Features; The Independentarian

A list of controversial claims on both side of the UBI debate

In the process of cowriting a book about the upcoming Unconditional Basic Income Trials, I’ve been trying to come up with a list of the claims that tend appear in the debate. Below are two lists: first a list of supporters’ claims and then one of opponents’ claims. I gave each claim a name to make it easier to talk about them, but these names do not reflect any standard definition. I tried to order the claims in each list from the relatively more important or more common to the relatively less important or less common.

To say that a claim appears on the supporters’ or opponents’ lists is not to say that all supporters or all opponents agree on it. In fact, some of the claims contradict each other, which is to be expected, because different people support or oppose UBI for diverse reason. They might have little in common but their support or opposition to one policy proposal.

Supporters have claimed:


  • The freedom claim: UBI gives people greater freedom by giving them more effective power over their own lives.
  • The poverty claim: UBI (usually in combination with other policies) can eliminate poverty.
  • The anti-exploitation claim: UBI reduces exploitation in employment by giving all workers the power to refuse exploitive working conditions.
  • The welfare claim: UBI raises the welfare of net-recipients (by eliminating destitution, reducing poverty, increasing incomes of people near poverty, reducing inequality, and other effects) and many net-contributors (by removing the fear of destitution, improving their bargaining position in the market, and so on). To the welfare claim we could add many supporting claims, that UBI is good for physical and mental health, that it decreases homeless and malnutrition, that it decreases infant mortality, and so on.
  • The increased-worker-income claim: UBI increases in the income of workers directly by acting as a wage subsidy for lower-income workers and indirectly by creating market conditions likely to increase wages.
  • The better-working-conditions claim: UBI improves working conditions for many workers both by giving them the flexibility to move more attractive sectors and by creating market conditions likely to give employers incentive to improve working conditions.
  • The affordability claim: UBI at the desired level is affordable. (Most UBI proposals call for one high enough to eliminate official poverty or to raise incomes to 150% of the officially poverty level. Some call for meeting basic needs or to enable social participation and to secure a life in dignity. Some simply call for the highest sustainable UBI regardless of what that might be.)
  • The economic equality claim: UBI increases economic equality both by direct redistribution to lower income people and by creating market conditions where workers can command higher wages and better working conditions. (The taxes used to support it can also be formulated to increase equality.)
  • The social equality claim: UBI increases social equality by reducing social isolation of people with very low incomes, by reducing the stigmatization of people who benefit from redistributive programs, by reducing housing segregation, and by other means.
  • The poverty-trap claim: UBI encourages people on benefits to reenter the labor force in greater numbers than a conditional system, by ensuring they are always better off earning more private income than earning less.
  • The anti-ghettoization claim: UBI reduces (both personal and social) costs linked to high concentrations of poverty both by reducing housing segregation and by significantly raising average incomes in those communities.
  • The cost-effectiveness claim: UBI is relatively more cost-effective than traditional, conditional welfare policies (in achieving goals such as increasing equality, raising welfare levels of recipients, and so on).
  • The reduced-capture claim: UBI’s benefits are less likely to be captured by others (such as employers, landlords, and bureaucrats) than conditional welfare state policies.
  • The bureaucracy claim: UBI reduces the overhead cost associated with income support.
  • The labor-productivity claim: UBI increases labor productivity both by encouraging employers to substitute skilled for unskilled workers and by improving workers’ ability to enhance their skills and search for higher-productivity jobs.
  • The productive non-labor claim: UBI allows people to do more unpaid work (such as care work and volunteering), some of which is more productive (or socially valuable) than many forms of paid labor.
  • The politically-enabled-proletarian claim: UBI—by freeing low-wage workers from long hours and low pay—makes them a greater force for progressive social change on all other issues.
  • The acceptable-labor-supply-effect claim(s): if UBI causes a reduction in labor supply, it will be within acceptable levels, and/or if UBI causes a greater-than-desirable labor-supply reduction, it can be at least partially counteracted by other policies to increase labor supply or the demand for higher-wage employees.
  • The macro-stimulus claim: UBI, in combination with the taxes that support it, helps improve economic growth and reduce unemployment by helping to stimulate and stabilize aggregate demand.
  • The “degrowth” claim: UBI helps economies move away from overconsumption and overexploitation of resources.
  • Greater respect for people in need: UBI and other universal programs treat everyone with respect while many conditional programs treat virtually all recipients as suspected cheats, even if they fit almost anyone’s definition of the most truly needy.
  • The increased-overall-redistribution claim: UBI results in greater overall redistribution to the poor, because universal policies foster greater feelings of solidarity and support once in place

