Universal Basic Income (UBI) is not a new idea. But it is an idea whose time has come. It is one of the simplest, most obvious pieces of social policy imaginable: every member of a society, with no exceptions, is entitled to enough money to live on.
Eligibility is not conditional on age or employment status, or education or criminal record like the poorly-built social welfare programs of modern Australia that have deep, but invisible, cracks for the most vulnerable to fall into.
With this one policy we can end poverty and social vulnerability and greatly strengthen workers rights. It would help close racial and gender inequalities and exploitation.
Poverty and need
Imagine an Australia where unemployment benefits, pensions, youth allowance, and other payments are all replaced by a basic income of $20,000 a year per adult — about $400 a week, roughly the poverty line for an independent adult. The advantages would be immediate and obvious.
The most immediate effect would be to cut poverty for all people who are not afflicted with addiction or some other compulsion that would prevent them from spending that money on the essentials of life.
By taking the radical step of realising that poverty is caused by a lack of money — rather than lack of skill, incentive or moral character as right-wingers so often claim — and structurally redressing that, we cut the Gordian knot. What a mind-boggling quantity of human stress, toil and misery would be eliminated if everyone could be assured that, at the end of the day, they know for a certainty that they are entitled to the essentials of life as a legally enforceable human right.
Labour and the future of work
With the implementation of UBI, workers become hugely empowered in their negotiations with their bosses. Without the threat of poverty and destitution that unemployment now holds, workers can afford to be far bolder in their negotiations.
The wages for dirty, dangerous and unpleasant jobs — currently filled at low pay, overwhelmingly by those with no alternative — will rise significantly. How much would you actually have to pay someone to clean toilets when they can refuse?
This empowerment is not only likely to raise wages for the least desirable jobs, it is also likely to lead to a cut in the work-week across the board. People will be able to refuse more hours and have more time to spend with friends and family, care for children, the old and infirm, relax, educate themselves, volunteer in their communities and get politically active.
This would be a powerful blow against because it would effectively eliminate the ability of capital to threaten workers with destitution as a tool of coercion. As such, it would greatly diminish the potential for exploitation.
UBI can also provide security to the “precariat”, the rapidly growing segment of workers who lack income security due to casualisation of work, being self-employed, or working in highly unpredictable or seasonal industries. This security can allow people to pursue their talents and passions without the fear of poverty. This can also provide support for cooperative enterprises, which may not be able to support their members initially.
When access to the necessities of life are a human right, volunteering and community organising are no longer de facto penalised by the need to sell labour-time to capital in order to survive. New chances can be created for people to become full-time volunteers, or cut their waged working hours and replace them with volunteering and community work.
This redistribution can also be used to smooth the economic and social transitions that will be needed to deal with challenges such as climate change and automation.
Typically, these costs fall almost entirely on workers — in the form of higher prices for electricity and petrol, layoffs due to the abolition of obsolete industries or replacement of human labour with machines. But these hardships can be greatly mitigated by taking the sting out of unemployment and by ensuring that everyone has enough for the essentials.
The automation and obsolescence of jobs should be a joyous thing that we all welcome: the same ends are being met with fewer labour-hours. There is more time to relax and have fun, more time to improve your mind and body, more time to spend with your loved ones and build your communities. Only the peculiar structure of capitalism could turn developments so obviously positive into something to be feared.
As this payment is uniform, it immediately cuts income differences based on race, gender and sexuality. A white heterosexual male gets the same $20,000 as an indigenous transwoman.
This guaranteed payment can also provide the basis for community housing and share housing for disadvantaged groups. We all know that the cost of living can drop dramatically as the number of inhabitants in a shared house rises. When they have access to a stable, guaranteed source of income, people can gain independence, political consciousness and ultimately social liberation.
What UBI is not
UBI cannot replace all social welfare programs. Not everyone will have the same costs associated with living, and things like disability benefits must be maintained.
UBI cannot replace a robust public health system. It is not there to manage preventative care or catastrophic illness.
There are also many injustices in our society that UBI cannot redress, such as discrimination and police brutality.
UBI is not socialism. Its implementation would not end the capitalist mode of production. UBI is not incompatible with dictatorial relations in the workplace, production for profit and private ownership of capital.
That does not make it any less radical. It ensures the needs of all are met. It guarantees everyone a share of the collective productive capacity of the society. It eliminates the greatest coercive tool of employers and opens the way for genuine freedom of choice for workers.
It frees up countless millions of wasted labour hours, which can be better used for leisure, or for community building — or for revolution. It’s only one part of the new world we want to build but it can be a key component of building the kind of socialism that is worth fighting for.