In the following paper I would like to introduce the concept of Universal Basic Income and present some grounds for its implementation by showing its moral justification and particularly its positive and radical egalitarian consequences. For reasons of space I will not address the issues of the feasibility and viability of basic income even though I am fully aware of their importance. And I will only briefly mention another very important issue – the normative justification for implementing basic income. Basic Income is an income paid by the state to each full member or accredited resident of a society, regardless of whether he or she wishes to engage in paid employment, or whether they are rich or poor. In other words, UBI functions independently of any other sources of income that a person might have, and irrespective of cohabitation arrangements in the domestic sphere1.
A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without a test of means, or without requiring work. It is a form of guaranteeing a minimum income which, however, differs from those that now exist in various European countries. It differs in three important ways:
• it is paid to individuals rather than households
• it is paid irrespective of any income from other sources
• it is paid without requiring the performance of any work or the willingness to accept a job if it is offered.2
The idea of a UBI is at least 200 years old. We can find proto-Basic Income proposals in the writings of Robbespiere when he asks what the first object of society is. It is to maintain the inviolable rights of man. What is the first of these rights? The right to exist. The first social law is thus that which guarantees to all society’s members the means of existence; all others are subordinate to it. Also, Charles Fourier argued for a “territorial dividend” owed to each citizen by virtue of our equal ownership of the nation’s territory. And John Stuart Mill in his Principles of Political Economy said that: ”In the distribution, a certain minimum is first assigned for the subsistence of every member of the community, whether capable or not of labour. The remainder of the produce is shared in certain proportions, to be determined beforehand, among the three elements, Labour, Capital, and Talent.“3
The idea of a UBI was repeatedly taken up in intellectual circles throughout the twentieth century under various labels–“state bonus,” “national dividend,” “social dividend,” “citizen’s wage,” “citizen’s income,” “universal grant,” etc. And it was seriously discussed by scholars such as Bertrand Russell, and James Meade and James Tobin – both winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics.
The UBI is called “basic” because it is something on which a person can safely rely, a material foundation on which a life can firmly rest. Any other income – whether in cash or in kind, from work or savings, from the market or the state – can lawfully be added to it. On the other hand, nothing in the definition of UBI connects it to the notion of “basic needs.” A UBI, as defined, can fall short of or exceed what is regarded as necessary to a decent existence.
Van Parijs, the Belgian political philosopher and the most well-known defender of basic income today, favors the implementation of the highest sustainable income, and believes that all the richer countries can now afford to pay a basic income above the level of subsistence. But he also says that advocates of a BI do not need to press for a basic income at this level right away. In fact, the easiest and safest way forward, though details may differ considerably from one country to another, is likely to consist of the implementation of the BI first at a level below subsistence, and then increasing it over time.
At present, Basic Income has been implemented only in Alaska where every resident (about 700,000 people) receives an annual UBI of $2000 which is funded by oil revenue.
Now I would like to briefly mention a moral argument for implementing Basic Income. According to critics, UBI conflicts with the fundamental principle of reciprocity: the idea that people who receive benefits should respond in kind by making contributions. Precisely because it is unconditional it assigns benefits even to those who make no social contribution – who spend all their days, say, surfing in Malibu.
But according to Van Parijs4 the idea is that jobs should be regarded as scarce external assets that have been appropriated by some, while excluding others.. It is understood that all citizens have a right to an equal share of the value of jobs.
If someone uses no resources in scarce supply, then they can legitimately keep the whole of their allocation. But if they do, then they cannot fairly complain about a scheme that distributes maximally among all the value of the scarce assets which are very unequally appropriated by some. Consequently, the “employment rents” associated with the possession of jobs should be taxed and the proceeds should serve towards implementing basic income.
Now we will turn to the egalitarian consequences of implementing a basic income scheme. American sociologist Erik Wright5 considers Unconditional Basic Income as a fundamental redesigning of the system of income distribution. It has potentially profound consequences for a democratic egalitarian transformation of capitalism: poverty is eliminated; the labor contract becomes more voluntary since everyone has the option to exit; the power relations between workers and capitalists become more equal since workers, in effect, possess an unconditional strike fund; the possibility for people forming cooperative associations to produce goods and services to serve human needs outside of the market increases, since such activity no longer needs to provide the basic standard of living to participants.
