How to avoid fetishising or demonising UBI?

The most disturbing aspect of public debates about unconditional basic income (UBI) is that, instead of rationally comparing pros and cons of an idea, the fetishism/demonism of an instrument takes place. Two examples: ‘without UBI, we are slaves to the labour market’ – we often hear this slogan, which – according to many – justifies the necessity of introducing UBI; what’s more, its inevitability. Another example: ‘it is the greatest injustice and waste to give UBI to the rich’ – we can hear this just as demagogic (also showcasing the misunderstanding of the concept of UBI) ‘argument’ as well, which proves the obvious absurdity of UBI for many. Well, these are the skin-deep and instinctive proclamations, from which we have to stay away when we want to make a commitment regarding this crucially important decision.

In our paper, we undertake to bring to the surface those basic intuitions about social justice which are behind the pro-UBI and anti-UBI social visions. In other words, we will explore the often unspoken presuppositions held in the worldview of the supporters as well as the opponents. Without these kinds of (exploratory) analyses, the debate about UBI can easily become irrational and fruitless, which is how the parties miss the point. We expect our guide to help the arguing parties to see through the dialect of the debate, and to articulate their standpoints better.

We think that the debate about UBI is determined by four essential questions. (1) In the case of welfare benefits, should the state follow the principle of need or the principle of universality? (2) During redistribution, should the state apply the principle of reciprocity or is the state not in the position to apply the principle justly? (3) Is it the individual or the community who is primarily responsible for ensuring livelihoods? (4) Should the right social policy ensure the opportunity to participate in the labour market or ensure the opportunity to be left out of the labour market? We will examine these questions one by one.

‘The principle of need’ versus ‘the principle of universality’

According to many, the most important principle of distributing welfare benefits is the principle of need, which is one of our most basic moral convictions. Let us see the following example: if an old woman or man cannot cross the street alone, then she or he needs help and we all feel our duty to support them. But when someone is capable of doing it alone, help is unnecessary, and it is sometimes even harmful or violates human dignity to interfere.

In fact, the principle of need is the conjunction of two statements. The first one is that only those in need are entitled to get welfare benefits. Being chronically ill, having had a serious accident, losing someone’s job beyond her/his own fault, raising children, caring for a family member etc. are all situations in which it can be expected that the political community will support the person in the form of welfare benefits. The second one is that if there is plenty to bite on for someone and they are not in need, then they are not entitled to any help, i.e. welfare benefits.

In other words, those who are in need must be supported because this is solidary and just, and conversely, helping those who are better-off is unnecessary and unjust, and it is equal to wasting common resources without rhyme or reason.

Despite the fact that the principle of need is indeed a deep-seated moral principle, we do not necessarily have to commit ourselves to it without any further considerations. We can think the following: the principle of welfare benefits is not based on the need but the principle of universality. A welfare benefit must be independent of whether the person is in need or not.

You can argue in favour of universal benefits in at least two ways. Firstly, you can argue on a consequentialist basis. According to this, the results of universal benefits are better than the results of benefits based on need. Universal benefits – in contrast to needs-based benefits – do not stigmatize (because it is for those who are worst-off and for those who are better-off as well), it is certain that nobody is left out of the support (since everybody gets it); it provides security (because the transfer does not depend on the decision of an authority), or incur fewer administrative costs (because you do not need an apparatus to establish who is in need).

The second argument is more important however. According to this, everyone has the right to receive universal benefits independently of their needs, because everyone has an equal right to have a share from the resources of the Earth. According to this concept introduced by Thomas Paine [1] and utopian socialists all the external resources of production are originally natural resources which were without owners. As a result, the just distribution of natural resources would occur if everyone received an equal share of these resources.

Obviously, the argument does not work in its original form because redistribution of natural resources would face many difficulties. However, we can keep the original spirit of the argument. We cannot distribute natural resources in themselves, but we can distribute the profit of natural resources in the form of some kind of perpetuity. According to this, those who currently benefit from the natural resources of the Earth have to pay some kind of rent to those who are also the rightful owners of resources, but right now they are not beneficial owners.

This rent or perpetuity is embodied by the idea of UBI. Namely, UBI according to the principle of equal share of resources is a universal right of everyone, independently of the financial situation of the individual. Thus, UBI must be given not because somebody needs it, but because according to the principle of equal share, it is due to everyone.

