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Ethics Explainer: Universal Basic Income

by The Ethics Centre
21 May 2018
EXPLAINER
In the past few years, there has been growing hype around universal basic income (UBI), the idea that we should receive a regular and liveable cash payment with no strings attached – no exchange of labour or goods, just straight up cash.
 
The idea of a UBI has deep historical roots. In Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, he writes that instead of punishing a poor person who steals bread, “it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming, first a thief, and then a corpse”.
 
Over three hundred years later, John Stuart Mill also supported the concept in Principles of Political Economy, arguing that “a certain minimum [income] assigned for subsistence of every member of the community, whether capable of labour or not” would give the poor an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.
 
In the 20th century, the UBI gained support from a diverse array of thinkers for very different reasons. Martin Luther King, for instance, saw a guaranteed payment as a way to uphold human rights in the face of poverty, while Milton Friedman understood it as a viable economic alternative to state welfare. 

Would a UBI encourage laziness? 

Yet, there has always been strong opposition to implementing basic income schemes. The most common argument is that receiving money for nothing undermines work ethic and encourages laziness. There are also concerns that many will use their basic income to support drug and alcohol addiction.
 
However, the only successfully implemented basic income scheme has shown these fears might be unfounded. In the 1980s, Alaska implemented a guaranteed income for long term residents as a way to efficiently distribute dividends from a commodity boom. A recent study of the scheme found full-time employment has not changed at all since it was introduced and the number of Alaskans working part-time has increased. 
 
The success of this scheme has inspired other pilot projects in Kenya, Scotland, Uganda, the Netherlands, and the United States. 

The rise of the robots

The growing fear that robots are going to take most of our jobs over the next few decades has added an extra urgency to the conversation around UBI. A number of leading technologists, including Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, have suggested some form of basic income might be necessary to alleviate the effects of unemployment caused by automation.
 
In his bestselling book Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford argues that a basic income is the only way to stimulate the economy in an automated world. If we don’t distribute the abundant wealth generated by machines, he says, then there will be no one to buy the goods that are being manufactured, which will ultimately lead to a crisis in the capitalist economic model.
 
In their book Inventing the Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams agree that full automation will bring about a crisis in capitalism but see this as a good thing. Instead of using UBI as a way to save this economic system, the unconditional payment can be seen as a step towards implementing a socialist method of wealth distribution.

The future of work

Srnicek and Williams also claim that UBI would not only be a political and economic transformation, but a revolution of the spirit. Guaranteed payment, they say, will give the majority of humans, for the first time in history, the capacity to choose what to do with their time, to think deeply about their values, and to experiment with how to live their lives.
 
Bertrand Russell made a similar argument in his famous treatise on work, In Praise of Idleness. He writes that in a world where no one is compelled to work all day for wages, all will be able to think deeply about what it is they want to do with their lives and then pursue it. For many, he says, this idea is scary because we have become dependent on paid jobs to give us a sense of value and purpose.
 
So, while many of the debates about UBI take place between economists, it is possible that the greatest obstacle to its implementation is existential. A basic payment might provide us with the material conditions to live comfortably, but with this comes the confounding task of re-thinking what it is that gives our lives meaning.