Opponents have claimed:

  • The reciprocity claim: UBI allows people to share in the benefits of social production without contributing their labor.
  • The exploitation claim: a tax-financed UBI redistributes income from workers to people who do not work, thereby exploiting workers.
  • The harm-to-workers claim: the taxes needed to support UBI financially harm workers, all things considered.
  • The unacceptable-labor-supply-effect claim(s): UBI causes an unacceptably large reduction in labor supply that is not easily counteracted by other policies.
  • The self-destruction claim: UBI increases self-destructive behavior in recipients.
  • The meaninglessness claim: UBI makes it possible for people to live lives that they will eventually find meaningless because paid labor is a central source life meaning.
  • The capture claim: many of the benefits of UBI will go to someone other than the recipients, perhaps because employers reduce wages, because landlords increase rents in low-income areas, because bureaucrats create overhead costs, etc.
  • The inflation claim: UBI causes inflation that is not easily counteracted by other policies.
  • The migration claim: UBI encourages immigration and/or migration into areas with UBI.
  • The unaffordability claim: UBI at the proposed level is prohibitively expensive.
  • The negative, relative cost-effectiveness claim: UBI is more expensive than other programs that can achieve similar goals.
  • The gender-role reinforcement claim: UBI helps maintain traditional gender roles by making it easier for women to remain out of the paid labor force while performing unpaid care work and other traditional women’s roles.
  • The macro-deterrent claim: UBI decreases economic growth by enabling reduced labor market participation and increasing costs.
  • The shut-door claim: UBI creates political pressure to restrict immigration and migration.
  • The bought-off-proletarian claim: UBI—by providing a minimal level of contentment for workers—reduces their effectiveness as a force to challenge the deeper inequalities and other social inequities in society.
  • The consumerism claim: UBI leads to even more environmental destruction because of increased consumption.
  • The decreased-overall-redistribution claim: UBI is (politically and/or economically) feasible only at such a low level and only accompanied by so many other social programs that it will leave low-income people worse off than traditional, conditional social policies.
  • The strategy-to-cut-redistribution claim: factions in government will use UBI as an excuse to cut other programs, then cut in a strategy that will lead to much less overall redistribution.

I compiled this list from general knowledge accumulated over years of reading about the UBI debate. It is bound to be incomplete. Many more claims (of various levels of relevance, certainty, and testability) are undoubtedly circulating in the academic and nonacademic literature on UBI. But I hope it captures a significant range of what is being said. This list is enough to demonstrate the difficulty of designing a trial and communicating its results in a way that successfully raises the level of debate over these claims. Some are things that can’t be tested. Some are things that can only be tested indirectly, partially, or inconclusively. Few if any of these claims can be directed tested with any accuracy in a trial.

I’m interested to know how comprehensive people think it is. Did I include all the relevant claims you can think of? Did I overblow any claims that don’t deserve to be on the list?

A stock image used to evoke thoughts of "experiments"

A stock image used to evoke a mental connect with the word “experiment”

Karl Widerquist

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist has written 883 articles.