‘Principle of reciprocity’ versus ‘epistemic closure of the state’

Similarly to the principle of need, many have the following basic moral conviction: ‘if you get something, then you have to give something’. This principle when applied means that the welfare benefits provided by the state (for instance unemployment benefit), or certain services (for instance healthcare) require some kind of compensation by those wo benefit from them. We call this principle the principle of reciprocity. Those who are supported by the political community but refuse to contribute to the common good violate the principle of reciprocity. To put it simply, ‘it is unfair for able bodied people to live off the labor of others’ [2].

Moreover, contribution to the common good is our duty because we, as children, benefit from several common goods (for instance education), which were produced by elder members of society. Thus, if we reach adulthood, we have to return what we received. That is, solidarity means mutuality. To put it strongly, universal benefits are ‘a recipe for exploitation of the industrious by the lazy’ [2]. Or, to quote Hawaiian Senator Wadsworth ‘[t]here must be no parasites in paradise’ [quoted by 3]. The Dude from The Big Lebowski should not bowl as he wishes.

From the perspective of state institutions, the principle of reciprocity means work-requirement. The individual should make her- or himself available on the labour market. The ‘how’ of this compensation differs country to country. In some places you cannot refuse the acceptable job offers and have to show evidence of job searching. In other places, you have to do some kind of socially useful work, and may take part in some kind of obligatory training. And if someone does not meet the norm of reciprocity, the community withdraws its support rightly. There are countries where continually rejecting job opportunities offered by the employment office means you may not receive unemployment benefit.

Despite the fact that the principle of reciprocity is a basic moral intuition of many, we have to see that it is almost impossible to apply the principle in an unbiased and correct way. We need an especially complex investigation to decide whether someone is really responsible for being uneducated and not being able to sustain themselves on the labour market. Only an especially complex investigation carried out case by case can reveal how great the personal cost of conformity is [4].

Let us think about it. Genetical and social inheritance is totally out of someone’s control. She or he cannot be held responsible for these. It is also hard to argue that some people have greater real freedom to achieve their life-goals than others. Even if there is something like free will in the metaphysical sense, people are very different in the type of barriers when it comes to fulfilling social expectations [5]. Thus, behind the fulfilment of the norm of reciprocity (or any other norm required by the majority of society) are performances which differ from person to person. The amount of the personal cost of conformity obviously depends both on external circumstances (for instance the neighbourhood you are born into) and on psychological attributes (for instance what kind of decision-making and decision-following abilities you learn from your environment as a child).

In other words, we can rightly talk about someone’s merit if we know what cards were dealt to him by fate. But these cards are exactly those which are beyond the reach of the investigation of the state. What is easy for someone can be a hard fight for others. While studying and progress in school go without any serious hardship for some, for others it can be a huge struggle. While some people see effective money management strategies as children (avoiding overspending, saving for unexpected events etc.), others grow up among bad patterns (overspending, preferring immediate pleasure to saving up etc.). It is easy to see that for the latter person, it is much harder to make good financial decisions in her or his adulthood.

Now (and that is the point) extremely little information is available to the authorities to judge the personal costs of conformity trustworthily in individual cases. In other words, the state is epistemically closed out to state something like this rightly: ‘X.Y. person is responsible for her or his worst-off situation’, or ‘X.Y. person does not deserve support’. These kinds of statements can hardly or not at all be justified. Often even the closest relatives and friends cannot see the situation clearly. We have good reason to be agnostic when we assess our fellow men’s merit. As a result, the system of welfare benefits which secures the resources to meet basic needs for everyone is much more than the simple means-testing version of the welfare system. To summarize, the support system which is based on human dignity and not desert is more right than any other version.

‘The individual’s duty to be economically self-supporting’ versus ‘the duty of the political community.’

It is the basic conviction of many that if someone is in a bad situation, then the individual herself or himself is mainly responsible for this. She or he did not develop her or his human capital, missed participation in education, did not internalize the work ethic of the majority of society, did not keep discipline at work, was not flexible enough with the requirements of the labour market and the list goes on. As Christopher Jencks writes: ‘[f]ew victims are completely innocent’ [6].

This is quite simple. Every adult has the moral responsibility to obtain the resources needed for her or his livelihood and not to expect others to do it for them. Of course, there are exceptions. Nobody expects someone who is permanently ill, or had a serious accident to look after herself or himself. But if there are no exculpatory circumstances, then it is the individual’s responsibility to take care of her- or himself.

