ethic is a big theme of my book The Economics of Arrival, and an updated edition would have to include something on Universal Basic Services.

Finally, one of the best things about UBS is that all the various bits of it are already done somewhere in the world. They’re just not usuall all in one place. Lithuania has universal free broadband and it’s the best in Europe. Estonia has free bus transport. The Scandinavian countries prioritise childcare. In that sense UBS isn’t revolutionary. It’s a new articulation of how wealthy countries could make the best use of their wealth, and create inclusive economies that benefit everybody. I’d vote for that.