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. https://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. https://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. https://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.)