In January, doctoral student Hyeon Su Seo from the Faculty of Management at the University of Tampere wrote an essay on the universal basic income experiment in Finland and published it via the online forum of the South Korean Tomorrow Research Institute.
In his essay, Seo reviews the key features of the Finnish Government’s basic income project in the broader context of Finland’s historical and political developments. The essay sheds light on the ways in which the current experiment is associated with the building of the welfare state and ongoing global changes.
The essay has aroused a lot of interest, which is to be expected because the experiment has been covered extensively by the South Korean media. For example, Seo has been asked why the amount of income in the experiment is 560 euros per month, why 2,000 unemployed 28–58-year-olds were randomly selected for the experiment and what Finns think about the experiment.
There is a clear reason for the interest. Even though South Korea is known for its gigantic technological enterprises, the country’s welfare development has not yet reached a very sustainable level. Since the late 1990s, when the country suffered a financial crisis, global neoliberal politics have resulted in a huge increase of inequality. Jobs are more often precarious and people’s incomes lag behind price trends. Poverty and suicide rates among the elderly have skyrocketed. Furthermore, younger people are hesitant to marry and have families: they are disillusioned and think that the country is heading towards dystopia.
“In this situation, some politicians have started to look for new answers. The Mayor of Seoul, for example, has supported a variation of the basic income experiment. Among the political parties, the Green Party in particular has adopted basic income as a main theme in their party programme. However, the Greens are such a small party in South Korea that it does not exert a lot of influence,” Seo says.
The concept of basic income has also aroused a lot of criticism in South Korea, so it may be very difficult to find feasible means to provide the financial resources required by the system or to form a political coalition that would support the issue. This is why Seo finds the Finnish model – in which the government has taken the initiative to carry out the experiment – so very interesting. According to him, it is also no coincidence that the experiment is being undertaken during the term of Juha Sipilä, a prime minister from the Centre Party.
“There is a historical context. When Finland started to build the welfare state in the 1920s, the largest parties were the Centre Party and Social Democrats. Whereas the Social Democrats have strongly supported employment-based and income-related social insurance, the Centre Party has favoured a more universal system in order to secure the interests of small farmers, forestry workers and rural populations. This is why the basic income agenda may sit well with Centre Party thinking,” Seo says.
Seo finds the Finnish experiment interesting, but somewhat conservative.
“In Finland, the most important themes around the basic income experiment seem to be decreasing the amount of red tape and providing incentives for people to re-enter working life. At the same time, theorists of participatory democracy such as Carole Pateman emphasise basic income as key to achieving democracy in future society. It would enable people to participate in public affairs in this new situation, whereas full engagement with society through employment is becoming increasingly hard,” Seo explains.
In the European context, basic income has been considered at least in the Netherlands and Switzerland.
According to Seo, none of the models could be applied in South Korea as such, and the experiment may not necessarily succeed in Finland.
“I am not sure if the model Finland is experimenting with is very suitable here. It has been criticised by various policy stakeholder groups and partly for good reason. However, something has been accomplished. Finland has at least now opened the ‘window of opportunity’ in the long journey to institutionalise basic income. That is why the experiment deserves closer examination,” Seo says.
Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall