基本收入实验的可能性和陷阱


如果关于普遍基本收入(UBI)的公开辩论要从世界各地发生的许多UBI实验中受益,那么参与辩论的记者、决策者和公民需要了解UBI实验可以做什么,更重要的是,它们不能做什么。UBI的实验可以让我们对UBI的一些影响增加了解,但它们似乎并不能达到许多记者、公民和决策者所期望的效果。2016年12月份, 麻省理工科技评论完美地解释了普遍的对UBI的过分期望,标题刊登为:“2017年,我们将明确基本收入是否有意义”。尽管我们想通过UBI试验明确测试出其功效,但试验并不能得出某种决定性的信息,来影响绝大多数人支持或反对UBI的决策。

社会科学实验并不像医学实验。例如,一次疫苗试验,可以直截了当地回答几乎每个人根本关切的问题:疫苗是否安全并行之有效?研究者可以通过选择试验对象群体(1000个人接种疫苗,对照组1000个人接种对照剂)进行随机对照试验(RCT)。他们观察两个群体来确定实验组感染疾病的几率是否更低,是否更容易出现并发症。疫苗实验并不是完美的试验。随机对照试验在确定疫苗在长期范围内对于各年龄段的人群,和对于有复杂风险因素的人群是否安全有效上有一定困难,但一次随机对照试验报告的对照组和试验组的区别给人们提供了他们所关切的根本问题的有用并相对直接的信息。如果实验组和对照组的比较表明一种疫苗既安全又有效,人们就应该使用它,如果比较说明疫苗不安全或者有效性低,人们就不会使用。如果有明确理由证明试验结果不可靠,那么研究者应该进行更多的试验。

我们可以对实验组进行一段时间的UBI试验并且和对照组比较他们的行为和生活结果。但是这种比较并不像疫苗试验那样,就是完完全全对UBI的试验。如果UBI试验并算不上试验,那它是什么呢?它是一种间接性的,并且总是带有不确定性的方法,提升我们对于UBI的特定方面而不是其他方面的了解。UBI试验不是像疫苗试验那样具有决定性。UBI试验不可能像疫苗试验那样具有决定性,因为它们对全面实施的国家UBI计划的长期效果的评价要远远低于疫苗试验对全面实施的国家疫苗计划的长期效果的评价,而且因为即便RCT结果确实在一定程度上说明了关于一个全国性的UBI项目的某种有意义的信息,伦理上的分歧也会影响我们对其效果的评估。

不像疫苗那样,UBI有许多效果很大程度上取决于地方、和国家市场以及非市场环境中人们彼此交流的方式。随机选择的一个工人接受UBI,其行为上的变化可能与1亿接受UBI工人的变化很不相同。雇主对于这两者的反应变化也非常不同。实验性UBI对一个随机选择的三年制UBI中的一个五岁儿童的教育效果可能与在一个国家中对500万五岁儿童全面实施UBI的教育效果大不相同,因为UBI将在他们的整个学校生涯中发挥作用。

我们想对UBI了解的事情相较于疫苗来说,要复杂且难以观察得多。一旦受益人和其他人对UBI和其他人的反应与他们的行为互动,UBI会给他们的收入增加多少?而这又会给受益人增加多少福利?根据什么样的福利衡量标准?受益人对UBI反应使其更加昂贵吗?还是以政策制定者想要的或是不想要的方式作出反应?这些因素在评定UBI中的相对伦理重要性又如何计算?

