The coronavirus continues to claim thousands of lives around the world every day. At the same time, the economic fallout of prolonged lockdowns is also becoming a very real concern, especially for the global working class. As we have seen time and again, the working poor are the most vulnerable first victims of any economic crisis. Like lambs to the slaughter, it is them who die first of starvation, crushed under the weight of a heartless system, dehumanised by society's cold indifference, eventually becoming mere statistics in the ledger books of economic history.
It is therefore no surprise that at a time like this, there is a resurgence of the idea of a Universal Basic Income within global policy discussions. The issue saw a similar revival during the 2008 economic crash as well, although ultimately nothing came of it. So the question arises now, are we seeing the same lip service all over again or is there some credence to the idea in this particular crisis?
Universal Basic Income (UBI), on the face of it, is a very simple idea. It proposes that governments take responsibility to provide their citizens with a minimum periodic income payment, that is: unconditional, automatic, non-withdrawable, and individual. In its essence, it is premised on the notion that a minimum income – that enables one to survive and live with dignity – is a basic human right.
The current wave of global discourse was sparked earlier this month, when the Spanish government announced plans for a UBI program as a permanent fixture of the Spanish economy. Spain has been reeling from the pandemic, with a death toll already in the thousands. As many Spaniards face desperate economic situations, the finance Minister Nadia Calvino said that plans were being drawn for a UBI program "as soon as possible". Since then, other countries in Europe have also put the topic back on the table, as a potentially viable piece of the post-Covid recovery plan. Furthermore, Pope Francis recently spoke in favour of the idea saying that "this may be the time to consider a universal basic wage." Coincidentally, discussions on UBI were happening in the US immediately before the crisis as well, popularised by the campaign of Democratic nomination candidate Andrew Yang.
However, the idea of a basic income, often tied to visions of a utopian society, is not a new one at all. In the 15th century, the English lawyer and social philosopher Thomas More observed the persistence of poverty and crime in society, and first proposed the idea of a basic income in his book Utopia. Much later, in the early days of industrialisation, many scholars thought that the economic utopia was very near at hand. Karl Marx, Benjamin Franklin, John Stuart Mill, Oscar Wilde, and John Maynard Keynes had all looked at the rising productivity of labour as a sure sign of a future where workers would only work a few hours a week. Thus, for nearly 500 years now, visions of utopian societies, backed by a basic income for all, have remained a persistent theme in Western socio-political dialogue.
Although it never became a reality, the idea has not gone away either. Today, any talk of UBI can bring forth a flurry of opinions. Interestingly, however, unlike on many other issues, the views expressed cannot be demarcated along clear political lines. There are scholars on the left who see it as a natural evolution of the socialist program, as articulated by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and his crusade against poverty. Others see it as a necessity for the future of labour today, in the face of increasing automation of production processes. At the same time, there are also dissenting voices on the left, like labour union leaders who see the UBI as an end to jobs, and therefore an existential threat to unions. Still others, like left-wing commentator Chris Hedges, view it as a scam perpetrated by the oligarchs fearing that a UBI will be co-opted to dismantle every other social welfare program and "individualise society's problems."
Meanwhile, on the right, there are opponents who say that handing out "free money" would make people lazy as they would simply take that money, live on sustenance and never work again. They also claim that a UBI threatens to destroy innovation as having a "safety net" takes away the hunger and determination that entrepreneurs need. Meanwhile, on the other side you also have liberetarian titans like the economist Milton Friedman, who admitted that the free market economy cannot always eradicate poverty without some degree of government intervention, and was a proponent of the Negative Income Tax, suggesting "just giving cash to people who needed it."
Unfortunately, this multiplicity of opinions, although vibrant, only indicates the truth that nobody has answers on the issue. Additionally, in the absence of a coherent and credible point of view, one is compelled to return to first principles and look at the issue from a philosophical perspective.
UBI is ideologically hinged on the view that access to shelter and sustenance is not a commodity to be exchanged for labour – but a human right, similar to the right to healthcare and education. The latter are already accepted today as the responsibility of the state to guarantee for its citizens. Similarly, UBI is based on the idea that the basic survival needs of every citizen should also be guaranteed by the state. The right to survive without collateral is seen as an inalienable right, which should remain undisturbed by any external conditions, for example economic downturns.
A second ideological argument for UBI is tied to the reality of living in a democracy. It posits that a citizen cannot make reasoned political choices when constantly faced with the risk of poverty. This is true to a greater extent than we care to admit. We can see in our own democratic system, the economic desperation of the masses is blatantly manipulated by political classes, dangling promises of fuller bellies in the future. In countries like the US this problem takes a different form, as corporations buy elections leaving citizens who struggle to make ends meet staying out of political endorsements altogether – leading to governments that do not reflect the true democratic intentions of the populace.
Seen as such, UBI looks less like it is "good-to-have" and more like an imperative, to articulate any vision of a future society based on equality, democracy and human rights. However, as with any radical change, there is always vocal opposition.
Wouldn't it make people lazy and just stop working? This retort is based on the perception of the baseline human condition to be little more than that of anthropoid sloths, that somehow laziness is in our innate nature. However, numerous pilot studies with UBI and direct cash handouts around the world have shown this assumption not to be true.
What about the entrepreneurial spirit that such a safety-net will destroy? In truth the "entrepreneurial spirit" that is loudly lauded today rests upon many "secret" safety-nets, like trust funds and family inheritance. Yet, this truth has become so diluted today that someone like Donald Trump, who received "only a small loan of a million dollars" from his father, can see himself as a self-made billionaire. Nonetheless, many reasonable capitalists, including Mark Zuckeberg, argue that a UBI would actually promote more entrepreneurship as more people would be able to take risks.
But wouldn't it be just too expensive? Nobody is naive enough to assume that the introduction of a UBI would be business as usual for the rest of the economy. It has to occur simultaneously with major restructuring of economies, national budgets and global priorities. The expense, therefore, has to be seen in context. Let us not forget also that we already live in a world where global military spending amounts to $2 trillion a year, and that there are billionaires today who cannot finish all the wealth they have even if they spent $10 million a day till they die. Clearly, there is ample opportunity to reimagine the balance of wealth in the world, which many would argue is almost criminal at the moment.
While it is true that times of crisis bring about enormous hardship and widespread panic, such times can also challenge many assumptions and norms that had seemed so fossilised in the social order. These unpredictable tremors can certainly be unnerving, but we should also recognise that trying times bring forth new paradigms and new opportunities. Thus, when the new dawn emerges, are we going to carry with us the historical baggage of broken systems and tired norms into the new world? Or will we dare to reimagine our futures, shedding all that we know that no longer serves us, creating a new world based on enduring human values? The choice remains ours to make.