Trials suggest it can liberate jobless people, says the Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty
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, with no strings attached. The cash is his to use as he wants. Who is his benefactor? The Helsinki government. The prelude to a thriller, perhaps, or some reality TV. But Juha Jrvinens story is ultimately more exciting. He is a human lab rat in an experiment that could help to shape the future of the west.
Last Christmas, Jrvinen 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. Its 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 doesnt taste like a reheat.
Yet hardly anyone knows what it might actually look like. For all the fuss, Finland is the first European country to launch a major dry run. It is not the purists UBI which would give everyone, even billionaires, a monthly sum. Nor will Finland 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 Jrvinen. Which is why I have to fly to Helsinki, then drive the five hours to meet him.
Ask Jrvinen 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.
None of this would have been possible before he received UBI. Until this year, Jrvinen was on dole money; the Finnish equivalent of the jobcentre was always on his case about job applications and training. Ideas flow out of Jrvinen 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.