Op-Ed; Opinion; The McFarland Report

OPINION: Basic Income’s Terminological Quagmire

I appreciate André Coelho’s recent response to Francine Mestrum’s article “The Alternative Facts Of The Basic Income Movement, especially his clarification of the role of Basic Income News. However, I believe that Coelho’s reply fails to give due attention to what struck me as Mestrum’s main contention: that organizations like BIEN should not use the term ‘basic income’ to refer generally to guaranteed minimum income programs (which are typically means-tested rather than universal).

We must make no mistake here: the terminology is confusing. Although BIEN has adopted one specific definition of ‘basic income’, this definition is not universal. Indeed, even some of BIEN’s affiliates adopt definitions of the term that are not coextensive with BIEN’s. Many of the discrepancies between here reflect a different dimension of the semantic dispute: whether, by definition, a policy called a ‘basic income’ must provide a livable income. BIEN itself has rejected this constraint, but not without controversy (for more on this dispute, see Basic Income News articles by Toru Yamamori and Malcolm Torry). Mestrum is correct, though, to identify what we might call the question of “universality” or “uniformity” as another source of discrepancies between different uses of term.

Since I began writing for Basic Income News, I have managed to internalize a certain dialect (“BIENglish” if you will). I must admit, however, that the relationships between terms in BIENglish sometimes make little antecedent sense. For one, in BIENglish, ‘basic income’, ‘universal basic income’, and ‘unconditional basic income’ are mutually synonymous (defined as “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement”). If I ignore my familiarity with a certain quasi-technical dialect, thinking merely as a competent user of the English language, this semantic equivalence might seem surprising. It might make more sense, it seems, to suppose that ‘basic income’ refers to something more general, of which ‘universal basic income’ and ‘unconditional basic income’ name specific variants. More confusing still, however, is the use of ‘basic income guarantee’ — which, in BIENglish, is not synonymous with ‘basic income’. Instead, in the dialect I have now internalized, ‘basic income guarantee’ seems to be roughly synonymous with ‘guaranteed minimum income’ — and is likely to extend even to some means-tested programs that Mestrum would support (but refuse to call ‘basic income’).   

It is worth expanding on the latter point. BIEN’s US affiliate, the US Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG), defines ‘basic income guarantee’ (‘BIG’) as a “government ensured guarantee that no one’s income will fall below the level necessary to meet their most basic needs for any reason”. According to USBIG, a basic income is a specific type of BIG, one that “gives every citizen a check for the full basic income every month”. However, on USBIG’s definition, BIGs also include policies like the negative income tax (NIT), which “pays the full benefit only to those with no private income and phases out the benefit as people earn more private income” (thereby, perhaps, avoiding Mestrum’s main complaints against a truly “universal” basic income). We should stop here to note that, in the dialect of USBIG, the following sentence would seem to be true: “Francine Mestrum supports a basic income guarantee and opposes a basic income.” And we should expect ordinary English speakers to be at least a bit confused by something like that, assuming that they’re not already immersed in USBIG or BIEN lingo. This is the sort of potential linguistic weirdness to which we should be sensitive whenever we speak in “BIENglish” to a general audience.

To further confound the situation, however, we must mention the Canadian dialect. BIEN’s Canadian affiliate, Basic Income Canada Network (BICN), defines ‘basic income guarantee’ similarly to USBIG: “A Basic Income Guarantee ensures everyone an income sufficient to meet basic needs and live with dignity, regardless of work status.” Once again, this definition does not imply the absence of means test, and both a basic income and NIT (to use USBIG’s terminology above) would fall under its extension. In the Canadian context, however, I have not seen sharp definitional boundaries drawn between the terms ‘basic income’ and ‘basic income guarantee’. Notably, BIEN’s affiliate does call itself ‘Basic Income Canada Network’ — not ‘Basic Income Guarantee Canada Network’ — and seems to use the terms interchangeably on its “About Basic Income page (where the term ‘demogrant’ might be used roughly synonymously with the term ‘basic income’-as-used-by-USBIG). The latter is consistent with the Government of Ontario’s use of ‘basic income’ in naming and describing its upcoming (so called) Basic Income Pilot (which, in fact, is most likely to test an NIT rather than a “demogrant”). 

Finally, we should stop to note that, given their names and affiliation with BIEN, one might reasonably assume that USBIG and BICN are concerned only with a universal and uniform basic income (i.e. a demogrant), paid out to all citizens regardless of means. This, however, would be incorrect. The stated primarily focus of each organization is a “basic income guarantee” — which, by definition, needn’t involve the payment of money to those who don’t need it (as Mestrum finds so problematic in traditional basic income proposals).

Now, I wish to make no claim as what the focus of these respective organizations ought to be. (After all, I am on the executive boards of both BIEN and USBIG.) I want only to use these examples to illustrate one claim: our terminology is confusing, unintuitive, and, at times, even conflicting.

We must not, however, pin too much of the blame on ourselves (though we are not fully innocent). The term ‘basic income’ is often used sloppily and, worse, equivocally in popular media. I sometimes witness speakers and authors who initially define ‘basic income’ as an unconditional cash grant paid equally and uniformly to all individuals — to go on later to claim that a “basic income” was tested in Manitoba’s Mincome experiment, championed by Martin Luther King Jr or Milton Friedman, or nearly introduced by President Nixon. That is, they use ‘basic income’ in a narrow sense (e.g. BIEN’s use) when defining it, but switch to broadest sense (e.g. the Canadian use) while illustrating it. This practice is misleading and deceptive.  

This practice is in no way excused by the fact that, in some cases, an NIT could have the same ultimate distributional effects as a universal basic income. First, a basic income could be financed by means other than an income tax, in which case the final distributional effects would most likely differ. Second, even if we consider cases in which the distributional effect are the same, there remain other non-trivial differences between the two types of policies. They might differ, for example, in administrative cost or efficiency — and psychological and behavioral effects on recipients might vary depending on whether basic income checks are issued and later taxed back, or whether the initial payouts never occur. Beyond all this, however, the two types of policies are simply conceptually distinct — and there is no excuse to elide the difference between them without, minimally, alerting the audience and defending the decision to treat them as equivalent in context.  

It is extremely doubtful that BIEN and Basic Income News lie at the source of this problem. (To claim otherwise would surely be to overstate the extent of our influence!) At the same, however, I believe that we merit some blame for doing too little to address or even acknowledge this terminological quagmire. I myself am not exempt from this charge. I have always, in my own writings, aimed to be precise in describing how the term ‘basic income’ is used by the speakers or groups on which I report, especially when their implicit or explicit definitions diverge from that of BIEN. Still, for me, a desire for “politeness” — a resistance to policing or condemning usage — has often led to my not being as forceful and overt in noting linguistic discrepancies as I otherwise might. It has always seemed pretentious and condescending to resort to scare quotes whenever another entity (e.g. the Government of Ontario) uses ‘basic income’ differently from BIEN — let alone to accuse said entity of misuse of a term — even if, at the same time, it reeks of equivocation not to.

If I were to offer a somewhat radical suggestion, I might encourage groups like BIEN and its affiliates to abandon the attempt to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for ‘basic income’. Now that uses of the term have proliferated in the mainstream, its definition is out of our control. In the hands of diverse and disperse natural language users, words have a way of acquiring different shades of meaning across regions and groups. (Think, for example, of how speakers from different geographical regions might argue about qualifies as ‘barbecue’.) There is no reason to assume that ‘basic income’ would be immune from such fracturing and fragmentation of meaning. While BIEN must aspire toward precision and accuracy in its own publications, it cannot place itself in the role of policing the linguistic practices of ordinary speakers. This is, by now, a losing game.

In the present context, in fact, we might hope to do little better than to offer a prototype. The prototypical basic income, we might say, is unconditional, universal, individual, stable, lifelong, and sufficient to meet basic needs (for example). At the same time, however, we would need to acknowledge — loudly and clearly — that the term ‘basic income’ is frequently used to denote programs and policies that, while possessing most attributes of this prototype, might lack one or two (e.g. that it might be sometimes be used to refer to programs that means-tested, or paid to households, or insufficient to meet basic needs). Writers would, of course, still bear responsibility for clearly and precisely articulating what their subjects mean by ‘basic income’ — but this is already necessary practice, given that we can seldom take for granted that speakers use ‘basic income’ to mean precisely the same thing as BIEN. However, if BIEN abandons the claim to provide necessary and sufficient conditions, we might mitigate the confusion that might arise when readers assume that occurrences of ‘basic income’ in our publications, which are not otherwise explicitly defined, correspond to BIEN’s definition.

Possibly, it will eventually become necessary that we consider the adoption of new terminology — should ‘basic income’ simply become too imprecise or ambiguous to contribute adequately to the understanding of what it is, exactly, that we study and promote.

Image: “Ambiguity” CC BY-SA 2.0 Lori Greig

About Kate McFarland

Kate McFarland has written 512 articles.

Former lead writer and editor of 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.


  • Michael L.

    I guess your essay is what happens when a philosopher of language gets involved in the basic income discussion. 🙂 As a co-founder of USBIG, I’ll take some responsibility for the terminological confusion. But I’ll also try to explain why we did what we did, at least why I did what I did (which was not worry too much about rigorously defining basic income).

    At the time USBIG was formed, there was much less discussion, at least that we were aware of, of basic income than there is today. Our goal was to do what little we could to try to generate more discussion of the idea within the U.S. We were familiar with BIEN’s view, at the time, as well as with the Negative Income Tax (NIT). We were also aware that a NIT and BIEN’s basic income could have identical distributional consequences but that there could be differences between them as well. As I saw it, and perhaps others around at “the founding” of USBIG might’ve agreed, given the limitations of the U.S. welfare state at the time (and still), as well as the lack of attention to anything like a basic income or NIT, either basic income, as BIEN defined it, or NIT would be a vast improvement over what we were currently doing. So I was fine with a definition of basic income guarantee (BIG) that was broad, you might say ambiguous, enough to include both basic income and NIT. But things have changed since then—maybe our language should too..

    • Kate McFarland

      Michael, thanks for the comment. I wasn’t there at the founding, of course, but I assume that the language has already changed since then. I assume that, since that time, uses of ‘basic income’ and ‘basic income guarantee’ have greatly proliferated within the wider community of English-language users. Today, I see others treat ‘basic income’ and ‘basic income guarantee’ and synonyms–sometimes even explicitly stating things like “basic income is also known as ‘basic income guarantee’, ‘universal basic income’, …” USBIG’s convention could be fine, I think, if it were generally accepted as conventional–but it’s not, and imagine that it could be very confusing to many speakers.

