A fixed source of income could cure many personal hardships, but there are those who insist that it would turn us into a society of sloths

 

As we approach a quite seismic referendum here in the UK this month one of the questions we face is whether we should remain in this economic catastrophe of a political union or not. I believe we should for various other reasons than economics but this is beside the point.

In Europe, nearly one in seven people are at risk of poverty and the figures are even higher for some groups such as children and immigrants. So what is the answer to this very real problem of poverty we face? Just one: free money.

Known as Unconditional Basic Income (UBI), the policy has received a growing movement of support for its introduction. Scrapping the existing benefits system,which David Freud MP, calls a ‘tangled mess’, UBI would provide all members of society with a bit-by-bit salary paid for by the state. Not just a lump sum, known as a stakeholder grant, but a monthly salary sufficient for the receiver to be self-subsistent and free from the domination and vulnerability of economic relationships. It would also be able to remove people from the well-known poverty trap of the means-tested benefits system and provide them with a real sense of freedom — it could further challenge some of the inherent inequalities between genders in Western society today. Economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek accurately defends UBI  by describing it as, ‘a sort of floor by which nobody need fall’.

As mentioned, at the moment it is just a movement with momentum, but in June 2016 the Swiss will hold the very first referendum on whether to introduce a Basic Income. Meanwhile, pilots have been taken across the world in India, Africa and most recently in Finland which have received a lot of attention. The aim of this article though, is simply to outline a few philosophical and practical reasons for why UBI can potentially be the answer to our poverty problems in the West and provide our citizens with a more fulfilling life.

The freedoms UBI would provide are threefold. Starting with its ability to allow citizens for the first time to pursue personal projects and force us to fundamentally rethink what ‘work’ is. Renowned Left libertarians like G.A.Cohen believe ‘real freedom’ is for one to be able to chase their own conception of the most fulfilling life. UBI allows for this as the receiver no longer has to enter the workplace under the pressure of survival but instead goes to work for their own benefit. A Basic Income will also remove you from economic relationships that burden citizens with an unfulfilling life.

Quentin Skinner, Professor at Queen Mary University of London, writes that every individual would wish to reasonably avoid economic relationships where they are so dependent on wages that they are vulnerable to domination. UBI will secure this freedom for people. Finally, the means-tested system that we live under today provides an incredibly unsatisfactory service at getting the right public transfers to the right people. Meanwhile, it stigmatises many in society as those ‘who need help’ and those who don’t. Instead, UBI, often referred to as a citizen’s dividend, would provide people with an enhanced sense of privacy and remove this stigmatisation that pays no attention to personal circumstances. 

Secondly, UBI has the potential to improve the workplace not just for the employee but for their employer also. With the introduction of a Basic Income wages would essentially fall as each member of society now receives a flat rate subsistent salary. In turn, the prospects of full employment may not be so far-fetched as employers would be able to afford to hire more people. A policy that provides people with free money and enhances full employment, surely this has to be the remedy to all our problems?

However, there is a very real objection which asks why anyone would go back to work when they don’t have to. It would create a dependency on state funds and just allow people to exploit the hard work of others. Stuart White supports this argument calling on the reciprocity principle, which explains that a Basic Income would apparently allow us to exploit our fellow citizens — an impermissible state of affairs.

Yet, real applied psychological research conducted on this matter has shown that people who have received basic income in pilot tests carried out in India and Finland have psychologically benefited. Guy Standing, co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, writes that a basic security provided by UBI as a right has actually made people work harder, they have discovered enhanced confidence and they work more productively.

In today’s society where we tackle consistent inequalities bestrewn men and women, UBI has the potential to bring our genders closer together. The feminist movement for years has challenged political Liberalism by insisting that the ‘personal is political’ and campaigning for the recognition that women are undermined in the household. Expected to care for children and carry out the day-to-day duties a household incurs, the work women do has for centuries gone unnoticed and still remains unpaid. Judith Shulevitz of the New York Times wrote an article in January 2016 titled ‘Payback Time For Women’. In it she argues, and I agree, that for too long society has been getting a free ride on women’s unrewarded contributions in the household to the perpetuation of the human race. So, in response to White’s previous claim Shulevitz identifies how under our current system society has been exploiting the hard work of women for a mutual benefit. UBI however, directly addresses the injustices we face between genders and promotes a more gender-equal world which I believe to be morally desirable.

I recognise that this may come across as a sparse argument for the advocation that all citizens should receive free money. There are many moral and practical counterarguments that can be waged against it. However, with the points raised, I hope to have ignited a new debate on one potential cure for many problems faced by Western economies and societies. We regularly ask ourselves how to fix the fact that some people do not have enough money. One answer, from the advocates of UBI is to just give it to them.

Links:

http://basicincome.org.uk/2013/09/stuart-white/