“I care not how affluent some may be,
provided that none be miserable in consequence of it.”
– Thomas Paine (1795)
A payment to all, without condition, on an individual basis – not, for instance, per household – with no means testing, nor requirement pertaining to work in one’s past, present, or future (BIEN, n.d.; Van Parijs, 1992). Money for nothing, and a higher economic baseline, below which need fall no-one.
Variations on the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) can be traced back beyond 20th century advocates, notably to Thomas Paine in 1795, whilst a speculative novel on Utopia by another Thomas (More, 1516) includes the idea in the picture it paints, evidence of UBI’s existence yet further in the direction of the past. However, UBI appears to have gone through a steady snowballing phase globally in the decades that closed-out one millennium and ushered in another, becoming un-ignorable in recent years.
In 2010, the UK government looked toward tackling poverty, worklessness, and welfare dependency through a universal credit, working on a system of conditionality: adjusted for those in employment based on earnings, and requiring that the unemployed with the ability to work make all conceivable steps to find it (Duncan-Smith, 2010). In the run up to Scotland’s independence referendum, a paper criticised this move as being neither universal nor a tax credit, merely a case of some rather late in the day tidying-up of the current benefits system, whilst simultaneously proposing an actual UBI as a desirable, feasible goal for an independent Scotland (Miller, 2013).
Over in North America, whilst Alaska has provided a conditional dividend to residents for decades, parts of the US and Canada are giving UBI more reflection, with a trial underway in Oakland, California, and the Ontario budget for 2016 stating its first steps toward a basic income pilot (Ontario Ministry of Finance, 2016).
And in mainland Europe, Finland is providing a basic income to the unemployed, a UBI experiment has begun in Utrecht, The Netherlands, trialling unconditionality with some and ranging conditionality with others, and an ultimately down-voted referendum has been held on the implementation of UBI in Switzerland.
Clearly, the developed world is grappling with it. But so, too, is the developing, with much crossover on issues and arguments, yet also unique and particular focus. Within the African continent, for example, just beyond the turn of the century it was recognised that poverty was immense and persistent, and clearly in need of tackling through novel approaches and methods (Barrett, Carter, & Little, 2006). Now underway in Kenya is a basic income pilot by the non-profit Give Directly, which will ultimately be the longest-running pilot at the end of its 12-years, addressing the paucity of evidence for UBI, and the issue of poverty alleviation rather than, for instance, technology-driven job displacement (Give Directly, 2016; Williams & Kubzansky, n.d.). However, for the remainder, the developed world is where I’ll stay.
Autonomy & Automation
Deep into Rostow’s fifth stage of mass consumption (1960), where the collars of even deepest blue must fade to white as the service industry grows to dominance in a post-Fordist capitalism (Ash, 1994), a profoundly precarious nature has possessed most forms of work (Standing, 2011). UBI may help address this and a recurring theme much discussed: the inevitable replacement, in full or in part, of humans by machines (Adler, 1988; Arntz, Gregory, & Zierahn, 2016; Autor, 2015; Brundage, 2015; Citi, 2016; Frey & Osborne, 2017).
As ever, there is persistent concern over job loss due to automation. That jobs will be increasingly rare and specialised. That those with lowest wages and least educational attainment – a factor in capabilities ostensibly opened-up by UBI – are at the most severe risk from computerisation (Frey & Osborne, 2017). Arntz et al. (2016) argue that the risk has been overestimated due to discussion of threats to jobs when what is meant is threats to single job tasks, whilst others point out that technology carries many benefits to be realised in the work sector, and in ending issues such as disease and poverty (Bostrom, 2014; Brundage, 2015).
Autor (2015) highlights automatic teller machines (ATMs). Replacements for human tellers, ATM numbers quadrupled in the US from 1995 to 2010, yet employment of people as tellers rose modestly too (Autor, 2105). ATMs making it cheaper to operate a bank branch also made it possible to open many more, creating jobs for people – and their teller role was not redundant, rather changed to lay heavier on interaction and service (Autor, 2015). This is a good point, regarding doom and gloom, and the changing nature of jobs rather than their disappearance. However, it does require that your job be changeable, and have service and interaction elements that you may be utilised for, which will not be the case in many instances. Furthermore, it isn’t science fiction to be concerned over machine replacement in this century in even those areas too, of service and interaction and mental labour (Bostrom, 2015; Harris, 2016). In the face of more technological revolution, a UBI might well be necessary (Musk, 2017). The post/low-work period will not be midwifed in by suffering, as was the industrial revolution, if UBI, or something very like it, is in place.
The big criticism of UBI is concern over exploitation (Birnbaum, 2011; Van Parijs, 1991). It is a problem in public perception of UBI, a good example being that the trial in Utrecht removed reference to ‘basic income’ from documents in order to get the proposal signed off (Boffey, 2015). The societal principle of reciprocity is broken if some willingly enjoy benefits without making an in-kind contribution (White, 1997). While it can be argued that some UBI will be financed by natural resources not originating from social cooperation (Van Parijs, 1995), to get beyond, say, the Alaska dividend to a significant UBI, non-natural wealth produced by labour in a community is drawn upon – thus, much wealth ought be distributed in a conditional manner (White, 1997).
