Why we should support a Universal Basic Income

July 27, 2018

There is a common trend when arguing against a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to use critiques that could apply to any policy. The logical thing to do, if we were to take this line of reasoning at face value, would be to stand for nothing.

Before looking into these criticisms, we should begin by addressing exactly what is a UBI. A UBI is an unconditional, liveable wage for every citizen. If it does not meet the three metrics of 1) unconditionality; 2) liveability; and 3) for every citizen; then it is not a UBI.

There have been several “versions” of UBI proposed, so how do we know this definition is the most correct one? The first thing to observe is that one of the central claims UBI advocates have is that it would allow everyone to meet their basic needs without a job. If the income given was conditional, unliveable or exclusively for certain citizens, then that would not be possible.

Secondly, when evaluated separately it becomes clear that these features already exist and would not be a revolutionary new concept, but in combination they are.

A conditional living wage for every citizen is called “welfare”. (I know it’s hard to believe but some countries actually set their welfare rates at a living wage.)

An unconditional liveable wage for some citizens is called “capital dividends”, which are only accessible to the wealthy.

An example of an unconditional unlivable wage for all is the Alaska Permanent Fund, which has been in place since 1980.

I began this article by defining a UBI because a lot of the critiques it receives are not actually critiques of UBI at all, but of welfare programs that do not meet those three requirements.

Leaving aside the fact that what they are critiquing would be a UBI in name only, even in the most favourable view this would be critiquing a UBI that was badly implemented. But since any policy could be implemented badly why would that be a deal breaker for this issue and not every other?

It has been endorsed by capitalists, such as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. While this is a transparently biased summary of endorsements — it has also been endorsed by Martin Luther King, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Chelsea Manning — we should be asking ourselves if it makes sense to base our policy choices on which billionaire does or does not support them.

Would it not make more sense to stand for policies that improve the material conditions of people's lives regardless of who else thinks it would be a good idea?

The idea that higher education should be free is a common perspective in left-wing circles but if a billionaire endorsed that campaign, should we then oppose it?

The right-wing and the capitalists just have too much power, so our ideal version will never be achieved. This applies to all left-wing goals. If we waited until we had all of the levers of power before standing for anything, I imagine we would have a hard time finding anyone to stand with us to gain those levers of power.

It could be whittled back until it's not an unconditional liveable wage any more. At that point, by definition, it would not be a UBI. Given what the current Coalition government is doing to the right to strike, I think we should be thankful that no policy can be made permanent and immutable.

It could lead the way to cutting other programs. This is an interesting critique because it implies that we sit at an ideal equilibrium of government programs and any cuts to one ensures cuts to another. By this logic, someone advocating for free higher education should be to blame for cuts to healthcare.

There is debate to be had around the UBI, such as what is a “liveable wage” and should the payments extend to non-citizens. I'm sure over time there will be specific policy proposals worth opposing that merely use the name of UBI without meeting the three standards outlined above.

But until then, to have factions of the left fighting against a policy that would effectively eliminate poverty helps no one.

[Josh McGee is a founder and convenor of Basic Income Australia — Melbourne.]

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