Advantages and obstacles
In my recent studies I dealt with today’s global supply chains, which rely on cheap labour in some countries to offer products for almost nothing in others. The big topic of inequality was too often hidden beneath the surface of the discussions I had with my peers about the broad range of topics covering labour unions and labour conditions or misbehaviour at the workplace.
Acknowledging that something is wrong is in my perspective only the starting point for imagining how else it could be (and in turn trying to change things for the better). That mindset made me engage with the topic of Universal Basic Income (UBI, also sometimes referred to as Unconditional Basic Income). I asked myself: might UBI be a possible solution to contemporary problems? I tried to look at the advantages a UBI could bring and considered the obstacles in the way of its implementation.
There are three pillars on which a Basic Income rests: universality, unconditionality and individuality. It means a fixed amount of money, regularly paid out to every individual in a certain region or country without any conditions attached.
So what advantages of implementing Universal Basic Income did I find most convincing?
Advantages of a Basic Income
One advantage of a Basic Income is that it enables the freedom to choose and the freedom to reject. Are we not already free to choose? Not if we are as economically dependent as Karl Widerquist describes: “If someone can come between you and the minimum amount of resources you need to survive, not only do they directly interfere with your ability to live a decent and free life; they can also force you to do just about anything”. So the old fears of starvation and homelessness are still present in most people’s minds when they decide how to spend their time and what kinds of jobs to choose. If there are enough resources for providing everyone with the basic means of survival, then why not relieve people of that fear, that pressure of existence and empower them to choose for themselves? Increasing conditionality and means-testing for benefits means high administration costs. But does it really help anyone to make claiming benefits a job in itself due to the complicated systems; to contrarily keep claimants in their precarious positions?
Providing a basic means of survival to everyone, in turn enabling the freedom to choose and reject may be a more effective way to overcome poverty and precarious living.
Equality and Justice
The other main argument for UBI which sticks in my mind is anchored in the idea that it is considered as “the just stake in the value rise of land”. Due to the creation of property rights, this rise in land value is currently benefiting only a few landowners. Without property rights people could live from the commons of what nature provides. As property rights exist, it is argued that people without property have the right to be compensated based on the idea that nature belongs to all members of the human race. Thomas Paine pioneered that view as early as 1795.
Even if complete equality may not be the solution to the problems of capitalism, that kind of argument may inspire some considerations about what distribution might be closer to justice than the one we currently have. A floor, a Basic Income, would be closer to economic justice than some people owning most of all the money while others suffer due to the lack of even the basics.
The obstacles to Basic Income
As there seem to be convincing arguments for the implementation of an UBI, the big question is: how is it possible that, while a few countries have run Basic Income trials, none have thus far adopted the concept?
The answer is often that “it’s unaffordable”. But how can something be unaffordable if its amount is not fixed but dependent on the outcome of a political process, with the goal to define what basic means? Moreover there are a number of proposals for how a UBI could be financed. Ultimately, as Guy Standing states, “affordability is political”. It is more about the psychological and cultural objections; the perceived impossibility of disconnecting work from income that seems to be wrong in our social order shaped by productivist assumptions.
The “change of thought” required creates the strongest barrier to Universal Basic Income. That rethinking might take time, so it could help introducing it slowly by starting with a low basis that increases as the acceptance in the population rises. Instead of fighting for survival, it might enable people to think about how we should and want to live together on a broader basis.
Above and beyond this main objection, there are still some unsolved questions that we must tackle before a Basic Income is introduced. Chief among them is: Who is “we”? Most considerations see UBI implemented country-wide, where citizens or similarly legal residents are considered to be the individual recipients. That might help in-country equality but it would add even more advantages to possessing a certain nationality and passport. Is that desirable from an international or global viewpoint? Would the introduction of a Basic Income strengthen already existing resentments to migration? Is that fair?
Moreover: What impact would the implementation of a Basic Income have on the environment? Would people who at the moment are not able to afford large consumption then consume more? Or would it enable people to withdraw from unnecessary consumption and enable them to live a more self-sufficient life with a smaller carbon footprint?
These questions, along with the idea that people are not psychologically and culturally ready for such a dramatic change, are perhaps the main obstacles to implementing a Basic Income. However, its introduction would be a fundamental step in the direction of improving freedom, equality and justice within our society.
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