As any idea gaining momentum, universal basic income (UBI) attracts supporters as well as critics. What might be considered a strength of UBI, is its capacity to attract broad support from the whole political spectrum; however, as one might imagine, differences in ideological assumptions come to the fore at the stage of policy design.
By Loriana Luccioni
The projected outcomes from different UBI conceptualisations provide fertile ground for critique based on misinterpretation and confusion. This article has been written in response to an opinion piece published by Bo Rothstein on Social Europe; the objective being to question some of his conclusions, while hopefully delivering some clarity.
The article also draws attention to some of the data recently released by the European Social Survey (ESS), an academic cross-national survey that measures attitudes through questionnaires from 2001 and face-to-face interviews completed every 2 years since 2002. As much more analysis is needed to interpret the vast amount of resources provided by this significant study, this article provides only an overview, rather than a detailed, referenced scholarly interpretation. This year, the report compares data collected from 18 countries in round 4 in 2008 and in round 8 in 2016. Main findings, resulting from only a preliminary analysis show, among other interesting data, that support for UBI appears slightly stronger than opposition in 10 out of the 18 countries sampled.
Rothstein’s article, ‘UBI – a bad idea for the welfare state’, begins with an honest description of the author’s opinion of UBI: one of those ‘several ideas’ of the political left ‘not particularly well thought out’, such as ‘[a] centrally planned economy, the nationalization of all the means of production, forced collectivization of agriculture’ – Communism in other words – and, for reasons not clearly specified, ‘the … Swedish wage earner fund’.
The argument presented to explain these ‘sometimes monstrous failures’ (while striving for increased social justice) is ‘a reluctance to take the implementation process into account and think through how the policies will actually work when they meet reality, and with what consequences’.
In practice, the overarching critique levelled at Left-leaning ideas and policies is that they are idealist, and anchored in the realm of general principles. They are seen to be part of the philosophical world of ideas – detached from reality and the multiple hurdles that have to be factored in at the implementation phase.
This is a disheartening realisation. It is disheartening to come across arguments that criticise human desire for inclusive progress as idealist and optimistic, while portraying reality through the lenses of deep pessimism, and naming it objective.
Talking about the failure of Communism in an article criticising UBI is misleading in a number of ways.
Firstly, UBI is not a ‘traditional Left’ idea, and this point might be clarified from an historical recount of the development of the idea, by, for instance, Thomas Paine, who precedes our present conceptualisation of political Left or Right (constantly evolving). Even if one wants to abide by the Left/Right dichotomy for wider ideological groupings, it is interesting to discover that political, academic and professional exponents from the Right, such as Lady Rhys-Williams, Milton Friedman and Charles Murray, have also supported prototypes of policies similar to UBI.
In fact, to the surprise of Rothstein, even some high profile IT entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley support the idea; these are companies that are benefiting from the capacity provided by technological progress to speed up the accumulation of wealth, through ‘digital capital’, which in theory is abundant and free, as explained by authors like Thomas Piketty. Businesses that find amazing tax loopholes to avoid paying the rightful amount in taxes are defined as ‘leftist’ in Rothstein’s presentation of this ‘broad, unrefined group’. Recent data from the ESS confirms that in Christian Democratic welfare states, in Eastern Europe and Israel, people from the Centre are more likely to support UBI than people from the Left.
Secondly, perhaps it is those who are more comfortably off who can conclude from the altar of the objective, rational and empirical point of view that good intentions cannot be translated into effective policies because idealists are unable to predict implementation nightmares. Simplistic at best, this kind of critique omits to mention (hopefully unintentionally) the multiple, disastrous, uncalculated consequences that the current capitalist system of production, built upon neoliberal prescription, has created.
A number of problems ‘not taken into account’ according to Rothstein, are mentioned in order to justify the unfeasibility of a UBI. Firstly, fiscal un-sustainability is mentioned. It is argued that the expense of UBI would ‘jeopardize the state’s ability to maintain quality in public services such as healthcare, education and care of the elderly’. The reasoning unfolds by arguing that underfunded services will become poor services, therefore wealthier citizens will prefer to buy them in the private market, damaging legitimacy because questions such as ‘why pay twice’ will arise.
In refuting this argument, it must be mentioned that, due to the broad support UBI has been able to attract, various models of it have emerged; each model varies according to the ideology on which it is constructed. As a consequence, some exponents have proposed hyper-libertarian models whereby the ‘public’ simply disappears and each individual is given the full freedom to choose the best service (health, education, care included) from a finally fully unbridled, competitive market. Others, such as Malcolm Torry in the UK and Scott Santens in the USA, have proposed fiscally neutral, and strictly fiscally neutral models. These models do not affect the funding structure of (already under-funded) public services. It is therefore misleading to think that current proposals will not carefully study how the introduction of UBI will interact with other public policies.
In addition, the argument that poor services will automatically lead to wealthier people buying them privately, is embedded in a conception of the human being as pure economic actor whose behaviour is solely and simply regulated by rational choice. In fact, economics itself, as a discipline, often finds ‘irrational’ behaviour to be a manifest human feature.
