Basic Income is a Basic Human Right

We need to implement it before it’s too late.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The pilot UBI programs we have seen to date are based on the realities and performance of today’s economy. Even the most closely-controlled basic income experiments operate with the starting point of today’s economic conditions, whereas an actual basic income would be an integral part of an economy, and would therefore have an influence that would feed back into the system. In short, we can’t know for sure how a truly universal basic income would work until we create one.

What will drive UBI’s introduction is need. There are a handful of places worldwide where basic income exists as part of the regular economy. Iran and Saudi Arabia operate basic income schemes in order to alleviate poverty. Alaska and Macau provide basic income payments out of government budget surpluses, in the spirit of ensuring that all citizens benefit from the region’s wealth. While the former projects are implemented out of necessity, the Alaska and Macau schemes for redistributing wealth are a means of reducing inequality and future-proofing the economy. What these examples show is that genuine basic income schemes can work and achieve their aims.

In the West, we are experiencing the type of growth that directs money upwards into the hands of a small number of people. It is no longer the case that hard work pays off. Whether we act in advance, like Alaska and Macau, or wait until crushing levels of poverty are endemic in developed countries, we need to do something about the direction the economy is heading. Wealthy nations are only wealthy as a whole — the vast majority of citizens have modest incomes, and investment in wealthier nations drives up living costs, exacerbating hardship. We have now reached the stage where the mean income is barely enough to live on.

Each dot represents one income. You get the idea.

But it’s not just a problem of wages and living costs. The jobs market is changing, trending towards outsourcing, automation and AI. There may not be any wages to be earned if the robots really do take our jobs. Will they? It’s possible they might not — during the Industrial Revolution similar fears were voiced, but instead of a reduction in jobs for humans, we demanded, and produced, more goods. The difference now is that we are running out of potential for growth, and even if we weren’t, our continued expansion is killing the planet.

The areas that are experiencing growth are service and technology industries, themselves subject to operations that can be performed by machines. The old processes once undertaken by human hands are now replicated by lines of code. An algorithm now does the work of fifty, and heuristics are a substitute for the judgement once performed only by human minds. Those jobs for which we do need human input are sporadic and poorly paid, like care work, delivery driving, and catering — and they too are at risk of being automated, soon. Highly-skilled employees can earn a respectable wage, but their roles are at risk of outsourcing as developing nations catch up and provide their services at a more competitive rate.

The outcome is nations that hold an enormous amount of wealth when considering the country as a whole, but where everyone is struggling to get by. It’s not sustainable in a time where we still have a relatively good standard of living, and it will become even less so as the inequality deepens. It is said that the mark of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, and in order to be able to qualify that, we need some minimum standards that apply to all: a set of universal values.

It is important that we determine these values now, because the patterns in our economy lead to more and more of us slipping into the “vulnerable” category. Right now in the UK, 35% of working people are one paycheck from homelessness. That’s unacceptable as it is, but with greater inequality we will see more people slipping into precarious lifestyles and more people ending up actually homeless. We’re going to have a lot of humans unable to support themselves unless we drastically change our ideas about money and how it should be distributed.

The UN’s list of 30 fundamental human rights covers the bare minimum, yet even these low standards are frequently challenged in capitalist societies. The biggest issue is that capitalism, especially the neoliberal type, encourages selfishness and jealousy of other citizens. We are obsessed with the idea that someone else might be getting something without having ‘earned’ it, and we have regressed to the level of wanting to deny basic human rights to people because they are deemed unworthy by our standards. This problem is one that UBI can fix overnight, yet it is also the reason that many are opposed to UBI in the first place.

We look upon taxation almost as a fee we pay for personalised services from the government, when in reality it is paid to benefit all of society. Attempts to build a “smaller state” may seem like prudence to those who have little need for government services, but the poorest will lose out. The justification for this is that the poor should work harder so that they can afford to pay for better services, but there are many reasons why people are unable to improve their situation.

Additionally, the dismantling of public services means they are lost to all of us. The beauty of Universal Basic Income is that it’s universal. There’s no means-testing, no questioning of worthiness. Everyone gets it, and everyone gets the same. We need to change our relationship with money and basic needs. Basic income could do just that by removing the stigma from welfare, and by setting a minimum standard of living.

Many of the beliefs about UBI frame it as an expansion of welfare payments, or a social experiment that will never take off in reality. We exist in a culture where money is considered the reward for hard work, and that those who have not ‘earned’ it do not deserve any reward, certainly not out of ‘our’ taxes — even if that reward is simply what one needs to not starve to death. That indicates a cultural problem which we must resolve before UBI becomes necessary.

And it will become necessary. Maybe not as soon as we think, although there will come a tipping point when the robots have made enough jobs obsolete that we have a serious humanitarian issue. With our beliefs about work alone entitling us to means, it is likely that we will endure widespread poverty before we do anything about it. It doesn’t have to be this way, but that’s the direction we’re headed in.

That’s the danger with neoliberal thinking: it works great until you’re on the wrong side of the poverty line. Basic survival needs are something to be bought and paid for, rather than a given. If we don’t rethink what we value in society, then we will plough on towards, and through, a disaster until something breaks. Wouldn’t it be great if we could fix it first?