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 Järvinen’s 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, 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.
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 Finlandpublish 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. Which is why I have to fly to Helsinki, then drive the five hours to meet him.
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