A philosopher on the need for universal basic income for a more just society

Juliana Bidadanure is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Stanford and affiliated with the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. Her work lies at the intersection of public policy and philosophy. She focuses on egalitarianism, especially on age-group justice and basic income. She has been invited to speak at several basic income events like the Summit on Poverty and Opportunity in 2016. She is currently teaching a course on basic income at Stanford (PHIL 273U), and will teach a class on the philosophy of public policy in Spring quarter (PHIL 75).

Universal Basic Income, as defined by the Basic Income Earth Network, is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.


Vivan Malkani: Do you view Universal Basic Income (UBI) more as an international aid mechanism or a nation-state based welfare measure?

Juliana Bidadanure: When we refer to UBI, I think that we generally think about it as a domestic policy measure. In international development, we tend to refer to the very same idea of giving people cash unconditionally as ‘cash transfers’. The connections between the cash transfers and UBI movements are extensive though, and the two are becoming more and more connected. UBI academics often use the data produced by cash transfers agencies to see what people actually do with unconditional cash. Both movements emphasize the transformative effects of cash for people, and work against the double wave of generalized distrust for the poor and the idea that if you give people cash, they’re just going to waste it. The connection between the two movements is now even more important since Give Directly has announced their 12-year project in Kenya as a UBI pilot. It becomes ‘UBI’ rather than just ‘cash transfer’s when you start pushing for basic income to be introduced as policy.

Even though most redistribution measures take place at a domestic level, people have also been thinking of UBI at all possible levels, including at a city or regional level. You could also imagine transnational basic income schemes, like the EU dividend program with Phillipe van Parijs defending the proposal of 200 euros a month for all European citizens. The ideological basis of this scheme is that a strong political Europe requires a strong social Europe. This scheme of redistribution could create a sense of belonging and solidarity within the EU. 200 euros is enough in some European countries to lead a minimally decent life. Of course in other countries this amount is not enough at all; this stipend of 200 euros would act as the base income for all European residents, but it has to be adequately topped up with additional benefits entitlements by each national government so that their residents can lead a decent life.

VM: In 2016, the Swiss government failed the plan to introduce a 2,000 franc UBI to its citizens. One of the reasons given was the same fear of dependency that you mentioned. The experiments so far have had short timeframes, like the Madhya Pradesh experiment mentioned in the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society event on basic income. Isn’t this debate just conjecture about whether the recipients of UBI will become lazy and overly dependent or use the payments wisely?

JB: I agree with you, and I think the debate is very ideological. That’s why we have experiments. For instance, people worry about alcohol consumption, but the experiment in Madhya Pradesh showed alcohol consumption going down. In the presentation you mention at Stanford, Joe Huston did a great job at showing that in various cash transfer experiments across the world there is no evidence for these claims of misuse.

On the other hand, I want to be careful with these experiments. Philosophers are asking whether basic income is a right. If that is the case, then the debate should not be so much about what people would end up doing with the money. Sometimes, the focus on how people will use the money shifts the attention away from the normative reasons underpinning basic income, like the view that no one should be left without access to the resources they need to survive. There are different ways to deliver that right. Giving people jobs would be another way to ensure that people don’t fall below certain thresholds. The problem with this view is that many people do work that is not remunerated, like caregivers. We also know that the future of jobs is at risk because of automation. The exclusive focus on jobs as a solution to poverty is a problem for at least the two reasons aforementioned. Focusing on work as opposed to jobs is what basic income proponents seek to do.

VM: Looking at a recent Asia Foundation report exploring the potential use of UBI in India, if the provision of social resources is still at a very poor level in poor countries, what good does a basic income do? The fundamental problem seems to still be the quality of services like healthcare and education. Wouldn’t it be more effective for the government to develop those services instead of giving out inadequate payments?

JB: I don’t think that we should frame this issue as an either-or scenario. Basic Income is necessary, but insufficient on its own to address poverty, precariousness, joblessness and growing inequalities.

People who believe in basic income do so from differing political standpoints. Social democrats believe that what we owe each other is not just cash; we owe each other good institutions. In Europe, the basic income debate has been framed as a further enhancement of the welfare state. I grew up in France; there are many things that I think are done right there. We have universal healthcare, free higher education, but we also have a benefit system that is archaic and abusive. People who are out of work get only between 400 and 500 euros a month to survive, they are stigmatized and demonized as burdens, and some groups in society are excluded from the scheme, like young adults below the age of 25. The reasons for such restrictive and low benefits are ideological: that people should be taught the right values, or they can’t be trusted with cash.

In the UK, the benefit system creates an unemployment trap. If you receive cash on the condition that you are not working, and if you find a job, you lose the benefits straight away. That means that, if the job doesn’t work out after a month or so (as is the case with many precarious jobs), you may end up having to spend weeks without access to public assistance. The idea behind basic income is that you would not have to worry about that; that base is secure. You can then try different things like internships, trainings, volunteering, etc. because of your security.