伦理上的分歧会影响我们对于几乎所有UBI效果的评价。例如,如果实验组相比于对照组工作更少是一件好的事情因为这使处于不利条件的人去追求更好的薪资,去要求更好的工作条件,去追求更好的教育,或者花更多时间陪伴家人?或者是一件坏事,因为这使他们违反一些原则:并不富有的人一定要尽可能多的工作?经验主义的结论总是易于歪曲和滥用,如果人们使用它们不是为了帮助完善思想而是作为支持他们对于此类问题固有观念的武器。

UBI试验会对部分效应产生更好或者更量化的信息。这一无关紧要的事实使得实验容易受到街灯效应的影响,从而引起人们对更容易回答但不太重要的问题的关注,而忽视了更难回答但更重要的问题。例如,那些在食物、住房和其他经济不安全的环境中长大的孩子相比,那些成长在因为国家UBI而永远不会面临食物或住房不安全家庭的新生儿童是否倾向于成长为更健康、受教育程度更高、更幸福、更有生产力和更亲社会的成年人。

RCT 可以回答对照组是否比实验组工作时间更长的问题,但他们无法回答雇主是否会通过提供更好的工资和工作条件来响应全国 UBI,以及这些工作场所的改善是否会部分扭转最初的在劳动时间方面的下降趋势。像一个明灯,UBI 实验将把每个人的注意力——即使是最理性、最有见识的研究人员——吸引到通过对照组和实验组之间的比较产生的可量化数字上,远离更重要但难以回答的问题。

出现这样的情况,部分是因为 UBI 影响的复杂性,部分是因为伦理上的分歧,UBI 不适合用类似于疫苗是否安全有效的简单的底线问题去决策。在医学意义上,UBI既安全又有效。 UBI 将提高净受益人的收入,而无需让他们承担任何工作义务或证明他们有需要,并且不会使他们患上荨麻疹或出现任何其他医疗并发症。关于 UBI 的主要分歧不在于未知数,而在于其众所周知的影响的伦理价值:无论低收入人群是否工作,政府提高低收入人群收入的政策是对还是错?人们根据他们对这个道德问题的回答,以一种或另一种方式下定决心(做决策)都是合理的。

UBI 是否可以显著提高净受益人的收入(无论他们是否工作)这一问题几乎没有任何实证调查,因为有压倒性的证据证明其能,且几乎没有异议;分歧在于是否应该这样做。对 UBI 影响的实证研究几乎无法解决基本的道德分歧。我们可以问一个问题,X 美元的 UBI 是否可持续,但对于 X 的大多数相关水平,这个问题是毫无疑问的,并且答案只会对支持 X 美元 UBI 的人群具有决定性。 UBI 的反对者和怀疑者基本上并不是因为认为提议的水平是不可持续的,否则政治辩论中的人都会是UBI的支持者,只是对金额的高低有分歧而已。

上述问题使研究人员无法制定类似于疫苗是否安全有效的底线问题,也无法对具有不同道德立场的人感兴趣的任何底线问题给出明确的答案。所涉及的许多权衡的伦理评估,甚至是某些影响是否应该被视为积极或消极的问题,都在旁观者关注的范畴内。

既然如此,为什么人们还要进行 UBI 实验呢?人们进行 UBI 实验的部分原因是出于战略政治原因,因为即使存在所有这些困难,更多的知识总比更少的好。并不是每个人都对 UBI 有强烈的看法,而有强烈看法的理性人仍然愿意根据新知识改变他们对 UBI 或某些方面的看法。

但信息不是知识。只有当人们理解它及其相关性时,更多的信息才能产生更好的知识。进行实验的研究人员没有能力消除上述讨论的所有潜在误解。研究人员接受过进行实验并将他们的发现报告给其他专家的培训。就研究人员向非专业人士展示他们的发现而言,通常是为了帮助他们按照自己的方式理解研究。

这就是随机控制实验,这是一个对照组;这是一个实验组;这些是控制组和实验组之间的测量差异。研究人员添加一堆关于这种比较的有限相关性的警告会令外行呆住。随着警告越来越长,记者、政策制定者和公民更有可能直接跳到数字上。对这些警告的充分理解可能会让人们对实验结果表明完全实施的长期全国性UBI 计划的实际市场影响如此之少感到失望。

研究人员可以将他们的实验结果与其他来源的证据结合起来,并使用模拟模型等工具将对照组和实验组之间的差异转化为对实际市场结果的估计。他们可以将这些结果与更多数据和模型结合起来,将市场结果的估计与具有不同道德立场的人关切的各种底线问题的估计答案联系起来。但这将涉及在 UBI 实验之外进行更多的非实验性研究。他们的结果将更多地由这些模型的假设和其他证据来源驱动,而不是由他们正在报告的实验的实际发现驱动。

我最近的书《研究人员、政策制定者和公民基本收入实验的批判性分析》探讨了进行和报告 UBI 实验结果的难度,以通过UBI实验帮助研究人员、政策制定者和公民尽可能多地获得有用的知识。 [3] 本文试图总结该书中的一些最重要的论点。

这本书讨论了几乎任何UBI实验都必须处理的几个一般性问题:社区效应、长期效应、观察者效应、路灯效应、分离所研究项目的大小和类型的影响的困难、在大多数情况下测试真正的UBI的不可行性,以及使用收入状况审查项目作为UBI的实验近似所产生的问题。[4]

尽管这本书没有在人们是否应该进行UBI实验问题上表明立场,但它讨论了进行实验的科学和战略原因,以及过去为实现目标而进行的实验记录。几乎所有的实验都成功地收集到了有用的信息。但并不是所有的信息都能成功地加深公众对UBI的了解。例如,上世纪70年代进行的实验被严重误解,他们的发现经常被有意或无意地用来误导公众。[5]从UBI支持者的角度来看,一些实验在推进UBI运动方面取得了战略成功,而另一些则没有。可以说,上世纪70年代的实验对当时的UBI运动产生了负面影响,但在今天产生了积极影响。大约10年前在纳米比亚和印度进行的实验似乎对推行世界范围的UBI运动产生了巨大的积极影响。最近实验的效果还有待观察。[6]

本书的目的不是批评当代的实验,而是为委托、设计、施行、报道和阅读的人提供一些有用的分析。为了从实验中得到最大的收获,所有人都需要知道,在相关的政治背景下,讨论UBI效应的哪些问题是重要的,哪些问题是由实验回答的,最重要的是,实验结果表明了什么和没表明了什么。作为实验的实施者和报道者,研究人员和记者需要了解他们的发现是如何被误解和误用的,从而让实验发现在当今的争论中变得有意义。[7]

这本书讨论了令人惊讶的复杂的政治经济学,它引发的UBI实验更多是对希望立即引入UBI的运动的反应,而不是对UBI进行尝试的反应。对于UBI运动来说,UBI实验是一个有风险的策略,但只要UBI仍然是一个政治上的高风险项目,实验就有可能缩短它的进程。

任何人在决定进行UBI实验之前都应该意识到事物的内在复杂性以及相关人员背景知识的差异。 因此,他们也应该意识到,实验结果容易被误解和误用,他们需要制定战略,尽可能增加理解,减少误用。

这是一个困难的任务,这本书能做的就是尝试提出这样的战略方法。我们可以按照如下方法操作。把实验看作是回答评估UBI作为政策议程所需问题的一小部分努力。仅用自己的术语和一些限制警告来解释实验是不够的(什么是随机对照试验;什么是对照组;什么是实验组等)。实验不必与其他研究工作一起进行,以回答有关UBI的所有问题,但单独进行的实验对UBI作为一项政策所能提供的信息极其有限。实验的真正价值在于它对这一更大努力的微小贡献。为了让非专业人士理解这一点,需要有人帮助他们理解实验方法的局限性,以及将实验结果与他们真正想知道的关于全面实施的UBI计划的事情联系起来所需的额外证据。[9]

除去其他的更具体的建议,该书还强调了四种广泛的策略,以帮助实验启发关于UBI的讨论。

1.从公开讨论到落地实践到继续前进的追溯工作。任何委托、进行或撰写实验的人都应该尊重关于UBI的国家或地区性讨论。找出人们最想知道的事情。设计一项研究,尽可能地针对那些对讨论很重要的问题,着重关注实验是否能够提供相关证据的程度,以及非实验数据和模型可以提供帮助的程度。[10]

2.关注UBI的主要影响而不是副作用。街灯效应使得过去的实验更加关注可量化的副作用上,比如以牺牲更重要但更难以量化的问题为代价去关注劳动力和成本,而忽视了UBI是否对支持者们预测的人民长期福祉有积极影响。[11]

3.关注底线。尽管公众讨论随着时间和地点的变化而差异很大,而且不是每个人都同意任何一个底线,但对问题答案的渴望是无处不在的。因此,实验报告必须说明具有不同伦理立场的人们如何利用研究结果对UBI作为一项长期的国家政策进行全面评估。实验本身不能提供足够的证据来回答一个底线问题,但研究人员可以将他们的所有发现与之联系起来。公民和政策制定者通常需要大量的帮助才能有意义地理解这种关系。[12]

4.解决伦理争议。研究人员无法解决关于UBI伦理评估的争议,他们也不应该尝试解决。但倘若他们忽视了这一点,反而对公众造成伤害。他们可以通过认识到这些争议,并解释这些发现对那些持有不同道德立场的人意味着什么来更好地避免混乱颠倒,这在当地和国际上经常出现。[13]

全面实施的全国UBI的总体成本效益可能是最接近底线的问题,与有关伦理分歧各方的人有关,但任何不同利益者关注的具体底线问题也是重要的。[14]这本书讨论了支持者和反对者提出的主张,并试图确定关于这些主张的可验证的实证问题。几个不应被忽视的经验主义主张无法在实验规模上进行检验。关于这些主张的证据必须来自其他来源,这些来源必须与实验证据相结合,将任何实验发现与任何相关的底线问题联系起来。[15]

虽然实验本身不能决定性地回答关于全国UBI的任何问题,但这本书确认了许多关于UBI实验可以部分检验、间接检验和/或非决定性检验的说法。它讨论了这些局限性对进行研究和交流其结果的影响。[16]这本书没有对UBI实验是否应该或不应该进行的问题采取立场。这个答案取决于当地政治环境的特殊性。问题不在于是否要做实验。现在全世界都在进行实验。问题是如何从他们身上学到最多的东西。[17]

本书最后讨论了如何在认识到这些主张在UBI讨论的政治经济学中发挥作用的情况下,从实验结果走向公众讨论。因此,它们可以被解释为克服沟通障碍,减少误解和误用实验结果相关的问题。[18]

我希望我能说这个策略完全解决了问题,但那是不可能的。社会科学实验是一种非常有限的工具,其含义本身就很难理解。将实验作为回答所有关于UBI的重要实证问题的更广泛努力的一个小而不完整的部分,这种努力将会有所帮助,但不会消除误解。[19]

在如此复杂的问题和如此复杂的证据的讨论中,人们之间总是存在着理解的鸿沟。如果一个非专业人士学会了专业人士所知道的一切,他们就会成为专业人士。但实验和交流总是可以改进的。我希望这本书、这篇总结文章和这期特刊能对这种努力做出一点贡献。


[1] This article summarizes and draws heavily on the book, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments for Researchers, Policymakers, and Citizens, Karl Widerquist, Palgrave Macmillan 2018. I summarized that book very differently in the article, “The Devil’s in the Caveats: A Brief Discussion of the Difficulties of Basic Income Experiments,” Karl Widerquist, CESifo Forum 19 (3), September 2018, 30-35.

[2] Jamie Condliffe, “In 2017, We Will Find out If a Basic Income Makes Sense,” MIT Technology Review, December 19 2016.

[3] Widerquist,基本收入实验的批判性分析

[4] 威德奎斯特,⟪关于基本收入实验的批判性分析⟫ 第 19-42页.

[5] 卡尔 威德奎斯特,2005.“沟通的失败:我们能从负所得税实验中学到什么(如果有的话)“《社会经济学杂志》34(1):49–81;威德奎斯特,《基本收入实验的批判性分析》, 第43-56页.

[6]威德奎斯特,⟪关于基本收入实验的批判性分析⟫,第57-70页.

[7] 同上。 第77-92页.

[8] 同上。 第71-76页.

[9] 同上。 第11页.

