Universal Basic Income: Societal Folly or Wisdom?

Posted on May 21, 2020

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About 30 years ago I adapted a phrase of Kant in my public health master dissertation ‘Any attempt of a technical solution for the global health problems of today is likely to fail, if it avoids to address the underlying ethical challenge, whether all human beings are ‘ends’ or many are ‘means’ for the ‘ends’ of some. Since then I have reflected how human beings can treat each other as ends and not as means and give practical meaning to the universal declaration of human rights ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’. Clearly our global economic system treats most of us as means to the ends of a few who determine the economic, societal and ecological outcomes. Unless you are born with the privilege of a large inheritance, you have to work and the choice of your work is largely determined by the country, community and family you are born into. This conflict between our economic reality where most people are treated as means in the labour market and the ethical imperative that all humans should be ends can be resolved through the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI). UBI as a societal institution which finances basic human needs will allow human beings to decide as ends how they want to contribute as means to society. As a global institution UBI can serve as a foundation for freedom, justice and peace.

UBI may serve as a compensation for the enclosure and plunder of the Commons. In the past the shared Commons allowed people to decide about their livelihood. I understood this when I visited the Mbaka people in the rain forest of the Central African Republic. Many livelihood activities were done in collaboration such as hunting and gathering and the surrounding forest was seen as their Commons. The products of their collective activities were shared in solidarity. Anybody who did not want share was asked to leave and live alone in the forest. This was impossible and led to certain death. Our Commons and heritage such as land and economic capital has been enclosed and taken over by a few people. Many of us contribute to the plunder of the Commons such as non-renewable resources (e.g. oil or species diversity) and the pollution of our atmosphere (e.g. particulate matter or carbon dioxide) at the detriment of our and future generations. Companies and individuals who want to enclose, extract from or pollute (externalise in business terms) our Commons should pay to compensate humanity. This compensation should be high to allow the payment of a UBI to everybody and limit the negative social practices of enclosure, extraction and externalisation.

A third reason for a UBI is its function to enable people to contribute to society. Similar to education and training which is required for a health professional, a UBI would enable every person to decide her/his useful role in society. Everybody will be able to choose how they want to work and contribute. At the moment our society is focused on exchange value and neglects the importance of use value. We believe that work is done and in exchange the workers receive a payment. The person who can provide the payment controls and decides which work is worth or not worth paying. We end up with societies where care for your children, family, neighbours, communities, social and political participation in society are worth nothing in monetary terms, while the production of weapons or speculation at the stock market is highly valued and rewarded in monetary terms. The societal institution UBI would give power to everyone to decide what is important in our society in terms of use value. We would demonstrate a positive image of humans (‘Menschenbild’) and give much more responsibility to every person.

A final reason is the affordability of UBI. Can we afford to pay a sufficient UBI to everybody? As long as the total sum of UBI does not exceed the total sum of the produced goods and services, it will be affordable. This total sum is called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which can also expand and contract. Most proposals for a UBI vary between 2 and 40% of GDP and are therefore affordable. What we need is the political will and the societal support for a UBI. The share of societal goods and services which is accessible through a UBI can be seen as the degree of equality which we want in our society. No proposal wants to distribute all goods and services through a UBI, because we also require economic investment to move towards a dynamic equilibrium economy within the ecological boundaries of our planet. There may also be good reasons to believe that a certain degree of inequality is good for a vibrant and prosperous society. Several studies of UBI have shown to reduce negative outcomes in communities such as mental illness and crimes. Therefore we should ask ourselves whether we can afford not to have a UBI at the actual stage of our economic and social development.

Selected Bibliography:

Haagh L., 2019, The case for Universal Basic Income, Polity Press, Cambridge.
Kant I., 1873, Theory of ethics (translated by Abbott T.K.), Longmans, London.
Standing G., 2017, Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen. Penguin, Random House.
Standing G., 2019, Plunder of the Commons – A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth, Penguin, Random House.
Van Parijs P. and Vanderborght Y., 2017, Basic Income – A radical proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Massachusetts)