Universality strengthens the meaning of ‘public’ in public policies, precisely because it mirrors the societal pooling of resources and efforts to the benefit of all, unconditionally – a word of increasingly important meaning in an insecure and precarious present. The broad support of universal policies such as the UK National Health Service is a strong case in point. Interestingly, as reported by the ESS, attitudes towards social inequality have shifted from 2008 to 2016 in the 18 countries sampled, towards a decreased acceptance of large differences in standards of living. It seems that a ‘universal crisis’ may have reignited a sense of shared fate and as such, less acceptance of inequality.
Universal basic income may provide impetus in the struggle to build a more equal society, where wealth and resources are truly redistributed. None the less, it is not a silver-bullet solution and must be accompanied by other reforms, particularly in tax/benefit systems.
The second problem presented by Rothstein is legitimacy. It is argued that due to the ‘basic’ nature of UBI, people will soon realise that it will not be enough to cover their ‘needs’ (in the author’s words – perhaps more accurately described as ‘wants’ in our consumption-driven society). He concludes that these people will seek fulfilment of their ‘needs’ by increasing ‘their standard of living with various kinds of “irregular” income (drug trafficking, prostitution, etc.)’. Rothstein suggests that even if only a minority pursue this behaviour, it might attract widespread media reporting and negative publicity, therefore damaging UBI legitimacy.
The best answer to this critique is in the words that Guy Standing adopts in his book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class to describe our current punitive, conditional welfare system based on a Victorian sense of deservingness: ‘to hound a tiny minority for their “laziness” is a sign of our weakness, not our merit’. We live in a bizarre value and reward system, whereby a minority of vulnerable people, that often fall into poverty for reasons well beyond their will and intention, are demonised, while massive ‘lawful’ tax evasions as exposed in the Panama and Paradise papers cause at best only a couple of morally laden public statements (unless you are in Iceland).
The unconditional nature of UBI stands precisely to encourage more trustworthy relationships among human beings. It is not naïve; frauds will always exist, but their number decreases in societies that are more equal, societies where understanding and solidarity form their bedrock, not suspicion and selfishness. As beautifully argued by RSA (2015): ‘Behavioural science tells us that reciprocity is important but reciprocal relationships are more likely where there is an initial act of generosity.’
The third identified problem concerns the need for work. By arguing that there is an increased need for labour in many areas of care, as a result of Europe’s ageing population, the author creates a self-contradiction by stating that ‘[w]ith an unconditional universal basic income, people will ask why they should pay wages to people who can work but choose not to work when there is a need for many more “hands” in such areas’. The missed, essential point of this critique, is that UBI is conceptualised precisely in order to free people from demeaning tasks, from unpleasant jobs that deliver no psychological or societal benefits. UBI promotes real freedom to choose; it returns the precious time lost in activities designed to keep people barely surviving within our current system, and encourages the multiple human activities that our current time- and attention-deprived reality obstructs, such as caring – caring for the elderly, the sick, the young and the disabled, caring for the environment, and for our communities – all currently described as ‘burdens’. The notion that in an increasingly automated and roboticised world, care and emotional work will be the most sought after activities is well recognised. It is exactly this shift that UBI wants to support.
The fourth problem mentioned, is the key one: unconditionality. The author argues that the main body of the Welfare State was built on reciprocity, not altruism. Therefore, by breaking with this principle, the broad-based social solidarity that built the Welfare State will be dismantled.
The only response adequate to this final critique is that UBI supporters do perceive the big fallacies of our current welfare system. Again, different ideologies are leading to different models but none of them denies the inefficient and ineffective design of an historical welfare system no longer fit for purpose.
Reciprocity, as well as meritocracy are starting to be questioned by the population sampled by the ESS: in fact ‘large differences in income to reward talents and efforts’ are becoming less accepted even in traditionally liberal countries such as the UK. Of the people sampled, there was a decrease of almost 10% of people agreeing with this statement from 2008 to 2016.
With country-specific variables taken into account, this is the best time to remind ourselves that the history of welfare systems is rooted in charity, and mirrors a culture embedded in paternalistic assumptions about human relationships. As societies are changing at an increasingly fast pace, we need to admit that our tired institutions need to be redesigned to fit new purposes and fulfil re-discovered needs.
The core of the critique of UBI rests on the assumption that some cultural constructs are unchangeable. It is in this ‘unchange-ability’ that a deeper pessimism, characteristic of contemporary times, is rooted. Culture shapes individual psychology, self-perception and worth, and identity, and this in turn shapes behaviour in relation to the self and others. As social, relational and co-dependent individuals, our values and beliefs become expressed in the institutions we build. It is precisely by changing values that cultural shift becomes possible.
Culture is not something that can easily be managed and, as a consequence, critics who define themselves as ‘realists’ cannot and should not be easily dismissed. However, cultural change can be encouraged, and social policies such as UBI, which take on the duty of regulating the worst selfish instincts nurtured by the competitive and individualist culture we live in, are the best place to start the re-imagining of human societies with different priorities, derived from different values.