[10]同上,第11页。

[11]同上,第12页。

[12]同上,第12页。

[13]同上,第12页。

[14]同上,第93-98页。

[15]同上,第99-114页。

[16]同上,第115-130页。

[17]同上,第141-144页。

[18]同上,第145-150页。

[19]同上,第12页。


Thank you to Chunzhuo Zhang (Joey), Fang Yuan (Sherry), Xianwen Huang (Amanda) and Qihao Liang (Qihao) for this translation into Chinese.

The original article in English can be found here.

The Essential Reason I Support UBI

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

A Simple Solution to End the Labor Shortage in Five Minutes

By Guest Blogger, Bitch Bastardly

Workers aren’t working for the wages we’re offering as much as they used to. Five million fewer Americans are working now than were working in June of 2019. That’s 3.33% of the U.S. labor force—a shortage! Think about what that means: 3.33% fewer pool boys at the spa, 3.33% fewer caddies at the country club, 3.33% fewer ball girls at the tennis club. Just the other day, I had to wait more than 30 minutes for my lobster bisque. Today, I called my service, and they couldn’t schedule anyone to clean my house until the middle of next week! If this keeps up, who’s going to iron my shirts? It’s a crisis.

All this is happening even though most businesses are still offering a very generous $7.25 per hour and, in some cases, even more. At that rate, a single parent only needs to work one-and-a-half jobs to get herself and her child out poverty. Then she’ll only need two more jobs to pay for the childcare she needs for the time she spends at her first job.

Despite this wonderful generosity, some workers have the audacity to suggest employers could end the labor shortage by paying higher wages. Some even suggest improved working conditions. That’s class warfare! We don’t need that radicalism here.

I suggest a simple solution—a small extension of our well established way of doing things—and it will literally eliminate the labor shortage in 5 minutes.

Privatize the atmosphere. The problem with the air we breathe is that nobody owns it! People take it for granted that they can inhale air any time they feel like it as if they have some natural right to breathe. That’s communism! And that never works. Poor people won’t appreciate the air they breathe until they pay for access to it from a corporation, until they know the police will arrest them if they steal the air from its natural owner—the American corporate sector.

This simple solution is in accord with the American way of doing things. We don’t usually give anything to poor people unless they work for it or prove they can’t work. Why are they getting such a valuable thing as breathing rights for free? Because they need it? People need food, shelter, and clothing; we don’t give them access to the resources they need to produce these things for themselves. Only naked savages do that. In civilized countries like ours, people don’t get access to the resources they “need” until they go to a boss and say I will work for you all day to get the money to buy the stuff I need to live.

Bitch Bastardly
Bitch Bastardly

This free atmosphere policy is unnatural and unamerican.

Imagine what a privatized atmosphere will do for the labor shortage? Once workers who are “looking for a better job offer” lose the right to inhale and exhale without the permission of the owner of the atmosphere, they’ll learn the truth of my motto, no job is a bad job, right quick. Like a good member of the lower class, they’ll do what they’re told and they do it in five minutes. If they don’t do it, they pass out and die. But that’s their choice. That’s what freedom in the free market is all about. People who don’t own resources, choose to work for people who do, or they choose not to use resources. If that means homelessness, hunger, or malnutrition, that’s their choice. This simple solution simply adds another choice: suffocation.

Imagine all the jobs a privately owned atmosphere will create in the banking sector as workers who can’t find a job before they pass out seek loans to buy breathing rights? Years of interest payments and collections will follow, generating banking sector profits that will trickle down to everyone.

The atmosphere’s new corporate owner will really clean up our environment. They’ll use their Supreme-Court-given free-speech rights to make all the campaign contributions it takes to get Congress to pay them money to remove pollutants from the atmosphere they own. And think of all the jobs that will create!

They’ll file suit in federal court to get the police to stop polluters. Right now, the government allows polluters to dump dirty chemicals into the air whenever they want. If the atmosphere was owned—as nature intended—by a wealthy campaign contributor, the government would stop polluters. No one has the right to dump pollution into the atmosphere you breathe unless they pay for that right from a private, for-profit corporation.