From this perspective, it is a right and just social practice that the more someone fulfils the expectation of economic self-support, the more she or he does well on the stock and/or labour market, and the higher social prestige they are entitled to. And the opposite applies as well: it is a right and just social practice that those who do not fulfil the duty of self-support and cannot find paid employment or need social support have lower social prestige.

We should not misunderstand. It is not ‘living from subsidies’ which results in low social status. Failing the norm of economical self-support through her or his own fault causes society to attach lower value to the given individual. As Chack-Kie Wong argues: ‘the perception that the possession of certain personal attributes, e.g. the inability to compete or the inability to pay, by the beneficiaries seems to constitute the basis of the hierarchical categorization of social status’ [7]. So, the low social status of those who live on social support does not come from unfortunate circumstances, but rather from their inner qualities. This is well-shown in the fact that those who need benefits because of real external circumstances (for instance because of an accident or illness) do not have to face negative judgement; they do not lose (or at least just partly) their social prestige. Thus, all this confirms that social benefit to those who violate the norm of economic self-support can only be charity, which is the sign of compassion on the part of state institutions.

Accordingly, a social policy is right if it motivates people to be economically self-supporting, thus, social benefit must be low, short in duration  and it must be hard to get. All this is not about insensitivity and lack of empathy. The easily attained, lavish and long-term benefits – it is easy to see – form addiction in the beneficiaries and this addiction should be avoided. It is not good to any social group if its livelihood depends exclusively (maybe throughout several generations) on social benefits.

In other words, the lavish, easily attained and long-term benefits are ‘perverse incentives’ [4]; spur (even if unconsciously) the beneficiaries to rely on these subsidies and to not fulfil the norm of economical self-support. As Jon Elster writes: ‘[a] reform that creates a security net under the competitive market will also lead to more people needing the net, by reducing the incentive to survive without it’ [2, italic in the original]. Not to talk about the outrageous injustice that to finance these social benefits is the task of those who fulfil the norm of economic self-support.

Despite the fact that the above-mentioned view is unquestionable to many, there is another way to think about the issue. Accordingly, if an individual cannot find paid employment and cannot fulfil the requirements of economic self-support, then (often) it is not she or he who has responsibility, but rather the current social and economic environment. It is the failure of the political community if the community does not eliminate this unfortunate environment. Thus, welfare benefits from the state are not charity but constitute the duty of the political community. Those who emphasize the charity perspective of the state prove to be insensitive, or even ignorant about the fact that living in poverty is like being trapped, which shows quite a different picture than the above-mentioned argument would allow for.

People who live in extreme poverty have to fight several drawbacks. Typically, they get the worst job offers, which results in questionable contracts, irresponsible employers and uncertain payments. Their fear of losing their jobs contributes to this, and if that happens, they have to go through several lengthy, sometimes humiliating bureaucratic procedures in order to be entitled for unemployment benefits. Thus, the benefits of being in employment are uncertain, and so, unemployment benefit or other social benefits mean much greater security [8].

We also have to take into consideration the fact that a part of the negative circumstances is psychological, such as bad habits acquired during childhood, learned helplessness or decreasing cognitive capacities [9]. For instance, because of daily financial problems, people living in extreme poverty have lower cognitive capacities to do anything else than thinking about financial problems [10]. All these facts taken together show a picture where, in contrast to the previous approach, people living in poor circumstances are responsible for neither their external circumstances, nor their internal attributions.

The described factors are interrelated, and they can cause a downward spiral. For instance, if someone lives in an unhealthy environment and acquired a bad pattern of behaviour as a child, then they will not be productive and will hardly find a job. And, even if they do, they will be less likely to keep it. And if they lose their job, this will lead to lower self-esteem and even worse financial problems. The situation is the following: the chance that someone is able to walk out of their bad situation depends on internal and external factors, which fall outside the person’s control. As a result, it is the duty of the political community to compensate the effects of the poverty trap and to do everything to make sure that these people have a real chance in life.