  • Mike van Wyk

    The term UBI (Universal Basic Income) is an unfortunate misnomer, because it has the potential to mislead thinking and understanding of the core principals of the moral stand-point of BIEN. The principals of UBI centres on a moral obligation not a consideration.
    I have observed many discussions in which the core principal of unconditionality – which is the crux of why so many current social support policies are undignified, prescriptive and too complex and costly. I definitely agree with what BIEN are trying to achieve.
    Then why do I say the term UBI is a misnomer?
    Firstly, the word “Basic” is misleading, because it leads people (specifically policy-makers) to a belief that ‘basic’ means any insignificant sum society cares to donate. BIEN has done much work over the past 30 years in conveying in detail the ideals and philosophy of UBI – but not enough has been discussed on exactly what a typical UBI level of distribution should be and what that distribution will afford the recipient. My concern is that current discussions indicate that UBI will be introduced at levels so low, that the sum distributed has no real impact on a persons ability to survive with dignity. I feel its very important it should be pegged at an amount that truly supports a person or families basic needs to such an degree, that the person or family maintains adequate nutrition (a balanced diet), adequate formal shelter, adequate clothing, efficient public transport and access to cultural enrichment and recreational activities – therefore a sum of money that promotes a prudent but dignified life-style (not luxury). As Professor Philippe Van Parijs has so eloquently stated, that UBI be seen as a social support, a foundation or a base on which not only supports the individual but also ultimately supports the economy. Most importantly that the level of UBI provides the individual the freedom and choice which the current system of socio-economics has progressively corroded over many decades.
    The opposite side of the UBI ‘coin’ is the pressing question of what exactly can be done to provide goods, services and utilities at affordable prices, so that anyone unfortunate enough to have to survive on UBI alone, has a dignified life. This question requires urgent debate.
    Secondly, the word “Income” is totally misleading, because the principals handed down through the philosophical history of the movement and further expounded on by BIEN, describe rather a ‘debit’ to society, not an income that is earned and rewarded as salary or wage in exchange for labour or work. BIEN rightly promotes an unconditional UBI – which is not reliant on labour, work or any form of means test.
    I prefer the terms ‘Universal Entitlement’ or ‘Universal Endowment’ – both of which are closer linked to the moral philosophical stand-point of BIEN. The principal that all should have a share in the bounty of societies aggregate wealth, for all of society past and present, have participated actively or passively, towards the increase of the aggregate wealth accumulated in society at any given time. My personal belief is that it is unconscionable that the vast majority of mankind should suffer want, in some cases abject poverty, instability, less opportunity, less choice and little power over their lives, – while on the other hand a relatively small group (the capital/asset “rentiers” as in the words of Prof. Guy Standing), have all the power, endless opportunity, more choice and far more stability. This obtuse inequality is morally wrong and apprehensible. For this reason I believe the rewards generated from societies aggregate wealth, a fair portion thereof, is owed as an absolute right or entitlement to each person in society. This reward is not earned through work or labour – therefore is better described as an entitlement or endowment, not an income.
    BIEN extends a unique solution to rebalance the social contract in order to create a more just, moral and equitable society. We cannot achieve that if there is confusion in use of terminology – words matter.

    Mike van Wyk – South Africa

  • Tom Clarkson

    Thanks for the clarifying article. It has made me aware of my own misuse of terms that I will try to be more careful about in the future. For example, this article made me realize that “basic” means “enough to live on”.

    • Kate McFarland

      I’m glad you’ve found it helpful, Tom.

      However, I now worry that I myself must not have been very in clear in this clarifying article! It is not widely agreed upon that ‘basic’ in the context ‘basic income’ (or ‘universal basic income’ or ‘unconditional basic income’) implies “enough to live on”. Indeed, BIEN has explicitly rejected this implication in its definition of ‘basic income’ (see the About Basic Income page on this website).

      According to BIEN, a universal, individual, unconditional, regular cash transfer can qualify as a “basic income” even if it is insufficient to meet “basic” needs (e.g. the Alaskan permanent fund dividend).

      Confusingly, though, some individuals and organizations DO insist that the ‘basic’ part of the name means “enough to live on”. For example, though I can’t presently locate the webpage, I know GiveDirectly has stated this explicitly at one point. Some of BIEN’s affiliates have argued this too.

      In my experience in the North American context, the term ‘basic income guarantee’ (which–confusingly–is often used synonymously with ‘guaranteed minimum income’) does tend to imply that “BIG” is enough to live on.

      I hope this helps, but expect that it is still rather confusing. Because all of the divergent uses of terminology ARE confusing!

  • Why does the UBI movement use the word ‘basic’ at all? Whether it means enough to live on or less than enough to live on, why is the movement dreaming so small? Why doesn’t the UBI movement promote the idea of a generous amount, enough to live well on? The two obvious reasons are: 1. it would encourage laziness and 2. it can’t be funded by tax. Reason 1. should have been dealt with by now. Wage slavery is unnecessary. A generous payment will free people, allowing them to choose what they do with their time. Reason 2 needs some work. The movement seems incapable of thinking outside the tax box. As a previous commenter has said, the payment is an entitlement. The movement should work from that point to find a funding solution. Personally, I’d favour governments taking back control of the money supply. Instead of banks issuing money as debt, governments can issue it as credit. Anyway, it’s good to see these, er, basic issues being discussed. Thanks, Kate!

