Universal Basic Income: “Every person, regardless of age, sex, marital status or work status, should have the right to a basic income, adequate to enable him or her to cover basic needs.” Guy Standing
In a capitalist society, we have three(ish) ‘responsibilities’; we require a roof over our head, food in our stomach, and a source of income to pay for them. These ‘responsibilities’ are themselves fairly universal but how we view them is not. Some view these responsibilities as burdens that we should work to eliminate and others view them as burdens that we should simply put up with, a discussion that I get to here.
A brief bullet-point list of proposed benefits of UBI:
· Work: Freedom to choose when to work, how often to work, what work you are prepared to accept, what work conditions you are prepared to accept. Freedom to choose to take unpaid work that gives back to your local community.
· Home: Guaranteed safe and secure roof over your head.
· Community: Recognised value of volunteering within your local community and time for people to give back. For example, with freedom over the number of days you commit to paid employment you could choose to be paid for three days per week and to volunteer two days per week to run errands for and spend time with elderly neighbours.
· Health: Reduced stress and the health implications associated with stress related to work and home insecurity. Also reduction in health implications associated with poor housing and poor diet. Greater opportunities to involve yourself in sport or other activities like hobbies, arts, music, performance.
· Society: Greater cohesion through greater opportunities for people to positively contribute to society. More positive outlook and benefits of general wellbeing.
· Security: Home and workplace insecurities would greatly diminish because home costs would be covered and we would have greater freedom over movement in and out of work and not tied to it because of our need to cover our basic living expenses.
In effect, a UBI provides everybody with the means with which to put a roof over their head and food in their stomach, regardless of money earned.
A common misconception about UBI is that it would encourage laziness or reduce productivity but that is to misunderstand what UBI offers everyone. UBI does not offer luxury, it offers a basic income. It is unlikely that a society could set a level of UBI to pay for you to have all the things your heart desires; it will cover your basics. It is a basic income. It is also universal so, regardless of local variances in living costs, everyone gets the same. That would mean, in practice, that a UBI could offer a better quality of life in one part of a country than in another. For example:
If a British UBI were £12,000 per year, it might cover your accommodation in London but little else and you would subsidise through earned income. If you chose to live in Bolton, your £12,000 might pay for your accommodation, all your food, and some leisure activities. You could choose to live in London and engage in more paid work or you could live in Bolton and engage in less paid work and spend more time pursuing personal development by unpaid means.
To understand the effect of UBI you have to view it within the wider picture, it’s not just a handout that pays your rent and food bills, it’s an investment by our society and the point is to detach basic requirements of our lives from being burdens that we cannot choose to exist without and which limit our choices over how we live our lives. UBI is not a form of welfare payment, it is a means by which our society can choose to distribute its wealth and it recognises that people can make a far greater variety of contributions to society than purely economic ones. As members of a society we have an entitlement to benefit from the wealth that our society creates and which we all contribute to. People who resist UBI tend to not think of wealth as being something generated by societies but think it is created by individuals who are then taxed by society. They have the direction of distribution back to front and tend not to consider the value of non-monetary wealth that societies generate.
When faced with the potential benefits of UBI, and provided with a hypothetical means with which to cover the cost, people still resist it. On a superficial level, people view UBI as just another form of social welfare or welfare benefit but, probe deeper and what you find is that some people actually resist because they believe that they (and, by extension, everyone) should be burdened by those things which we would consider life’s basics or essentials.
I am of a view that those things that are essential or basic requirements for a dignified life should be universally accessible. I believe that, regardless of personal circumstance, everyone is entitled to sleep in a secure, well-maintained home and have an equitable access to the means with which to both pay for that home and for a diet that is nutritious and sufficient. I do not consider such a belief to be outlandish, I consider it to be the very foundation of a civilised society. I am not suggesting that people should all be given mansions, with swimming pools, to live in (though wouldn’t that be nice), nor am I suggesting that we be provided with the means to eat and drink the most extravagant banquets. I would argue that adequate shelter and provisions should not be things which burden our basic existence; they should not be sources of stress and we should not be concerned with how we cater for these base needs. This last point is where some of those who resist UBI and I differ.
UBI is not intended and, in practice, does not stop people from working. Given that, in a capitalist society, we must pay for those things that we need, the other great ‘responsibility’ we are faced with is gainful employment. Employment, work, jobs are a simple trade off; we provide our time and skills to an employer and they reimburse us with money. The balance of power within our relationship can sway between an employers need for my skills or time and my need for money. The greater my need for money, the more an employer can exploit my time or skills. The greater my employer’s need for my skills or time, the more money I can command. Theoretically. The reality is that the wider society also impacts on employee/employer relationships and, historically, that has only ever led to diminished power for employees and increased power for employers. Alongside trading my time for money, I also trade wellbeing, both mental and physical. An exceptionally high percentage of people do jobs which they are not interested in, are bored of, dislike, feel unchallenged or satisfied by, or out and out hate.
I would argue that, as working is a basic requirement for life in a capitalist society, people should not have to be burdened by employment. That is not say that people should not have to work but that people should have freedom to choose the work they do, how often they work; effectively, people should have the freedom to choose what skills they want to trade and how much time they want to trade. How would this work with UBI? Without the need to worry about how you pay for your home or basic provisions, you would be in a position to work either for additional money, to pay for an “improved” lifestyle; a bigger/”better” home, more expensive food/drink, luxury items, holidays etc etc etc, or work doing those things which you gain personal satisfaction from; such as art or volunteering or sport or education or a million other things that might not be an exchange for money but which benefits you in other ways. Primarily, by covering basic costs of living, UBI would help eliminate that sense that you are stuck with the work you are doing, it would free you of that yoke from your shoulders.
There are people who consider that the ‘responsibilities’ for sufficient shelter and provisions should not be protected from being thought of and felt as burdens, even if there could be a means to do this. Some may concede that they should be burdens for only those people who are “fit and able” to provide for themselves but others would take that further and say that society has a duty to make all people “fit and able”, including adapting society, to provide these things for themselves and would posit that position as a form of egalitarian viewpoint for driving up equity in society. It’s a frightening mentality whose motivation for equity in society is to ensure that everyone in a society is equally burdened by those things that provide a societies foundation. Just because you have a disability is no excuse for you to not be made equally miserable about doing a job that you hate to pay for housing, the cost of which stresses you out and burdens you with anxiety over the insecurity of your employment status and housing situation.
Again, there are people who feel that, if you’re lucky, work is an enjoyable experience otherwise it is a burden that people should just accept. It is our responsibility to pay our bills and we should do what is necessary to pay them, whether we enjoy how we earn our money is immaterial. Even if there could be a means by which this burden is lifted we should just put up with being burdened by it and be miserable.
What are the sources of this acceptance of burden? Almost certainly myriad. One assumes societal pressures have contributed; whatever the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ is and its impact on British culture, it possibly plays a role. Just as political thinking and influence is varied across the population, how we view UBI is similarly diverse. Some people just cannot view the benefits of UBI as anything other than a handout for people not prepared to work for what they get. I’d argue that that viewpoint ignores fundamental economic truths that wealth is a societal creation, which some individuals disproportionately tap into, and which ignores the value of contributions that are not purely or obviously monetary. Some people just like to suffer or like to believe that they value the sense of achievement of overcoming such basic burdens, even when those burdens are unnecessary. Rather like taking a sense of pride in pushing a laden box up a hill, instead of attaching wheels to the box and pulling it up.
We really don’t need a futile gesture at this stage.