But UBI is intended for all: the labourers and producers will be getting a UBI as well as their wage for working. If I use my UBI to purchase goods, then my grant is going towards them, accompanying their wage. (Of course, the tax on businesses, companies, and salaries goes to my UBI…) Another point is that, while it is a basic income, it need not necessarily, and initially certainly will not, be enough to fulfil basic needs (De Wispelaere & Stirton, 2004; Van Parijs, 1992, 2000). In other words, there will still be some drive to partake for most. Here it may come to principles and pragmatism: UBI will go to those already wealthy, and it will go to those who will then cease to contribute. Do we accept this, so as to get people’s basic entitlements secured, subsequently allowing the reciprocity of community to rule over privileges beyond the basic, as Van Parijs (1997) suggests?
Exploitation-potential aside, is UBI just another lifeline thrown to a deeply faulty system, landing at its feet just as it was finding no way in which to turn but for facing the arduous task of actual behavioural change? UBI may be seen as our new way of not dealing with bad societal habits and not addressing the nature of a market geared to inequality and monopoly as endgame. That it will engender more pollution, more consumption, as things continue, not promoting that which some say is needed in the West: de-growth (Demaria et al., 2013). It is not enough, it is treating a symptom not a disease, and will distract from the pressure for something more to happen. (Some in fact support UBI from an ecological perspective due to its potential for post-materialism and post-growth, while others warn that UBI must be argued as a growth-friendly implement for it to succeed: just not growth at the expense of the environment (Andersson, 2009; Van Parijs, 1992)).
However, I feel that UBI is as practical and realistic as it is complex and challenging. Strident critique of neoliberal capitalism should not be dismissed. Yet, sincere as it no doubt often is, talk of destabilising and unlikely revolution is nothing in comparison to compromise on some fronts in order to get something done. The usual reference point, Marx his-very-self, was not necessarily for the overthrow of capitalism. Understanding its revolutionary capabilities, the aim was to rid it of its contradictions and its cruelties, and for the working-class to have a power and an influence befitting their importance, not to rush in a replacement for the entire order of things. When things change dramatically, it is the poor who suffer first and most. At the end of it of it all, suffering has had a flourish and, if we’re lucky, settled back to where it was before and not permanently increased. Van Parijs (1995) rejects both socialism and conventional capitalism in expounding on UBI, and these current trials can tease out whether there is a workable middle-ground – at least, in our different developed contexts.
They can also explore UBI’s potential in a capabilities sense. It has been promoted as allowing freedom to pursue the good in life with liberty and worth (Van Parijs, 1995, 2000), and providing democratisation and the freedom to not work (Pateman, 2004). The capability approach measures the impact of policies on people’s capabilities, focusing on what they can do and be (Robeyns, 2005; Sen, 1984). Far from concern over exploitation, the autonomy it could promote may actualise people as the ends and means of development and progress (Anand & Sen, 2000), and obtain that standard of living promised in Article 25.1 of the Declaration of Human Rights (UN General Assembly, 1948). Freedom, happiness, and well-being are key in Y Combinator’s proposal, the aforementioned Oakland trial (Altman, 2016). Looking into unpublished results of a trial in Canada in the seventies, what was found were incredibly positive effects in physical and mental health, and continuation in education (Forget, 2011).
These experiments and proposals are, however, on a small scale, and only looking at individual behaviour, not whole system change. But that’s a nuance to highlight, not a killer blow. In removing some obstacles and alleviating others to give a measure of autonomy, and in addressing, now, job change and/or loss due to automation, these trials could point us to a paradigm of equality of opportunity and choice.
This brings things around to the quote from Paine that opens this essay: if there were a morally, politically, and socially acceptable baseline that nobody fell below, what matter would it be that there exist and persist the absurdly rich? As the result of an equality of opportunity – and not of outcome – in a society in which some might have it easy but no-one has it hard, with poverty addressed in both the absolute sense of Sen (1983) and the relative concern of Townsend (1962; 1985), a society to which application of the label ‘meritocracy’ might be less profoundly ironic, wide-ranging wealth inequality is fine. We do not need wealth and material equality, nor a capitalism-free utopia: we need more qualitative and quantitative studies and results on the implementation of UBI. If The Wretched of Hugo and the Dickensian poor were to transfigure into those that only have slightly more than enough, if to be down and out in Paris and London were to mean nothing more than your child having to look on at relative extravagance from a position already of comfort, then society will be transformed infinitely.
There is much else to say. However, in temporary conclusion: the cons of and arguments against UBI are there to be acknowledged and grappled with in the process of ensuring we make it work, context to context, not as spells of exorcism to be cast by the invisible hand at another seditious ghost of socialism. The greatest pro of current proposals and experiments with UBI is that they are steps toward its long imagined, but not inevitable, realisation, and perhaps, maybe, the dream: a market without misery.
Adler, P. S. (1988). Automation, skill and the future of capitalism. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 33, 1-36.