When corporations own resources, the consumer is sovereign, so you’ll be free to choose exactly how much pollution would get into your lungs. If the people want cleaner air, all they need to do is use their combined bidding power to make it more profitable to sell them clean air than to sell polluters the right to dirty up the air. If you think global warming is real, you can offer money to the corporation to get them to stop that too. It’ll be an old-fashioned bidding war, you versus the polluters, and may the deeper pocket win—it’s the American way.

And the best thing is that, whoever wins, the atmosphere-owning corporation will make lots of money, and that’s good for everybody, because what will they do with that money? They’ll spend some of it and that will create jobs. They’ll invest the rest and that will create even more jobs!

And what will people do with all the money they make in those jobs? They’ll buy the right to breathe, of course. But when they get home and take a deep breath, they’ll know they earned it, because they bought it from whatever corporation owns the right to tell them it’s OK to breathe. That’s the freedom of the free market.
-Bitch Bastardly, June-July 2021

For information about the Indepentarian blog, contact Karl@widerquist.com
For information about Bitch Bastardly, just make it up.

The Prehistory of Private Property: Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

The Prehistory of Private Property: Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

The book, the Prehistory of Private Property by Grant S. McCall an me, examines the origin and development of the private property rights system from prehistory to the present day to debunk three widely accepted false beliefs about the private property system: that inequality is natural, inevitable, or incompatible with freedom; that capitalism is more consistent with negative freedom than any other conceivable economic system; and that there is something “natural” about the private property system. That is, the normative principles of appropriation and voluntary transfer applied in the world in which we live support a capitalist system with strong, individualist, and unequal private property rights. The book reviews the intellectual history of these claims and demonstrates their importance in contemporary political thought before reviewing the history and prehistory of the private property system to address their veracity. In so doing, the book uses thorough anthropological and historical evidence to refute these three claims. The book shows that societies with common-property systems maintaining strong equality and extensive freedom were initially nearly ubiquitous around the world, that their claims to common ownership were consistent with appropriation-based theories, and that the private property rights system was established through a long series of violent state-sponsored aggressions.

This post summarizes the book, chapter-by-chapter.

1. Introduction

This chapter previews the book, explains the importance of debunking the three claims, the usefulness of examining the intellectual history of how they became so important in political thought, and the value of reviewing the prehistory and early history of the private property system to debunk them.

2. Hierarchy’s Apologists, Part One: 5,000 years of clever and contradictory arguments that inequality is natural and inevitable

This chapter reviews the history of the belief that inequality is natural and inevitable, showing that different versions of it played a role in differently unequal societies from prehistory to modern times. Inequality has been attributed to the divine favor of gods, to leaders actually being gods, to the belief that only hierarchies are capable of maintaining peace; to the intellectual, moral, or genetic superiority of the upper class; to the need to reward useful behavior; and to many other questionable beliefs. The parallels between the uses of the inequality hypothesis are striking. Although predominant ideologies in virtually all unequal societies agree that inequality is natural and inevitable, they can’t agree why inequality is natural and inevitable, and they all use this natural-inequality hypothesis to justify force in order to maintain inequality.

3. Hierarchy’s Apologists, Part Two: Natural inequality in contemporary political philosophy and social science

This chapter shows that the belief in natural inequality survives in many guises in contemporary social science and political philosophy—most especially in social contract theory and in “freedom-based” arguments for unequal private property rights in natural resources and the things people make out of them. The parallels between contemporary and historical justifications for inequality are striking. They all use the belief that inequality is natural and inevitable to justify coercive rules to maintain inequality, but they all present conflicting explanations why inequality is inevitable. This observation itself raises doubt about this claim and provides reason for empirical historical analysis of whether the natural inequality hypothesis is true.

Grant S. McCall

4. How small-scale societies maintain political, social, and economic equality

This chapter uses anthropological and historical evidence to debunk what the authors call the natural inequality hypothesis—i.e. the belief that inequality is natural and inevitable and/or that inequality is the inevitable result of respecting negative freedom. It examines land-tenure and property systems in a wide-variety of societies known to history and anthropology. It shows that many societies maintained very high levels of social, political, and economic equality for extremely long periods of time while protecting negative freedom at least as well, if not better than, contemporary property rights-based societies.

