Of late there have been a growing number of people who take seriously the promise of Unconditional Basic Income (“UBI”) policy programs. Roughly, these advocates propose that UBI can allay the harms and legitimate social anxiety caused by cycles of un- and under-employment thereby making persons less susceptible to predatory employers. In addition to addressing labour unrest in economies beset by precarious work, these kinds of advocates say the policy can somewhat stoke consumption while unleashing the creativity required to make more diverse kinds of public and private goods. All in all, it is said UBI is emancipatory for it can reduce poverty in the Global North and promote human flourishing.
It would be foolish and unnecessarily reactionary to dismiss this kind of egalitarian aspiration out of hand, especially when the truly disadvantaged—the ones who are most burdened by structural injustice—are disproportionally effected by vindictive austerity. Still, there are a few conceptual oversights with this advocacy. This requires attention prior to even discussing practical considerations such as whether to use tax system—deductions or credits—or the welfare system to implement the policy, let alone legal questions about maturity and qualification.
To begin, UBI proponents make an error by not properly anticipating how UBI will be influenced by current social forces and politics. Consider that if the UBI level is set below that required for total independence from work, then this will depreciate wages. In this respect it is tantamount to the widespread public support of wages while ensuring profits remain private, akin to corporate welfare. A secondary effect of a general depression of wages would mean that undocumented immigrates and others without work visas would be even more exploited as their wages would tumble. This makes them just that much more vulnerable.
As another example, consider that in cities like Vancouver, Canada where there is insufficient rental stock to keep prices stable, landlords would simply claim the lion’s share of UBI. This is hardly an act of great redistribution if the funds quickly trickle up to those with property. Some might argue that a UBI might allow people to move out of cities, but this is probably negligible given the amenities that cities offer. If anything, the opposite will probably be true. UBI could increase urbanization as rurally situated persons have the resources to uproot.
As for politics, a parallel concern is that UBI is often considered to be a battle horse used to dismantle existing welfare systems. Scaremongering over big government and limited funds, libertarian leaning advocates think that UBI can replace the growing cost of administration by supposedly mismanaged cumbersome bureaucratic entities. Notwithstanding that this portrait is inaccurate, it nevertheless miscues efficiency for effectiveness. The significant reduction of fees in areas like education, health care, and transportation do effectively improve people’s quality of life. The same can be said for childcare allowances, social housing, and publically subsidised food banks.
Undeniably, a considerable number of social problems can be addressed if people had more money available to them. But this does not mean that it is an effective solution to all social injustices. Targeted welfare programs are extremely useful and need to retained because they help those most susceptible to violence, discrimination, and harassment. Sexism and racism are not going to simply disappear because of UBI.
Supporters of UBI should first and foremost protect existing social resources, and then thereafter seek to expand upon them by providing additional resources to people. To trade one for the other would be a mistake that inadvertently curtails the freedom of those whose liberty and rights are already constrained.
Lastly, UBI does little to truly remedy social inequality. While poverty would be curtailed, it doesn’t limit the richest ability to accrue wealth and centralise their power. If the promise of UBI is to be emancipatory and somewhat egalitarian, then the first step is acknowledging that social inequalities arise because of enormous wealth and political power are one and the same thing.
Without addressing that fundamental problem of capital and property, UBI is window dressing. While I do think that there is some merit to UBI proposals, the proper metric for UBI advocates is whether the policy decreases a person’s subordination to the market. Put otherwise, does the policy further democratic control over political and economic affairs. It can, if the funds for the UBI come from radical taxation on the 1% or substantively reduce the coercive power of money over politics. What I mean is UBI has the most yield when it is linked to a broader radical redistribution of productive property.
Scott Timcke is a PhD Candidate at SImon Fraser University’s School of Communication. He studies the political economy of life chances.
All of these arguments have been considered in the UBI literature. Not to say these are not serious concerns–if a UBI is effected at too low an amount it will not cause the transformations people want. But if UBI is high enough then it will precisely “decrease a person’s subordination to the market” because people will not have to work to subsist. Further, Carole Pateman has argued that by freeing people from the toil and stress of subsistence work a UBI can diminish the power of money over politics–not by eliminating great inequality, but by freeing up the time and energy for organization and civic participation. But neither Pateman’s argument nor support for a UBI mean that we cannot continue to reform campaign finance. Nor will UBI depreciate wages that are already at the legal minimum while we maintain the minimum wage. The challenge of a UBI is not just getting one in place, but ensuring that it is set at a high enough amount (or gets to a high enough amount eventually without needs-based programmes being gutted before it gets there), and doesn’t come with onerous trade-offs (eg as you say we may well still need some form of rent control–perhaps like the rent control currently applicable in BC). This is a serious political challenge, but it may be one that it is necessary to undertake.