Features; Opinion; The Independentarian

Why I Support the Basic Income Guarantee

I write a lot about the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG)—about its labor-market effects, its use as cushion against instability, and so. In this essay I want to explain in simple terms why I believe it is so worth talking about.

The main reason I support BIG is that it is time to get serious about the elimination poverty. Most, if not all, the countries of the world today have the technical capacity to eliminate poverty and economic destitution. The more industrialized countries of the world have had this capacity for decades, and I believe it is now possible on a worldwide basis. In a world with so much wealth we must no longer force people to live with poverty, fear, destitution, and extreme economic uncertainty. We need to reach a state of economic maturity in which any poverty in our midst is unacceptable.
If we’re ready to talk about the elimination of poverty, BIG is the policy that can do it best, and it may be the only policy that can do it comprehensively. Because BIG is universal and unconditional, it has no cracks to fall through. It puts a floor beneath everyone’s income. If that floor is above the poverty line, poverty is eliminated universally.

Although BIG might have radical effects, it is not such a radical move. It streamlines and strengthens the welfare system to make it more effective and more comprehensive. Most nations of the world are already spending a substantial amount of money on poverty relief, but too much of that money is going to overhead costs, supervision of the poor, the creation of hoops for the poor to jump through to prove they are worthy, and so on.

Economic destitution is the biggest threat to freedom in the democratic nations of the world today. To be destitute is to be unfree. Economically destitute people are unfree to sleep undisturbed, unfree to urinate, unfree to wash themselves, and unfree to use the resources of the world to meet their own needs. (Jeremy Waldron has an excellent essay on this issue, “Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom,” in this book, Liberal Rights.) The destitute are unfree in the most liberal, negative sense of the word: the destitute are not unable to wash themselves or unable to use the resources of the world to meet their needs, they are unfree to do these things. Because our government enforces a property rights regime that says some people control natural resources and other people do not, someone will interfere with them if they try to do these things that they are very capable of doing.

Poverty is not a fact of nature. Poverty is the result of the way our societies have chosen to distribute property rights to natural resources. For millions of years no one interfered with our ancestors as they used the resources of the world to meet their needs. No one failed to wash because they were too lazy to find a stream. No one urinated in a common thoroughfare because they were too lazy to find a secluded place to do so. Everyone was free to hunt and gather and make their camp for the night as they pleased. No one had to follow the orders of a boss to earn the right to make their living. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not rich, but they were not poor as we know it today. Our laws today make it illegal for people to satisfy the most natural and simple bodily needs, and our laws make homelessness such a fact of life that we can believably pretend that it’s all their own fault. There are billions of people today who are more poorly nourished than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. It cannot be simply their own fault. We have chosen one way to distribute rights to natural resources; we can just as easily choose a system that does not create poverty as a side-effect.

Many writers have argued BIG has a very good work incentive built into its structure, but the most common objection to BIG is not so much about work incentives as it is about a moral obligation to work. The argument I have in mind goes as follows. BIG is something-for-nothing, and something-for-nothing is unacceptable. People have a moral obligation to work. Lazy people who will not work should not be rewarded with anything. Therefore, any social benefits should be conditional on at least the willingness to accept employment. Even if BIG has better work incentives than conditional welfare programs, we must reject it because it allows some able people to receive something for nothing and shirk their obligation to work. I believe this is a common argument in everyday political discourse, and versions of it have appeared in the philosophical criticism of BIG.

This argument has several problems. I’ll discuss two of them. The first problem with it is that BIG cannot be accurately characterized as something for nothing. All societies impose many rules on every individual. Consider the discussion of homelessness above. Why can’t homeless people build their own shelter and their own latrine? Why can’t they drink out of a clean river? Why can’t they hunt, gather, or plant and harvest their own food? They cannot do these things because the state has made rules saying they don’t have the right to do these things. The state has imposed rules saying that almost all the resources of the Earth belong to someone else. Those of us who benefit from the rules by which our society distributes ownership of the Earth’s natural resources benefit every day from the state’s interference with the propertyless, and we pay them no compensation. A state without BIG is the state that has something for nothing.

BIG is (and should be seen) not as something for nothing but as the just compensation for all the rules of property and property regulations society imposes on individuals. Democracies, hopefully, make these rules with the consent of the majority. But even the best democracies cannot obtain everyone’s consent. No government can function unless it imposes its rules on the willing and unwilling alike. Governments, therefore, have a responsibility to make sure that their rules are not an undue burden on anyone.

Governments can live up to this responsibility by applying a simple principle in which each person pays for the parts of the Earth they use and receives a share of the payment for the parts other people use. One person’s assertion of ownership of some of the Earth’s resources necessarily involves interference with anything anyone else might want to do with those resources. Under a resource-tax-financed BIG, those who (directly or indirectly) pay more in resource taxes than they receive in the BIG are paying for the privilege of enjoying more resources than the average person. They are paying compensation for the interference they impose on everyone else. Those who receive more in BIG than they pay in resource taxes are being compensated for having less access to the Earth’s natural resources than everyone else. BIG is most distinctly not something for nothing. Furthermore, those who pay more than they receive do so voluntarily and willingly. They obviously think it is worthwhile to pay what they do for resources they hold or they would choose to hold fewer resources and become a net recipient.