The existing benefits system also gives too much control to street level bureaucrats; people who are meant to deliver public assistance have too much control over the lives of the people receiving those benefits. This is particularly bad in the UK, where the system is intrusive and requires you to prove that you are applying to jobs, demanding that you send dozens of applications per week. This is punitive. The system is built on the view that you are responsible for being unemployed and that you must prove to society that you are not a parasite. This allows for and encourages divisive rhetoric that is detrimental to democracy. Political parties can use resentment towards “welfare queens” and “benefit scroungers” to create a spirit of resentment against those who are most reliant on society, which is very detrimental to social cohesion.

I believe in basic income as a reformation and further enhancement of that benefit system. But I don’t think that UBI is just for developed welfare states. If we think that the people should be above a certain threshold, they are going to need a lot of cash, but also a lot more than just cash. Both in the US and India, the question of the development package is very important. But the case for cash can and should be made there too. There is a traditional school of thought in development that does not trust individuals with cash, and I think this mistrust must be challenged.

VM: I agree with you that in an ideal, just society a UBI package would work well. But what about the costs of making something like this actually materialize? Governments need to use every penny effectively in order to make a program like this succeed. A core part of the UBI proposal is that every citizen will receive that income; this system does not help with systemic inequality as both sides are receiving this equal payment. Is that a good use of government’s resources?

JB: When we think about the cost of UBI, we need to keep in mind that some programs will become redundant. This does not mean that the welfare state becomes redundant; it means that certain existing welfare programs may disappear and be replaced by UBI. So part of UBI will be funded in that way.

The other thing that we need to keep in mind is that when people are free from the basic fear linked to income insecurity, this will impact crime, health, and other problems that do a lot of damage to society and also cost a lot to deal with. Prisons are expensive, and so many people’s lives are ruined because they are constantly under pressure from income insecurity. These costs must be factored in when looking at the bigger picture of implementing UBI.

But this only addresses one part of the problem. The bigger question you ask about how expansive basic income would be can only be answered if we start thinking of different ways to fund basic income.

Personally I think the best way to move forward is with a variety of funding mechanisms. This could be progressive taxation, wealth taxes, taxes on financial transactions, consumption taxes and even carbon taxes and a divestment from the prison system; there are many ways to fund this that would not imply framing basic income as a tradeoff. Raising funds will rely on innovative ways to save and divert resources. I believe that basic income is a concrete way to move us towards a more just world with fewer inequalities. In that sense, basic income is often seen as the end, but it should also be viewed as the means to get to a more just tax system and society.

VM: In your basic income podcast, you mentioned that a problem with basic capital is that people can “blow it away” and be irresponsible with that capital. Doesn’t the same risk exist for periodic payments?

JB: That is a valid concern but the difference is that even if you use your income ‘irresponsibly’, you get a new income stipend the following month! With basic income, you may fall below a certain threshold for a period of time because you made some questionable choices, but that period of time is quite short since you are raised above the threshold every month. The problem with basic capital is that you only get it once. You can be prudent with it and use it to go to college, but you still may not get a job afterwards; or you can make decisions that seem prudent at the time, like buying a house, and then lose a lot of capital through brute luck. I don’t think that a system that allows for large inequalities to be derived from brute luck is a just system.

I believe in a mix of basic income and basic capital. Basic income should be the baseline. If it is a policy that is to be attached to a right of existence, then there is no reason why children should not get it. I think that we should have a system where half of the child’s basic income should go to the parents as child benefits and the other half should be saved, as a baby bond or trust fund that can be retrieved at age 18 or 21 in the form of basic capital. For me, that’s the best way to keep basic income as the baseline that people can rely on throughout their existence, but also address the wealth issue that is enormous especially in the US. In France, for example, I don’t think that it is that important to have basic capital in addition to basic income; because higher education is free. The necessity for a huge starting capital is far less important than here where having access to $100,000 can enable you to get a degree.

VM: What about something like wage subsidies or earned income tax credit? These measures seem to retain several positive aspects of UBI while addressing the inequality aspect more directly.

JB: People who believe in basic income are pushing for more universality, unconditionality and individuality. There are strong philosophical value-based reasons to push for these three features for an income support scheme. Universality emphasizes that we should not separate deserving from undeserving poor. Un-conditionality matters because conditional benefits are often intrusive and abusive and foster anti-democratic rhetoric. Individuality is crucial because we want to make sure that people who do not receive any benefits at present because they depend on a rich enough spouse have the ability to exit abusive relationships. Any policy that further those three goals must be seriously considered.

A negative aspect of tax credits is the bureaucratic approach of filing, which is also often household-based as opposed to individual-based. It may be an improvement over the current system but I choose to focus on basic income because of such flaws.

With regard to wage subsidies, we don’t want to subsidize employers; we want workers to have more bargaining power to get fairer wages. Basic income doesn’t negate the need for better wages, but it helps solve the problem by putting people in a better position to argue for fairer wages or work conditions, by enabling them to quit their jobs if they want to. Wage subsidies address the problem of working poverty, which is a structural problem that worries me very much. But the more radical solution is to push for structural changes in the balance of power in the workplace and the labor market. If basic income can help empower workers, I think it is a more promising and transformative policy than wage subsidies.

Vivan Malkani, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff interviewer at Stanford Political Journal.