Altman, S. (2016). Moving Forward on Basic Income. Retrieved http://blog.ycombinator.com/moving-forward-on-basic-income/
Anand, S., & Sen, A. (2000). The income component of the human development index. Journal of human development, 1(1), 83-106.
Andersson, J. O. (2009). Basic income from an ecological perspective. Basic Income Studies, 4(2), 1-8.
Arntz, M., Gregory, T., & Zierahn, U. (2016). The risk of automation for jobs in OECD countries: A comparative analysis. OECD Social, Employment, and Migration Working Papers, (189), 0_1.
Ash, A. (1994). Post-Fordism: Models, fantasies and phantoms of transition. Post-Fordism: A Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 1-40.
Assembly, U. G. (1948). Universal declaration of human rights. UN General Assembly
Autor, D. H. (2015). Why are there still so many jobs? The history and future of workplace automation. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(3), 3-30.
Barrett, C. B., Carter, M. R., & Little, P. D. (2006). Understanding and reducing persistent poverty in Africa: Introduction to a special issue. The Journal of Development Studies, 42(2), 167-177.
BIEN. (n.d.). About basic income. Retrieved http://basicincome.org/basic-income/
Birnbaum, S. (2011). Should surfers be ostracized? Basic income, liberal neutrality, and the work ethos. Politics, philosophy & economics, 10(4), 396-419.
Boffey, D. (2015). Dutch city plans to pay citizens a ‘basic income’, and Greens say it could work in UK. Retrieved https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/26/dutch-city-utrecht-basic-income-uk-greens
Bostrom, N. (2015). “What happens when our computers get smarter than we are?” YouTube video published April 27, 2015, accessed February 21, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnT1xgZgkpk
Bostrom, N. (2014). Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies. OUP Oxford.
Brundage, M. (2015). Utopia, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of Justice.
Citi, G. P. S. (2016). Technology at work V 2.0: The future is not what it used to be. Citi GPS: Global Perspectives & Solutions (January).
De Wispelaere, J., & Stirton, L. (2004). The many faces of universal basic income. The Political Quarterly, 75(3), 266-274.
Demaria, F., Schneider, F., Sekulova, F., & Martinez-Alier, J. (2013). What is degrowth? From an activist slogan to a social movement. Environmental Values, 22(2), 191-215.
Duncan-Smith, I. (2010). Universal Credit: welfare that works. London: Department for Work and Pensions.
Forget, E. L. (2011). The town with no poverty: the health effects of a Canadian guaranteed annual income field experiment. Canadian Public Policy, 37(3), 283-305.
Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2017). The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114, 254-280.
Give Directly. (2016). Basic Income. Retrieved https://givedirectly.org/basic-income
Harris, S. (2016). “Can we build AI without losing control over it?” YouTube video published October 19, 2016, accessed February 21, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nt3edWLgIg
Miller, A. G. (2013). Why an independent Scotland would fair [sic] better with a citizen’s income (CI) or basic income (BI) scheme. Evidence to the Expert Working Group on Welfare.
More, T. (1516). Utopia.
Musk, E. (2017). “Elon Musk at the World Government Summit 2017 in Dubai. Conversation with Mohammad AlGergawi.” YouTube video published February 16, 2017, accessed February 21, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Lre6GxiQUE
Ontario Ministry of Finance. (2016). Jobs for today and tomorrow: 2016 Ontario budget. Ottawa, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.
Paine, T. (1795). Agrarian Justice.
Pateman, C. (2004). Democratizing citizenship: some advantages of a basic income. Politics & Society, 32(1), 89-105.
Robeyns, I. (2005). The capability approach: a theoretical survey. Journal of human development, 6(1), 93-117.
Rostow, W. W. (1960). The stages of development, an anti-communist manifesto.
Sen, A. (1983). Poor, relatively speaking. Oxford economic papers, 35(2), 153-169.
Sen, A. (1984) ‘Rights and capabilities’, in Resources, Values and Development, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Standing, G. (2011). The precariat: The new dangerous class. A&C Black.
Townsend, P. (1962). The meaning of poverty. The British Journal of Sociology, 13(3), 210-227.
Townsend, P. (1985). A Sociological Approach to the Measurement of Poverty–A Rejoinder to Professor Amartya Sen. Oxford Economic Papers, 659-668.
Van Parijs, P. (1991). Why surfers should be fed: the liberal case for an unconditional basic income. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 101-131.
Van Parijs, P. (1992). Competing justifications of basic income. Arguing for basic income, 3-43.
Van Parijs, P. (1995). Real freedom for all. What (if anything) can justify capitalism.
Van Parijs, P. (1997). Reciprocity and the justification of an unconditional basic income. Reply to Stuart White. Political Studies, 45(2), 327-330.
Van Parijs, P. (2000). A basic income for all. Boston Review, 25(5), 4-8.
White, S. (1997). Liberal equality, exploitation, and the case for an unconditional basic income. Political studies, 45(2), 312-326.
Williams, T., & Kubzansky, M. (n.d.). Why We Invested: Give Directly. Retrieved https://medium.com/positive-returns/why-we-invested-givedirectly-8d6f01df706f#.ne2nhgbpj