Karl Widerquist is an Associate Professor of political philosophy at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University, specializing in distributive justice—the ethics of who has what. Much of his work involves Universal Basic Income (UBI). He is a co-founder of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG). He served as co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) for 7 years, and now serves as vice-chair. He was the Editor of the USBIG NewsFlash for 15 years and of the BIEN NewsFlash for 4 years. He is a cofounder of BIEN’s news website, Basic Income News, the main source of just-the-facts reporting on UBI worldwide. He is a cofounder and editor of the journal Basic Income Studies, the only academic journal devoted to research on UBI. Widerquist has published several books and many articles on UBI both in academic journals and in the popular media. He has appeared on or been quoted by many major media outlets, such as NPR’s On Point, NPR’s Marketplace, PRI’s the World, CNBC, Al-Jazeera, 538, Vice, Dissent, the New York Times, Forbes, the Financial Times, and the Atlantic Monthly, which called him “a leader of the worldwide basic income movement.” Widerquist holds two doctorates—one in Political Theory form Oxford University (2006) and one in Economics from the City University of New York (1996). He has published seven books, including Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press 2017, coauthored by Grant S. McCall) and Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He has published more than a twenty scholarly articles and book chapters. Most Karl Widerquist’s writing is available on his “Selected Works” website (works.bepress.com/widerquist/). More information about him is available on his BIEN profile and on Wikipedia. He writes the blog "the Indepentarian" for Basic Income News.

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  • Timothy Roscoe Carter Timothy Roscoe Carter

    The meaningless life Claim:. The need to work provides meaning for most people’s lives. A UBI eliminates the need to work, and will therefore make most people’s lives meaningless.

  • This is dependent on the variant of BI chosen. Some of the pros and cons are specific to variants. If we take the proposition that Goenchi Mati makes (www.ecologise.in/2017/04/09/goenchi-mati-call-environmental-custodianship-inter-generational-equity-mining/), there are some additional claims (that are present in others as well).

    1. Reduces corruption claim: Money is easier to track for controlling corruption. Universality reduces corruption
    2. Tangible equality: as opposed to equality in theory. Citizen’s Dividend will be the second tangible equality marker after the vote in India
    3. Increased solidarity claim: You’ve referred to it right at the end, but this is a stand alone claim worth considering.
    4. Creates endowment effect: The CD is required to create the endowment effect over minerals.
    5. Reduces conflict: especially the Resource Curse
    6. Fair: This is a core value across the values spectrum, and the universality triggers this. Related are moral, ethical, just and right.
    7. Morals / religion / golden law: Our structure could achieve intra-generational and inter-generational equality. While not quite equity, it does take a big step towards that.
    8. Respects property rights: Our structure starts with mineral commons being converted into a financial commons (mutual), with real income being distributed as a commons dividend or Citizen’s Dividend.
    9. Reduces human rights violations: Certainly in mining. May increase it for people with extra needs.
    10. Building a nation: Fraternity, equality, freedom. All covered
    11. Progress on SDGs: extreme poverty, environment, prosperity, peace and funding for the previous 4
    12. Increases divisivness: We follow existing property rights. As a result, Scotland is more likely to separate from UK. Note the conflict with increases solidarity claim.
    13. Increases birth rate, perhaps temporarily: Unless health and female education responds as well.
    14. Reduces labour mobility: As residency requirements are likely to be imposed (in India, 15 years is typical for sub-national benefits), this will reduce mobility
    15. Increase innovation: Presumably more people doing their own thing will imply more innovation
    16. Deep expertise: Similarly, people pursuing their own interests should be able to go deeper
    17. Happiness: presumably people will be more self-actualised, or stoned. There are 3 kinds of happiness – hedonistic, flow or purpose. All three should see an uptick
    18. Lower migration claim: Fewer people should move to cities from villages
    19. Destruction of indigenous peoples claim: as financialising them will destroy their way of life.
    20. Increase entrepreneurship claim: as cash arrives in subsistence farming areas, entrepreneurship (small shops, fish ponds) become viable.
    21. Education claim: Education levels should increase

    I could go on …

    I’ve found looking at theories of commons and government, as well as analyzing the underlying values, useful in analyzing this. For example, reciprocity is a value for staying a member of a commons. This is something governments struggle with as you cannot easily expel a lazy citizen. A lot of the list above are also values.