And there is something else to consider. The kind of welfare policy which is ungenerous with welfare benefits has a completely different effect on people in moderately bad situations than those in the worst one. A low-level welfare benefit can motivate people in moderately bad situations to be economically self-supporting.  It can bridge the gap between two jobs and can supplement low wages. But for people living in the worst situation, with hardly any chance to find a job, and who have not had a job for a long time, low and short-term welfare benefits can have catastrophic results (starvation, being forced into crime etc.).

In other words, the ungenerous welfare benefits fail to help exactly those who are in the worst-off situations. Thus, it seems reasonable to give generous welfare benefits to those who are just in a ‘moderately bad’ situations, horribile dictu also to those, who are not in need at all, than the opposite, i.e. to leave those in the lurch, who are in the greatest need for help.

‘Participation in the labour market’ versus ‘Being left out of the labour market’

Many people think that because of the fact that you can get income to secure your livelihood on the labour-market (and stock market), the right social policy is to set the aim of full (or at least as high as possible) employment rate. The following economic policy is to create job opportunities and accelerate economic growth in order to create job opportunities. The state has the task of ensuring the appropriate functioning of the labour-market.

Having a paid job is a social prestige and it defines the individual’s identity. If we meet someone, one of our first questions will almost certainly be about the other’s work; we place them on our ‘social map’ based on their relationship with the labour market. Moreover, a paid job is the means to social integration. It does not only provide opportunities to make a living, but to personal development; to improve social relationships, and to contribute to the common good and earn a social status as well. Thus, the highest possible employment rate is in the interest of all political communities.

Your opinion may be different. You can think – in opposition to the idea of full employment rate – that the real task of the state is to give everyone the opportunity to be left out of the labour market.

Why? Because we have to look at paid job opportunities as a scare resource. Why? Either because the prediction – though many argue against this – about the decrease of demand for human labour force due to technological progress will come true, or, due to technological progress, the labour market is in transition, and there is higher demand for certain types of jobs and lower demand for others. Or – and we think this is what is most important – because infinite economic development and job creation have ecological limits.

You should see that clinging to full employment and job creation is not always effective, it easily backfires. It is easy to imagine that to create and sustain a low value-added workplace costs significantly more than paying some kind of universal benefit. If state institutions have to sustain workplaces where individuals who are not able to get a job themselves on the labour market (because of being unmotivated or incompetent) are employed, then it does not promise too much profitability. Moreover, long-term negative prejudice can be formed against the moral of these workers and against the state of affairs in the public sector in general [11].

Instead of clinging to full employment and job creation, we should start from the following conception: paid jobs are only scantly available and not everyone can partake in them. Now, if this is true, then the state has two tasks. Firstly, the state has to provide the opportunity to be left out of the labour market and the real option not to take a paid job [12]. Secondly, the state has to distribute the currently available paid job opportunities, so that more people can take part in the labour market. That is, state regulation has to support shorter working hours and part-time jobs.

We should not misunderstand. This conception is not about splitting the political community into two; people in the labour market and people outside of the labour market. Rather, this concept is about to flexibly change between different constructions of paid and unpaid activities during a lifetime. For instance, spending a few years in a paid job, after which spending a few years studying or retraining, then a few years in a part-time job due to having children etc.

It strongly belongs to this conception that the real value of work is not the same as the market value thereof. The value of work is not defined by how much others are willing to pay for it. Unpaid work (childcare, creating art, taking part in civil society etc.) has the same social status as paid activities. With all this, political community actually admits that the judgement of the market is not always right. The fact of what kind of activity the market values depends on several contingent factors (culture, technology, fashion, political situation etc.). Think about for example, how little nurses in hospitals earn, and how much those people earn who make YouTube videos about putting mobile phones in a blender or unwrapping Kinder-eggs and who also hit several millions (!) of views. So, the role of universal benefit is to complete or ensure the livelihood of those who perform activities valued too lowly or not at all by the labour market.

Authors: Judit Gébert – János Tőzsér

János Tözsér:  senior researcher (Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Research Centre for the Humanities, Institute of Philosophy) His main interests include the philosophy of the mind and metaphilosophy. He is the author of several articles and books on these topics. In addition he is deeply committed to the concept of Basic Income.

Judit Gébert:  Currently a research fellow at the University of Szeged, Faculty of Economocics and Business Adminsitration. Her main interest concerns human well-being, social justice and local economic development. She is also a member of the science shop: Community-based Research for Sustainability Association (CRS)


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Political philosophy guide to social deliberation about unconditional basic income

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