Universal basic income, a regular unconditional cash payment to the whole population is increasingly being discussed in social, political, academic circles and among citizens in general. People are championing it from right and left. But, if it’s being pushed from both ends of the political spectrum, what’s its secret? Is it so amazingly convincing that all differences between political extremes are abolished? Hardly. More like it, the fact that basic income is being hailed from such different political positions muddies serious debate and is downright bewildering for a lot of people. And, on the left, a lot of other people, saying that they’re no suckers, opt for a knee-jerk, total rejection of basic income because they see it as just another right-wing con.
So, for example, Chris Hedges writes of “The Oligarchs’ ‘Guaranteed basic Income’ Scam”, pointing out that:
The oligarchs do not propose structural change. They do not want businesses and the marketplace regulated. They do not support labor unions. They will not pay a living wage to their bonded labor in the developing world or the American workers in their warehouses and shipping centers or driving their delivery vehicles. They have no intention of establishing free college education, universal government health or adequate pensions. They seek, rather, a mechanism to continue to exploit desperate workers earning subsistence wages and whom they can hire and fire at will.
The call for a guaranteed basic income is a classic example of Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci’s understanding that when capitalists have surplus capital and labor they use mass culture and ideology, in this case neoliberalism, to reconfigure the habits of a society to absorb the surpluses.
He’s dead right. But nailing the evil ways of oligarchs hardly demolishes left-wing arguments in favor of an unconditional, universal basic income which, so far, is the only policy being mooted as a way of universally guaranteeing the most basic right of all: the right to material existence. Moreover, basic income, while not a universal panacea, is one way of strengthening vulnerable members of society in their struggle against the oligarchs.
Then again, the respected Marxist economist Michael Roberts has a different take in his recent blog (which we’ll cite at length to cover all the points):
But what to do, as jobs are lost to robots? Some liberal economists talk of a ‘robot tax’. But all this would do is slow down automation – hardly a progressive move in reducing toil. The idea of universal basic income (UBI) continues to gain traction among economists, both leftist and mainstream. I have discussed the merits and demerits of UBI before. UBI is advocated by many neoliberal economic strategists as a way of replacing the ‘welfare state’ of free health, education and decent pensions with a basic income. And it is being proposed to keep wages down for those in work. Any decent level of basic income would be just too costly for capitalism to afford. And even if UBI were won by workers in struggle, it would still not solve the issue of who owns the robots and the means of production in general.
A more exciting alternative, in my view, is the idea of Universal Basic Services i.e. what are called public goods and services, free at the point of use. A super-abundant society is by definition one where our needs are met without toil and exploitation ie a socialist society. But the transition to such a society can start with devoting socially necessary labour to the production of basic social needs like education, health, housing, transport and basic foodstuffs and equipment.
Roberts’ text provides a good starting point for getting to the nitty-gritty of some key aspects of the debate about basic income.
1) A basic income can be financed in several different ways. The difference between left- and right-wing proposals is easily ascertained by asking who gains and who loses. A left-wing proposal would entail progressive tax reform which brings about a major redistribution from the richest citizens to the rest of society. Hence, in a financing proposal resulting from an extensive study which is detailed in the final chapter of our book Against Charity, we specify that, with our version of basic income, the richest 20% would lose and the other 80% would gain. This would mean a redistribution of income which, in Gini Index terms, would become one of the most egalitarian in the world (about 0.25).
2) Any basic income that contemplates dismantling the welfare state is a right-wing ploy. The fact that Milton Friedman—who, in fact, rather than basic income, favored a negative income tax (NIT) which is similar to basic income in some ways but also significantly different in others—and other more recent right-wing economists are ostensibly basic income supporters has led some left-wing critics to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Friedman wanted the NIT as a sop when he was aiming to dismantle public social services in the United States but it’s pretty reductionist to conclude from this that all basic income supporters want to do away with welfare. Far from it. A basic income could, and should, entail more and better social services. The Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), which was founded in 1986 and which now has sections in every continent, is clear on this point in a resolution passed at BIEN’s General Assembly meeting in Seoul in2016 stating that its version of basic income is:
[…] stable in size and frequency and high enough to be, in combination with other social services, part of a policy strategy to eliminate material poverty and enable the social and cultural participation of every individual. We oppose the replacement of social services or entitlements, if that replacement worsens the situation of relatively disadvantaged, vulnerable, or lower-income people.
3) Left-wing supporters of basic income also understand that a basic income would increase the negotiating power of workers. When the working relationship is so institutionally asymmetrical that contracts between a multinational company and any worker legally compare both parties as “equals”, it isn’t difficult to see how a basic income would improve the position of the more vulnerable party who would at least have an income above the poverty line to fall back on.
4) As many feminists repeatedly point out, a lot of battered women don’t leave abusive partners because they feel they can’t earn a living or survive independently. A good proportion of abused women are materially dependent on violent partners and a basic income would give them the material independence they urgently need.
5) Basic income would be a measure in the domain of political economy but it is not a “political economy” as such. The difference between left and right basic income proposals is evident with the number and type of measures they urge in the realm of a political economy. For example, taxing the rich so that they would effectively pay for a basic income for the rest of the population would be vastly different from any measures peddled by an oligarchy which has gobbled its way to such an extremethat three people in the United States—Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet—owned more wealth in 2017 than the bottom half of the country combined. Surely that difference alone should be enough to dispel any notion that there’s only one kind of basic income and it’s a bad kind at that.
6) Unlike conditional benefits, which entail high administrative costs, stigmatizing recipients and, worse, cause and perpetuate the poverty trap, it’s clear that by its very nature an unconditional basic income would avoid these pitfalls by eliminating monitoring bureaucracy and mechanisms. More important, there is an enormous difference in the basic concepts. Conditional benefits are for problem people, “losers”, “failures”, people made redundant or unable to find work, unable to earn enough money to live on, or with serious problems related with earnings, capabilities, cognitive skills, mental and physical health and so on. Poverty is viewed as a personal aberration. The norm is having a job and earning a respectable living, which flies in the face of today’s reality that having a job is no guarantee against poverty, as the burgeoning numbers of working poor testify. In its left-wing conception, with freedom, justice, equality, and human dignity as inherent principles, an unconditional universal basic income would automatically guarantee the material existence of every person for the mere fact of being a citizen or registered resident. Once this is assured, other details can be discussed but the first aim is to establish the most basic of all rights, the right to exist.
These points underscore the differences between the left- and right-wing versions of basic income. There are others, of course, but these six would be the most important divergences. Saying that basic income is a bad idea because Milton Friedman, Nixon, Mark Zuckerberg, or Richard Branson support it is about the same level of argument as saying that human rights are bad because Madeleine (“the price is worth it”) Albright claims to promote them.
So, is basic income revolutionary? No. But neither are pay rises, more power to the unions, generous public health, education and housing systems, nor accountable, ethical government… Capitalism is a grave problem for anyone who wants a decent society and basic income is “reformist” in the classical sense of the word. But, hey, who’s got a good idea for definitively overturning the capitalist system right now?