Why we should put ‘basic’ before ‘universal’ in the pursuit of income equality – John Quiggin

Photo: Paul Harris

John Quiggin, an economist, Professor and Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, has written a recent article for The Guardian on how a functional conception of UBI would look despite the current and successional neoliberal course. Quiggin argues that the political cautiousness of centre-left parties has resulted in their failure to provide radical alternatives to neoliberalism since its inception in the 1970s. The article outlines that the UBI offers a potential alternative to the present economic standing. The question is, how to introduce it in such a way as to render it achievable.  

Where many proponents of UBI stress the “universal” aspect of the idea, Quiggin suggests that our emphasis should instead be on the “basic” aspect to begin with. That way we could start by providing a sufficient income to those most in need with the intention of expanding it to the entire population. This would meet the objective of ensuring that everyone has at least a basic income from the outset, and it could be achieved by building on structures that are already in place.

Quiggin claims that it would be more effective to introduce sufficient income support in a model more likened to the “guaranteed minimum income” which would then become universal incrementally, rather than starting with a small universal payment and increasing the level over time, until an adequate level of income is reached. This would significantly reduce the risk that the program would be disbanded or derailed before meeting the target of being adequate enough to live on, which would likely take several decades. Quiggin explains “Of course, an attempt to expand access to income support will be politically difficult, more so than advocacy of a small universal payment. But, in an environment where the economic and political order is breaking down around us, political caution is a road to oblivion. Social democratic parties need to break with their current role as the responsible managers of the status quo, and offer a radical vision for the future. An expanded, and ultimately universal, basic income is such a vision.”

To read the full article click here


About Roberta Stewart

Roberta Stewart has written 5 articles.

Roberta Stewart is a Trade Unionist who works at the National Tertiary Education Union in Sydney Australia and is studying Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney

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.


  • Sebastjan

    This is a path well worth thinking about… Basic, before universal and incremental. I feel this as pragmatic and politically feasible thought.

  • Wrong, John. The word ‘basic’ is the problem, not the best starting point. The UBI movement should abandon mealy-mouthed ‘pragmatism’ in favour of imaginative generosity. Lets campaign for a universal big income funded by social credit.

  • Conrad Lodziak

    The problem with Quiggin’s idea of basic before universal is that he is tying his proposals to an employment/income model, which is already failing. If he’s concerned about funding then why not try a ‘radical’ solution, eg confiscate 99% of the wealth of all billionaires, supplementary taxes on all millionaires, a salary cap, nationalise (ie remove immoral profits) from all public services and utilities, including health, energy, water, railways, etc,, and strict regulation of the prices of all survival goods including housing.

  • Bruno Morency

    Also disagree with this approach:

    First, there’s something fundamentally unjust in giving basic income to some people while leaving others to reach that same basic level though work/employment rather than checks from the government for nothing.

    Second, once basic-but-not-universal income has been put in place, the proposed step 2 would be to make it universal. This would mean allocating very large government funds to those who were deemed “not in need’ enough to get it in step 1. I find it hard to believe that social group will support all that new funding being now channeled to people “who don’t need it” instead of giving more to those who received it in step 1 and “now need more”.

    Personally, Basic Income is a measure I support only if it is given out equally to all citizens … and we’ll never get to make it universal if we don’t make it universal from day 1.

  • Robin Barry

    I would prefer to stick with label ‘BI’ or Basic Income rather than Universal Basic Income. Does Universal refer to a district, a region, a country, a continent, the world or the Universe?
    In any country a Basic Income should be paid to every citizen provided he remains a resident for at least six months per year. The amount should be dependant on age and decided by the elected representatives. It should be financed by an increase in Value Added Tax.

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