The second problem with the work-obligation argument against BIG is that it conflates two different senses of the word “work”—one that means toil and one that means employment or time spent making money. In the toil sense, work simply means to apply effort whether it is for one’s own or for someone else’s benefit. In the employment sense work means to work for someone else—such as a client or a boss. Anyone with access to resources can meet their needs by working only for themselves or with others of their choosing. But people without access to resources have no other choice but to work for someone else, and they have to work for the same group of people whose control over resources makes it impossible for the propertyless to work only for themselves.

Working for someone else entails the acceptance of rules, terms, and subordination, all of which are things that a reasonable person might object to. There is nothing wrong with working for someone else and accepting the conditions of work as long as the individual chooses to do so. But because we deny people access to resources they need to stay alive until they work for someone who has some control over resources, we deny their natural ability to refuse. We force them, not to work, but to work for at least one member of a particular group of people.

We can create an economy based on truly voluntary trade and voluntary participation by applying the principle described above in which each person pays for the parts of the Earth they use and receives a share of the payment for the parts other people use. With a sufficient BIG to draw on, each person has the power to decide for themselves whether the offers in the job market are good enough to deserve their participation. Nothing protects a person better than the power to refuse. This power will protect not only the poor and marginal but all of us.

-Karl Widerquist, written mostly in Morehead City, North Carolina, August 2011

I discuss most of the arguments in this essay in greater detail in the following articles:

Widerquist, Karl. 1999. “Reciprocity and the Guaranteed Income,” Politics and Society 33: 386-401. http://works.bepress.com/widerquist/12.

Widerquist, Karl 2006. Property and the Power to Say No: A Freedom-Based Argument for Basic Income. Doctoral Dissertation. The University of Oxford.

Widerquist, Karl. 2010. “The Physical Basis of Voluntary Trade,” Human Rights Review 11: 83-103. http://works.bepress.com/widerquist/12.

Widerquist, Karl. 2010. “What Does Prehistoric Anthropology have to do with Modern Political Philosophy? Evidence of Five False Claims.” USBIG Discussion Paper no. 206. http://works.bepress.com/widerquist/19.

Widerquist, Karl. Forthcoming. “Is Universal Basic Income Still Worth Talking About?” The Economics of Inequality, Poverty and Discrimination in the 21st Century. Robert S Rycroft (ed.)

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist has written 974 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.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.

One comment

  • Thank you for your thoughts. I studied biology and psychology and see things also from these angles. In the past, there was also rivalry about resources, and this is even known from the animal world. A couple of birds, a group of wolves are having their domain (or what is the scientific term, I could not find out because it is not even listed on leo dictionary). Likewise, the human groups had their domains, and they fought each other sometimes very hard.

    But nowadays, we should be evolved people who behave more humane. Not worse than even wolves, who held in nature to certain rules and avoided unnecessary violence, while human beings kill blindly with machines in order to defend their territory (the term came to my mind again).

    I agree that my argumentation is more dangerous and tends to get in conflict with those who fight wars for natural and human resources.

    Another aspect is that we need a certain selection. In nature, selection was somewhat cruel, but still again there were limits to pain, and even the gazelle being attacked by the lion was protected by a flash of endorphines emitted by the brain.

    Evolution has a decided direction towards more and more complex brains and also refined perception. This means automatically that we become more sensitive, more subject to pain, so that we want to diminish anything that causes pain. And our big brain also enables us to find solutions that help us to avoid pain!

    Like this, we can foresee natural disasters to which animals and early humans were subject helplessly, except when a Noah had an intuition to build an arch at the right time. But nowadays we can watch the earth and the space around, and we have quite more developped possibilities.

    It does not fit with this advanced consciousness to continue with a selection by starving or exposure or lack of hygiene and medical care, or even just no access to clean water!

    Selection can be by choice, so that anyone who thinks or feels he/she would not pass on good genes to his/her offspring, could renounce to have children.

    And in fact, many people choose now to have few children, and it is proven that on the contrary, poverty creates more children, while welfare enables people to choose. So, the natural system of selection by excluding someone from resources does not really work.

    The way is free to a humane society where no one needs to suffer due to lack of healthy food or of a room where to stay in security and have a rest.

    Then we need to also think of what someone feels like, who is excluded from economic life.

    My experience is that everybody, even the so-called “lazy” people, get happy when they have the experience of a success. They lose their ability to do something, to work, because they are being dominated and made to underdogs, who fight their depressions with alcohol and drugs.

    This selection by psychological mistreatment is not useful either. Important works like child care are being neglected because they are not well paid. If everyone was active, even not for money, but by love for what he does, we would have a happier world. A world decorated with art, and improved by many good ideas of those who have time to think and to try new ways, for example.

    Instead of doing dumb work just to pay food and rents and taxes and all kinds of goods that they need or are told they would need, or that even damage their health, and all this stress just to help others to accumulate more and more wealth, which appears to be an unhealthy addiction too.

    In fact, aren’t we like a big family of human beings? And how does it look when a family sits at table, and some take the bigger pieces just because they have the bigger fist to beat the other?

    All we need is to act fairly towards everyone, and allow everyone to be happy, and expect from everyone to see his limits, where the need for freedom of the other starts.

    And we are allowed to use our brains for thinking by ourselves, and for the sake of global happiness!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.