2 Big Challenges to Universal Basic Income, and How to Answer Them

by Olly Lennard

15 April 2016

Calls for a universal basic income (UBI) are only growing, and the idea is becoming increasingly prominent in the media. Here, Olly Lennard takes on two of the main objections to UBI.

1. The ‘some jobs need doing’ argument.

‘Some jobs need doing’ is a true and proper realisation with which to begin engaging with UBI. Many jobs, despite being socially necessary, can be less than glamorous. It might be objected that if UBI was introduced at or above a living wage then the labour market would shrink, and those necessary but unglamorous positions would be the first to remain stubbornly vacant.

This criticism comes at fans of UBI not only from the economic mainstream but also from Modern Monetary Theory, that even more heterodox school of financial thought. Scott Ferguson, for instance, describes UBI and postcapitalism as ‘contingent rebel poetics’, and like all MMTers favours a Job Guarantee backed by unlimited fiat currency as the engine of economic, social, and environmental transformation.

But we shouldn’t assume those socially necessary jobs will remain unglamorous. They will have to change. If there is a dearth of nurses, teachers, cleaners, or other essential people then we should make their jobs more financially appealing, offering higher wages to sweeten the deal. Placing UBI at the level of a living wage would allow those who want to work to take on those socially necessary jobs and increase their standard of living whilst not leaving those who are happy with less out in the cold, and jobs going undone.

I hope MMTers would be happy with this solution since in their view the public sector has no financial limit on the number of people it can employ. Those working socially necessary jobs would not be coerced into them through threat of not having enough to put food on the table, so one hopes they would work happier and harder. Moreover as a bonus, when those with lots of money start paying more to those with less, income inequality would be reduced.

But we shouldn’t stop at financial incentives: socially necessary jobs could be made more attractive with childcare, dental, better holidays and so on. There will also be a powerful incentive to tackle workplace isms that make jobs less accessible to certain demographics: if the labour market shrinks, as the UBI-objector says it will, then employers and managers will be motivated to keep positions attractive to as many applicants as possible, and ensure workplace cultures are not so unpleasant that staff on UBI might walk.

Objectors and MMTers are right to recognise that 100% unemployment would be less than peachy, but UBI would have positive impacts for employed and unemployed alike that could keep those essential positions filled.

2. UBI will give money to ‘the undeserving’.

If UBI were set at a living wage then, by definition, it would be possible to live without working at all. Perhaps not live glamorously, but it could be done. In a culture that often ties self-worth to work and economic milestones the idea that someone could be happily sitting around ‘doing nothing’ might smack a little of unfairness to some.

The hidden premise here is that only those who work deserve money. Immediately however there are counterexamples: not many would say that those who are unable to work don’t deserve to live happy lives. Hence objections to benefits and ‘hand-outs’ often take the form of trying to show that people are widely faking deservedness rather than denying the possibility of it.

I would go one step further and say that money isn’t the sort of thing that can be morally deserved. I call this idea ‘financial desert positivism’, because it says that your financial deserts are whatever the law posits them to be. People might deserve stuff, like certain kinds of treatment; perhaps food, or shelter – ‘goods’, in a word – but money is just a convenient means to securing them. It is not the sort of thing that can be deserved per se.

By way of example, consider inflation: someone doing the same job their grandparents once did wouldn’t demand the same salary as them because ‘that’s what I deserve’; their salary is adjusted for inflation and rising costs of living because the money is just the means to what they deserve, not a desert in itself. Assuming for a moment that legal compensation is about restoring deserts, rightful plaintiffs don’t deserve the compensation money itself but what that money can get them – a restitution of the quality of life they would have enjoyed were it not for the act that sparked the lawsuit.

The upshot of financial desert positivism is that if we change the law we change how much money people deserve. It’s a small idea, but with big implications, especially for (corporate) taxation, where dues wouldn’t be expressible by a total tax percentage but by how much good needs to be done. And if UBI becomes law, people would deserve it.

The savvy objector will say, “fine then clever clogs, UBI will give goods to people who don’t deserve them then!” And yes, this would bypass ‘financial desert positivism’. At this point the pro-UBI camp should point out that if people don’t need to work, or work as much, then there’s no reason to force them to. David Graeber has pointed out the economic preponderance of ‘bullshit jobs’: jobs which exist simply so that people will be working. If we could reduce work to the socially necessary and the personally fulfilling, then why not (apart from this arrangement’s incompatibility with neoliberal capitalism)?

UBI is by no means a perfect strategy: how it might impact immigration is likely to be a pressing concern in the current political climate, which I find more difficult to answer. But preparing answers in advance to as many of the objections as possible will strengthen its viability when it surfaces as a mainstream political option.

Photo: Stan Jourdan/Flickr

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