  • Thomas Salter

    Unfortunately the word ‘universal’ is also problematic. I recently attended the first conference on World Basic Income (http://worldbasicincome.weebly.com). I observed frequent slippage amongst the speakers between the national models and the global models. It was similar to what you described in your article – the slippage between definition and illustration, and between distinct variants of basic income/entitlement.

    If our concern is with inequality and human suffering it is worth distinguishing national and global models.
    In the early 21st century 85% of global inequality is between countries and 15% within countries, compared to 50% respectively in 1850. (Policy Research Working Paper 5820 Global Inequality: From Class to Location, from Proletarians to Migrants Branko Milanovic p.6-7) National welfare systems do not redress this now more fundamental global inequality based on locality rather than class within countries, or the poverty that results still in 17 million excess deaths each year or 40,000 every day (http://www.countercurrents.org/polya270614.htm). The nation-state, our basic unit of political community, has not evolved with the function of addressing that inequality. We have yet to develop a global political community or governance institutions capable of doing so. For instance Denmark, has the highest proportion, 51%, of GDP that is taxed and redistributed in the world.. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_tax_revenue_as_percentage_of_GDP) GDP/capita is also high and inequality is low. However only 0.7% of Denmark’s GDP is committed, and that in theory, to international redistribution, like the rest of the wealthy OECD countries.

    The word ‘universal’ for a payment within a nation is a misnomer but the term UBI seems to be catching on and for that reason we’re probably best sticking with it despite its definitional problems. If we were to consider refining it to distinguish the national variants from the global what would be the best way? It’s hard to think of terminology that does not risk other sorts of confusion, and is not cumbersome.

    Universal National Basic Income? That may sound like the income of the nation to some English speakers.

    National Personal Entitlement?

    To be clear I don’t mean to suggest BIEN’s national model and global models are opposed or contradictory just to point out that the word ‘universal’ is problematic as well as ‘basic’ and ‘income’!

    • Kate McFarland

      Hi, Thomas. Thanks for this comment. I agree that the word ‘universal’ is also problematic for the reasons you mention.

  • Yes but…surely ‘universal’ in this context clearly means that the income is given to everyone in a nation. In this sense, it’s interchangeable with ‘unconditional’.

    • Kate McFarland

      I don’t think they’re obviously interchangeable. The words mean different things in colloquial English, of course.

      Presumably, even an individual could be granted a “unconditional basic income” (on one plausible interpretation of that term), being that that individual would continue to receive funds regardless of what that individual does. However, a single individual in a society could not receive a “universal basic income”; this one make no sense.

      In the other direction, one might think that universality implies unconditionality–this is more convincing–although even a universal scheme might come with conditions upon actually receiving the aid (i.e. everyone in the society might be eligible to receive benefit provided that they meet certain requirements, e.g., perhaps, participation requirements).

  • BTW, in this interesting comments forum, I notice that Michael L (co-founder of USBIG), Tom Clarkson (misunderstood ‘basic’) and Thomas Salter (misunderstood ‘universal’) get replies from the author, whereas Mike van Wyk (UBI
    must fund dignified lifestyle and should be called Universal Entitlement) and I (basic income is miserly ambition) don’t. Was it something we said, Kate?

    • Kate McFarland

      Chris: I usually do not reply to comments. That is my default. I read them (if I see them), but I don’t have time to reply to everything.

      Presumably, I replied to the Thomases because they misunderstood a point of terminology (if something strikes me as crucial to clarify, I’m likely to reply), and I replied to Michael because we have a professional relationship; it just so happened that a little exchange took place rather than over email.

  • Steve Richardson

    Thanks, Kate, for explaining your reluctant agreement to accept linguistic ambiguity as an indicator of success. It looked as if you were going to insist on taking a stand, so I was relieved that you ended up in a different place.

    “The way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear.”
    – Ludwig Wittgenstein

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