Universal Basic Income: The Maslow Argument

In 1954 Abraham Maslow published his landmark work Motivation and Personality. A true stalwart that you’ll find being taught in virtually every social science and psychology program. In it Maslow lays out his deduction of why humans act the way they do, what they’re motivated by, and what they’re demotivated by.

We can think of our situation (personal, professional, familial, etc.) in life like we do a pyramid. The lower levels of the structure act as support for the upper levels. The lower levels must be there, and they must be stable, in order for the upper ones to exist.

Basic survival makes up the ground floor of our pyramid. We have to eat, drink water, and be protected from the elements. If we can’t do that what’s the point of doing anything else?

Once you have clothes you don’t want to go back to not having clothes. You also want to live in a safe area so your physical self isn’t threatened. But if you happen to be assaulted you want to make sure you have a way to regain your health through medical care. That’s security — “I don’t want to lose what I have”.

Most people will never fully escape the green rung of safety.¹ This is tragically unfortunate because all of the good things happen above it. All of them.

This is the best version of you. If you are here on the pyramid you’re reaching your full potential, accomplishing everything you can and want. If you wanted to be the absolute best parent you could be and you were hitting the mark, that might be the way you self-actualize. Maybe it’s being the teacher that many of us only encountered once or twice in all of our time in school. Being a top athlete might be another one. In short, mastery of body and mind; doing what you set out to do and doing it as well as it can be done.

To self-actualize you need respect. Respect from peers, yes. But more importantly, self-respect. You need to accept who you are internally. This can be boiled down to being unforgivably who you are and being completely ok with the consequences of that choice.

Next up is social connection. The people in your life. All those good people that make you laugh and feel loved, that’s this spot. Friends, family, intimacy, these are extremely rewarding and important parts of life. We must have them before we can get to Respect. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to have a healthy level of self-esteem without a stable support structure around you.

Those three top pieces of the pyramid make up what we would call the “good life”. Those areas are where you want your attention to be. If you can live your whole life focusing on just those three areas you will live an extremely fulfilling life. The problem is, the vast majority simply can’t. It’s on the bottom two levels where almost everyone, for the duration of their lives, is forced to exert their daily energy.

This should be the real argument for Universal Basic Income. Getting everyone off the bottom two rungs so they can focus on being the best human they can be. If everyone is focused on being the best version of themselves, not just on surviving, they’ll build, connect, and create. Shifting the energy spent by the majority of the United States population from maintaining their status quo to realizing their potential would become a major windfall not just for America but for the whole human population.


1Let me start out by saying there’s nothing wrong with being wealthy. But this is in large part why the rich continue to amass wealth. They don’t have to give the slightest thought to the bottom two pieces of their pyramid. Those two don’t end up on their daily radar at all. Which leaves them fortunate to be able to spend their energy on the top three rungs. It’s not simple money that lets you continue to be an accomplished person, it’s the additional mental energy you have at your disposal.

2The rich aren’t the real point here. The much larger thing that everyone seems to be missing is that we will all be much better off, rich and poor alike, if we can shift the focus of our population from survival and safety to relationships, self-esteem, and accomplishment.

Just imagine if everyone in the country got to choose what to work on. Instead of having to commit to working on the menial to assure survival they could choose to work on anything. Lower paying non-profit, sure. That small business that’s a long shot, go for it. New products, artists, ideas, entire new industries would spring from the collective shift of brain power away from “Rent is going to go up again next year, that’s going to be tough” to “I wonder if that would work. I’m going to give it a shot.”.

One of the arguments that comes up repeatedly tends to be that people won’t work. That seems like a narrow possibility to put everyone into. I think people want to work. But they want to work on what they want to work on. Not what someone else wants them to work on.

Will some people take advantage of the system? Yes, of course. There will always be those few. It’s possible that the payoff of UBI might take 10–20 years to fully develop. The physiology of people’s brains will need to adjust away from survival mode. But to argue against basic income on the premise that everyone will watch TV all day is short-run and shallow. Look at the possible long run return on investment. We should not cut off the nose to spite the face.

Universal basic income isn’t a retirement plan. It’s not a $60,000 a year salary. It’s basic income. At the high-end we’re talking $1,500/month. Enough to take care of what needs to be taken care of. That’s enough for rent, food, and health in the vast majority of the country. No, you can’t live in New York City. That’s fine, if that’s what you want, and a lot of people do, you’ll find a way to make up the difference by providing value to other people so you can earn additional income.

We’re not talking about giving people a high income that lets them do nothing yet reap mountainous rewards. No, this is just enough to bump everybody off the bottom two levels of the need pyramid.

3When the business community types come out and say it will be hard to find workers (labor) because no one will want to work it’s so thinly transparent that it makes me cringe. Because what they’re saying is — “My business needs cheap labor or I may go out of business”. My response — What about creative destruction? If you can’t handle a changing system maybe your business doesn’t provide a real enough value to survive. Do we need 400 different clothing brands? Let it burn. Maybe the system is propping you up.

The business world has preached creative destruction for years and I have always been a “let it burn” advocate. It should go both ways.² You want layoffs? Fine. Let’s make it a two-way road. We want universal basic income.

4"What are you, a communist?” — Are there elements to socialism in the idea of Universal Basic Income? Yes, undoubtedly. Does it put restrictions on pursuing capitalist endeavours? No it certainly does not. Adding UBI would leave us with a fully capitalist society that has a much wider, deeper, and more flexible safety net. Allowing more people to actually be capitalists as opposed to just living in a capitalist society.

Now, how do we pay for it? — Universal Basic Income: Paying For It Through Automation

¹Many more around the world will never get out of survival mode.

²Bailing out the banks was an atrocity hidden behind the guise that it was in favor of the public. In the short-run, yes, it was in favor of the public. But in the long-run? If you play poker and you lose all your money in one hand there are no redos. You chose to play the game and that’s one of the possible outcomes. What kind of signal does it send to the rest of the players in the game if the dealer not only allows but is the one orchestrating a redo?

phil&drews blog

Originally published at philandrews.io.