Universal Basic Income, or UBI for short, brings forth the idea that every person who reaches adulthood gets a certain amount of money each month or year, regardless of which class, gender, race, etc. you are from. The amount can be speculated about, but it should cover the basic needs of every person. As the trust in the welfare state is slowly decaying, it might be profitable to look a bit deeper into this economic concept and if it is something we as a society should try out. One big proponent of UBI is Andrew Yang, who was a presidential candidate for the United States in 2020.
Critics of the welfare state how it is operating now, claim that it does not incentivize enough. The welfare state originally was created as a sort of insurance company. Everyone pays taxes so that if one day you might be unemployed because of some circumstance, you receive enough money to stay afloat while you’re searching for a new job. After World War II, the world seemed pretty unstable, so a system which would help people who were unemployed seemed like a good idea. In unsure times, an insurance is the right thing to do. However, this can have some negative side effects. People can get comfortable with the low pay and not search for a job. A system can be put in place, where the government tracks you if you’re trying to find a job or not, but then this becomes linked with one’s dignity. When you continue to fail to find a job, while you really want to find a job, the last thing you need is the government calling you saying that if you don’t find a job in a certain period of time that they will cut some of the money you get. And society blaming you that you’re one of the ‘takers’ instead of the ‘givers’ also doesn’t contribute a lot.
So, what does UBI do differently? Instead of giving some people enough money to survive, UBI gives everyone enough money to afford the basic needs. That’s why it is universal. It doesn’t matter if you’re Elon Musk or a beggar on the streets. Every legal citizen of the particular region will receive the UBI. But what are basic needs? This, obviously, is up for debate. Some would include cultural activities as basic needs because human beings desire to participate in society. As a start, I would say start with the bare necessities and work your way up. The UBI should include the bare necessities to survive like food, water and rent. That way you can sustain yourself and have a roof over your head. You don’t need a tv to survive.
UBI also takes away the focus from the paid labor market. Since unemployment looks only if you’re working for paid labor, it misses a whole sector of meaningful labor. Paid labor isn’t necessarily the thing that keeps a country going. People who do volunteer work, house workers, or starting artists aren’t getting paid for their labor, but contribute a lot of value to society. With a UBI, these labor markets get a chance to flourish a bit more. People who want to volunteer but can’t because they have to work all the time, can now take it a bit easier and instead contribute in a way they think is meaningful. Mothers or fathers who stay at home to look after their children are now getting a better incentive for doing so and provide a better upbringing to their children.
The basic income also gives the option of more mobility and flexibility in society. Women who don’t have an income because they are house makers or because an oppressive boyfriend doesn’t allow them to work, have the financial ability to leave an oppressive situation more easily. Psychologically many people will continue to stay trapped, but those with the will to leave, now have the opportunity. The same goes for young adults who don’t like their household situation. When you’re studying, you rely on the financial contribution of your parents, which means your parents continue to exercise control over you. With a basic income which you receive when you become an adult, you have the opportunity to leave the household and live on your own. It will be hard, but at least you have the freedom to do so, instead of feeling trapped.
UBI can also bring less governmental planning to the economy. The government gives a basic income, but it doesn’t tell you what to do with it, which is not the case in the welfare state. The welfare state has a certain idea of what is productive labor and what people should be doing with their time. If it doesn’t contribute to this, then the unemployed will receive less and less payment. This means that if someone is volunteering in a homeless shelter, he might be asked to instead work in a coal factory. I wouldn’t say this is much progress. With UBI you have the ability to do what you want with that money. If you want to spend it on videogames every month, fine, whatever. If you want to spend it on charity every month, fine, whatever. If you want to invest it in an education degree, fine, whatever. This puts more responsibility on the individual, making their choices also more meaningful.
This responsibility is also the greatest counterpoint against UBI. Why should we think that giving people a universal basic income will increase meaningful labor? Or why shouldn’t we think that people won’t just use that money to buy drugs or use it to go to the casino? The answer to this lies in society already. People drink, go to casinos and use drugs. But our society isn’t falling apart because of this. These problems don’t exist because of more money. It exists because of the alienation of labor and the feeling of meaninglessness in life. A UBI won’t fix this problem and it isn’t designed to do so. It is designed to level the playing field. We still need other structures which try to give people a better feeling in society. The question here is if we should give people the responsibility over their own life. I think the answer is yes. The government isn’t necessarily better in giving the people meaning in their life than the individuals themselves. Most of the time, it does a worse job. At least with UBI, people get a chance to at least try and get out of a vicious circle.
But people are lazy, we sometimes hear. So why would they work? Wouldn’t it be the case that people will just stop working all together, because they would have enough? Evidently, this would cause UBI to be self-defeating because the money has to come from somewhere. This is not necessarily the case. First, people actually like to perform in meaningful labor. When you have the feeling that you’re contributing to society, then it feels that your efforts are paying off. This is a good feeling. It’s that feeling you get when you studied really hard for a test and then aced it. It’s that feeling you get when you work hard to build that stable for the horses to rest in. It’s that feeling you get when you finally finish that painting you have been working weeks on. UBI can give the opportunity (though not the guarantee) that you can find labor that is meaningful to you. Second, even if we would be too lazy, the fact that it is only a basic income gives an extra incentive to still work. With UBI you won’t be able to afford to go to the restaurant every week (or even at all). You won’t be able to go as much as you’d like to cultural activities that cost money. In order to participate at a certain level, you would still have to work. Social pressure to see the latest concert of that one artist or to grab a drink at the café with friends, will pressure you into at least finding some sort of work to do.
Obviously, I have been putting UBI a bit on a pedestal here. There are many logistical arguments which bring it back down to earth. How will you pay for it? Will it cause inflation? Should immigrants receive these? But these are all political or economic arguments, while I have been trying to provide ethical or philosophical arguments for UBI. The most important thing is that I wanted to show that UBI might be a viable option for the future. Inequality is rising and people at the bottom feel dispossessed. Automation is taking a way many poor paying jobs and the coronavirus pandemic has put a big dent in the economic situation of the world. It’s time we bring it back to the people and give them some responsibility. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both started out in a garage when they started with their companies. They didn’t have much to begin with, because sometimes all you need is a garage. At least UBI gives you the possibility of having a garage.