5. The Negative Freedom Argument for the Market Economy

The negative freedom argument for the market economy relies on the belief that capitalism delivers greater freedom from interference and coercion than any other system. This chapter shows that this claim cannot be established in pure a priori theory and that “propertarians” (people who use this argument) have so far failed to establish it empirically. Section 1 shows that the establishment and maintenance of the private property system involves an empirical tradeoff of liberties that most versions of the negative-freedom argument ignore. Section 2 considers and rejects a priori attempts to use a rights-based conception of freedom to resolve that tradeoff. Section 3 considers other possibilities for resolving the tradeoff in pure theory and concludes that it must be addressed empirically. Section 4 explains why a particularly useful way to examine that tradeoff is to make an empirical comparison of the freedom experienced by people in the market economy and the hunter-gatherer band economy.

6. The Negative Freedom Argument for the Hunter-Gatherer Band Economy

This chapter presents an empirical argument that the hunter-gatherer band economy is more consistent with negative freedom than the market economy. Although freedom is difficult to measure, the freedom of people in band societies dominates the freedom of the least free people in capitalist societies. There is no form of coercion, interference, force, non-contractual obligation, involuntariness, or aggression, to which people in band societies are subject and from which lower- and middle-class people in capitalist society have been freed. Lower- and middle-class people in capitalist societies are subject to forms of coercion, force, and so on that do not exist in band societies. The independently wealthy might have more liberties than people in band societies, but if so, their additional liberties come at the cost of fewer liberties for middle- and lower-class people. Therefore, the market economy—as usually conceived—fails to deliver the highest equal freedom. The potential advantage of large-scale societies is in promoting opportunity, not in protecting freedom. If the private property system is to be justified against other systems, it must be justified on the basis of opportunity, not on the false claim that it promotes negative freedom.

7. Contemporary Property Theory: A story, a myth, a principle, and a hypothesis

This chapter argues that rights-based justifications of unequal private property systems rely on an empirical claim that the authors call, “the individual appropriation hypothesis.” That is, if people were allowed to appropriate resources, in the absence of interference, an unequal, individualistic property rights system would develop. It essentially means that the private property rights system is natural and that collective property systems are unnatural and tend to be established only by interfering with individually appropriated property rights. Propertarians who try to distance themselves from empirical claims tend either to fall back on this claim or to fall into tautology and/or special pleading.

Karl & Hobbes

8. The History of a Hypothesis

This chapter reviews the intellectual history of the individual appropriation hypothesis from its seventeenth-century origins to the present to show how it became a background assumption in contemporary political theory. The history of appropriation theory and the appropriation story are intertwined with the history of the hypothesis.

9. The impossibility of a purely a-priori justification of private property

This chapter assesses attempts to justify specifically private property rights on an a priori basis. It shows how such attempts either resort to special pleading or fall back on one or another version of the individual appropriation hypothesis. It demonstrates that arguments based on negative freedom, opportunity, inequality, market power, self-ownership, and the Lockean proviso all fail to rule out a property-owning government. Even Loren Lomasky’s explicit attempt to remove empirical claims from the theory involves both special pleading and the appropriation hypothesis.

10. Evidence Provided by Propertarians to Support the Appropriation Hypothesis

Chapters 7-9 have shown that propertarianism requires some version of the (set of) empirical claim(s) we call the individual appropriation hypothesis. Some propertarians actually have provided evidence in favor of it. This chapter reviews that evidence, showing that it is superficial and inconclusive. A more thorough investigation is needed. Therefore, this chapter sets up the following five chapters, which provide that investigation.