    • Thanks. It’ll take me a while to digest all this. I can’t use all of them, but I can use some and others will affect how I word some of my existing claims. But this’ll have a big affect on the paper. So, thanks.

    • Thanks a lot. Here’s my reaction with explanations of why I can and can’t use each one. Now I’ll try to work in the ones I can uses into my list & discussion. So, thanks a lot.

      1. The reduced-corruption claim: UBI is less vulnerable to corruption than conditional programs (because of its simplicity and transparency).
      13. Increases birth rate: oh head people say that
      15. Increase innovation: Good one, obvious once you think about it
      20. Increase entrepreneurship claim: Somebody else gave me that one before I read yours. Also obvious.

      3. Increased solidarity claim: You’ve referred to it right at the end, but this is a stand alone claim worth considering.

      2. Tangible equality: I don’t really know what that means, so I’m sticking with social and economic
      4. Creates endowment effect: Didn’t understand
      5. Reduces conflict: Didn’t understand
      6. Fair: I think this is more of a reason to do it rather than an effect it would have. If you think free money and less inequality is fairer, you’ll like it. If you think fairness is to-the-victor-go-the-spoils, you won’t.
      7. Morals / religion / golden law: Our structure could achieve intra-generational and inter-generational equality.
      This is part of the broader claims about social and economic inequality
      8. Respects property rights: Again that’s a reason to favor it, not an effect it has, and I’m not looking specifically at resource-financed UBI in this work.
      9. Reduces human rights violations: Not sure I get this, but if I do, it’s simply part of the improved-working-conditions claim
      10. Building a nation: Part of the solidarity claim, related to the increased-overall redistribution claim
      11. Progress on SDGs: that’s part of the welfare claim
      12. Increases divisivness: This is better stated as part of a decreases solidarity claim
      14. Reduces labour mobility: Not relevant for the national issues I’m discussing
      16. Deep expertise: If I understand it, it’s the increased labor productivity claim
      17. Happiness: that is the welfare claim. True happiness = welfare
      18. Lower migration claim: Not relevant for me. I have immigration claims & I’m assuming a uniform national UBI
      19. Destruction of indigenous peoples claim: I could include this, but I have to cut down somewhere
      21. Education claim: I have that as a sub-claim of the productivity claim. I could separate them.

  • Jim Bryan

    Very good list for anyone wanting to think comprehensively about UBI. I would make one addition to the “supporter” list. Call it: IMPROVE INTERGENERATIONAL ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL MOBILITY: A per person UBI can increase the resources needed to overcome income and market barriers to education, child care, and other sources of positive formative influences for children, ultimately increasing life and workplace skills, productivity, and labor force participation as those children grow to become adults.

    • In! I’ll use other wording, but that’s definitely in. Thanks, why didn’t i think of that? Zuckerberg mentioned it in his speech and it didn’t occur to me.. Here’s my first pass at wording: “The economic-and-social-mobility claim: UBI increases economic and social mobility by helping people start businesses, get education or training, take the time to look for the right job, and other mechanisms.”

  • Kasper Boers

    Solid list, thanks for summing that up Karl.

    • Thanks. It’s nice to get a vote of confidence now and then. And this is an important one, because it’s that rare article that makes me think: does anyone really give a crap about topic–it’s just a list.

  • David M

    I would add a positive “Collective-action-claim”, or maybe claims, one work related and the other political.

    I’ve long thought one of the main benefits of a UBI is that it could act as a sort of permanent strike fund, setting a baseline not just for individuals to refuse exploitative workplaces (your third bullet), but for groups of workers to act together.

    On the political level, if people feel that a basic income is, as a universal benefit, depoliticized (in the same way Social Security and Medicare in the US are virtually politically untouchable, thank heavens), then they will be more likely to come together over other political issues–the outsized influence of retirees in the US political system (who gain the most from the two current universal benefit schemes) will be somewhat blunted.

    Maybe both of these could fall under the Politically-empowered-Proletariat claim you already have, but they feel distinct to me.

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