Let us look at these issues in greater depth. Firstly, BI significantly reduces one of the central coercive aspects of capitalism. When Marx analyzed the “proletarianization of labor,” he emphasized the “double separation” of “free wage labor”: workers were separated from the means of production, and thus were also separated from the means of subsistence. The conjoining of these two separations is what forced workers to sell their labor power to obtain subsistence. In this sense, proletarianized labor is fundamentally unfree. Basic Income breaks this identity of separations: workers remain separated from the means of production (they are not owners), but they are no longer separated from the means of subsistence (these are provided through the basic income). The decision to work for a wage, therefore, becomes much more voluntary. By increasing workers’ capacity to refuse employment, Basic Income generates a much more egalitarian distribution of real freedom which directly contributes towards reducing inequalities in the access to the means for living a prosperous life.
Secondly, Basic Income is likely to generate greater egalitarianism within labor markets. If workers are more able to refuse employment, wages for unpleasant work are likely to increase relative to wages for enjoyable work. The wage structure in labor markets, therefore, will begin to reflect more systematically the relative dis-utility of different kinds of labor rather than simply the relative scarcity of different kinds of labor power. This, in turn, will generate an incentive structure for employers to seek technical and organizational innovations that eliminate unpleasant work. Technical change would therefore have not only a labor-saving bias, but also a labor-humanizing bias.
Thirdly, Basic Income directly and massively eliminates poverty without creating the pathologies of means-tested anti-poverty transfers. There is no stigmatization, since everyone gets their income. There is no clear boundary between net beneficiaries and net contributors, since many people will move back and forth across this boundary over time. Consequently, it is less likely that stable majority coalitions against redistribution will form once basic income has been in place for some length of time. There are also no “poverty traps” caused by threshold effects.
Fourth, basic income is one way of socially recognizing the value of decommodified care-giving activities that markets don’t provide, particularly care-giving labor within families, but also within broader communities. In effect, Basic Income could be considered an indirect mechanism for achieving the “wages for housework” proposed by some feminists: recognizing that care-giving work is socially valuable and productive and deserving of financial support.
The fifth point is that Basic Income would increase the collective power of organized labor, not just the freedom of exit for individual workers, and would thus contribute to the broader agenda of social empowerment of popular social forces. An increased working class power underwritten by a basic income could be used to support positive class compromise, which creates the conditions for a sustainable shift in the balance of class power.
Finally, Basic Income can be considered as a subsidy to the social economy and the cooperative market economy. One of the main problems that collective actors face in the social economy is generating a decent standard of living for the providers of social economic services. This affects efforts by communities to organize social economic services for various kinds of caring activities – child care, elder care, or health care. The problem of providing an adequate standard of living to members of a society is also a problem for producer-owned cooperatives, especially in the early stages in which a cooperative is becoming established and members are learning how to function, discern organizational details, and develop productive capacity. A basic income would make it much easier for a cooperative group to survive this learning stage and eventually reproduce itself as a stable economic organization. Basic Income can thus be considered a mechanism to transfer part of the social surplus from the capitalist market sector to the social economy, from capital accumulation to what might be called social accumulation and cooperative accumulation – the accumulation of the capacity of a society geared towards the self-organization of needs-oriented economic activity and cooperative-based market activity.
1 Philippe Van Parijs, “A Basic Income for All,“ ed. Joshua Cohen, Joel Rogers, What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch? (Boston. Beacon Press, 2001), 5-6.
2 Daniel Raventós, Basic Income (London, Pluto Press, 2007), 9.
3 Philippe Van Parijs, “A Basic Income for All,“ ed. Joshua Cohen, Joel Rogers, What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch? (Boston. Beacon Press, 2001), 7.
4 Philippe Van Parijs, Real Freedom for All: What (if Anything) Can Justify Capitalism? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
5 Erik Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (London: Verso, 2010) 153-154.