AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is a draft of the first chapter of the book I’m working on: Universal Basic Income: Essential Knowledge. It can also be thought of as a reply to Bitch Bastardly’s guest article from last week. Comments welcome: Karl@widerquist.com.

            Every minute of every day, you use something you don’t own to meet your needs without asking anyone’s permission and without paying anyone for the privilege. You do this every time you take a breath. You can’t do that without an atmosphere. You don’t own the atmosphere, but you’ve never had to get a job to earn the money to buy the right to use the atmosphere to keep yourself alive. You simply used it as if the free use of a common resource was the most natural thing in the world.

Karl Widerquist
Karl Widerquist

            I bet you’d be pretty angry if the government made a new rule dividing atmosphere into private property without giving you a share large enough to meet your needs. I don’ think it would make you feel better if they gave you the opportunity to get a job to earn the money to buy the right to breathe in your area, and thereby keep yourself alive. I think you’d recognize that if you had that much need for a job, you’d be willing to accept very low wages. I don’t think it would make you feel much better if lifetime subscriptions to breathe were affordable, and if, after working for years, saving your money, investing it wisely, you have the chance to become one of the small portion of people who own piece of the atmosphere before retirement age or the even smaller portion of people who own enough of the atmosphere that other people will pay them to breathe.

            If the government tried to privatize the atmosphere, I think you’d say something like this. My ancestors and I have used the atmosphere freely for millions of years. We’re evolved to depend on it. If you take away our independent access to it, you make us dependent on whatever group of people owns it. If there’s some benefit in dividing the atmosphere into private property, either everyone should get a share, or those who don’t get shares should be compensated unconditionally for their loss with an income, and that compensation should be at least large enough to buy a lifetime subscription to the right to breathe.

            If you’d be that angry about needing some else’s permission to use the atmosphere to meet your need to breathe, why aren’t you angry that you need some else’s permission to use all the other resources you need to meet all your other needs?

            I think you should be. Our ancestors used the land and other resources of the Earth freely for millions of years, just as you and I use the atmosphere now. Every one of us is evolved to depend on it. No group of people “naturally” owns it. A few generations ago, governments took away the independent access our ancestors enjoyed. They created a system in which the resources we all need are owned by a few without giving the rest of us any compensation. By doing that, they made us dependent on the people who own the Earth’s resources.

            The vast majority of us who don’t own a large enough share of natural resources or of the stuff we make out of natural resources to keep ourselves alive and thriving. The vast majority of us aren’t allowed to use any resources but air without the permission of an owner. We can’t build a shelter, hunt, gather, fish, farm, start a cooperative, or start our own business. Except for the wealthy few, we get a job to earn the money to buy the right to do use the resources that were here before anyone and that we’re all evolved to depend on. Wages are such that, only the lucky few get to the point where we’re free to do something other than paid labor before we’re too told to work anyway.

            The division of the Earth’s resource into private and public property has many benefits, but if some people get a share and others don’t, the private property system has many cruel side effects, among them poverty, homelessness, alienation, fear, and hopelessness. Because most of us have no alternative to paid labor, we are all willing to accept lower wages, longer work hours, and less appealing working conditions than we otherwise would. In some situations, people are forced to accept dangerous jobs, sexual harassment, and other forms of abuse from employers or spouses, because they need the job or a spouse with money to keep them alive. That need is artificial, created by the way our governments chose to divide the Earth’s resources.

            Let’s consider a way to divide resources that isn’t so cruel.

            Back in 1918, Bertrand Russell’s suggested “that a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all, whether they work or not, and that a larger income … should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful. On this basis we may build further.”

            Russell’s proposal is very much what we know today as Universal Basic Income (UBI). Later chapters define it in more detail, but his description gives you a very good idea what it is. UBI is not all there is to social justice, but it removes an exceedingly cruel feature built into our economic system. If we’re going to divide the resource of the Earth unequally, those who own more of the wealth we make out of resources have the responsibility to pay those who have to do with less access to resources.

            Although there are many reasons to introduce UBI, I started with this one, not only because I think it’s one of the most important, but also because I think it brings up the central decision that people have to make if we’re going to introduce UBI. Should everyone get an income—even the people who could take jobs but chose not to? I think that question already divides most readers into two groups with pretty firm positions: Yes, because no one should live in poverty or homelessness. No, because every nonwealthy person who can work must work.

            UBI, on its own, is a mild reform with far-reaching effects. Later chapters show that it isn’t terribly expensive. On its own, UBI creates a market economy where income doesn’t start at zero. People who don’t take jobs, get less than those who take jobs, but no one has to go without the money they need for food, shelter, or clothing in the same way that no one today has to go without the money they need to breathe.

            By offering good salaries and good working conditions, we have enormous ability to give people an incentive to engage in work that the community recognizes as useful. And if we’re not willing to pay enough to get people to freely choose do some particular job, maybe that job doesn’t need to be done all. If we do it this way, we end poverty and homelessness. We end the cruel treatment people at the bottom and relieve the fear of the people in the middle. We invite everyone—rather than frighten everyone—into participating in our economic system. That mild and humane reform finds resistance from the belief that everyone—or more realistically, everyone who isn’t wealthy—must work, and so the issue of whether everyone including those who refuse to take jobs should get the income comes up again and again throughout this book.

            The idea of UBI has inspired a growing worldwide movement. Although the concept of a UBI goes back at least as far as the 1790s, the movement for it is stronger as I write these words than it has ever been. The movement grows out of frustration with the ineffectiveness and political vulnerability of conventional approaches to poverty and inequality. The market system also needs many other reforms, but millions of people are coming to believe that one of the most important and fundamental reforms we need right now is UBI.

            The central goal of this book is to explain the essentials of UBI: what it is, how it works, the most popular arguments for and against it, how much it costs, how it can be financed, its likely effects, its history, and its possible future. But as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, I am a strong supporter of UBI. And so, this book’s secondary goal is to convince readers that UBI is a good, workable idea that should be enacted all around the world, but I will make this argument in a way that explains and addresses both sides of the debate over whether to introduce UBI. Whether you agree with my position on UBI or not, I think you can learn more from a passionate attempt to argue points for it and refute points against it than from a dispassionate list of points on either side.

            With this in mind, the book begins with a more thorough explanation of what UBI is.

-Karl Widerquist, begun sometime ago, but completed in Aspen, Colorado, July 29, 2021

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist has written 997 articles.

Karl Widerquist is a Professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University-Qatar. He specializes 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 a member of the BIEN EC for 14 years. 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. He is a cofounder of the journal "Basic Income Studies." 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.” Most of Karl Widerquist's academic writing is available at his research website (Widerquist.com). For more information about him, see his BIEN profile (https://basicincome.org/news/2016/12/bien-profiles-karl-widerquist-co-chair/).