The Prehistory of Private Property

11. Property Systems in Hunter-Gatherer Societies

This is the first of four chapters examining the origin and development of property rights (private, public, collective, common, and other) in order to investigate the individual appropriation hypothesis and related claims outlined in Chapter 7. Section 1 considers whether appropriation theory applies to animals. Section 2 explores the broad variation of systems of territoriality among modern human hunter-gatherers and uses the results to think about territoriality among the earliest human occupants of most of the globe. Section 3 argues that nomadic hunter-gatherer bands appropriated most of the world’s land in ways that were consistent with all or most appropriation criteria contained in natural property rights theories. In contradiction to propertarian theory, these original appropriators chose not to establish individual private property—neither in land nor in other goods. Land was a common, and food and tools were subject to requirements to share.

12. Property Systems in Stateless Farming Communities

One appropriation criterion, the requirement that appropriators mix their labor with the land, bypasses nomadic foragers and gives the first ownership claims to the first people to clear and farm the land. This ubiquitous appropriation story uses this ethical principle in tandem with the empirical claim that the first farmers established private land ownership systems to support the claim that private property is a natural development. The evidence presented in this chapter shows it is not so. The origin of private property occurred long after the origins of agriculture. Private ownership and individual appropriation play no role in small-scale stateless farming communities. Small-scale swidden agriculturalists clear the land together and choose to establish nothing like the supposedly natural private property system. Early farming societies had complex, overlapping, flexible, nonspatial, and at least partly collective land-tenure systems with a significant commons in the sense that individuals retained one or another kind of access rights to land for different purposes.

13. Property Systems in Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern States

This chapter shows that no period of private, individual appropriation is found in the formation of states. Early states had land-tenure systems in which political elites—kings, pharaohs, lugals, etc.—were considered the owners of all of the land in their kingdoms and subjects had various forms of usufruct rights for farming or other practices. The beginnings of individual private property occurred gradually, long after the formation of states, not with individual acts of appropriation but with elites using their political power to name themselves or their underlings as owners of assets. Even then, private landownership did not become the dominant property rights system in ancient or medieval times. Communal village agriculture remained the most common system in state societies throughout the world until the early modern period.

14. The Privatization of the Earth, circa 1500-2000

The history recounted in Chapters 10-14 shows that private property does not arise spontaneously through appropriation or any other method. The first people to discover, claim, use, occupy, or mix labor with resources over most of the Earth established complex, overlapping, flexible, nonspatial, partly collective land-tenure systems with significant common elements. The individual appropriation hypothesis is not merely unproven: it is disproven. The history discussed above indicates that the establishment of private property systems necessarily involves coercion and violence. Claims that the defense of unequal private ownership is somehow the defense of “natural liberty” are false. In the context of real history rather than the made-up appropriation story, the natural rights theories invented to defend private property shows that the people and the community have a better claim to land and resource ownership than unequal private owners.

15. The individual appropriation hypothesis assessed

The history recounted in Chapters 10-14 shows that private property does not arise spontaneously by appropriation or any other method. The first people to discover, claim, use, occupy, or mix labor with resources over most of the Earth established complex, overlapping, flexible, nonspatial, partly collective land-tenure systems with significant common elements. The individual appropriation hypothesis is not merely unproven: it is disproven. The history discussed above indicates that the establishment of private property systems necessarily involves coercion, violence, and dispossession. Claims that the defense of unequal private ownership is somehow the defense of “natural liberty” are false. In the context of real history rather than the made-up appropriation story, the natural rights theories invented to defend private property shows that the people and the community have a better claim to land and resource ownership than unequal private owners.

16. Conclusion

This book has told six histories: the intellectual histories of three widely believed empirical claims, and the political and economic histories that refute those claims. The natural-rights-based argument for strong, unequal private property rights relies on false empirical claims about equality, freedom, and the origin and nature of property rights in the past and as a stand-in for some kind of imagined universal human nature. A society that will be more consistent with the protection of all individuals from violence, coercion, and interference will have to find some way to ensure that each individual has direct and unconditional access to the resources necessary to survive. We suggest Universal Basic Income as an important policy to help achieve that goal.

Enzo & Karl at the PPA+ Conference, Amsterdam 2019
Enzo grills Karl at the PPA+ Conference, Amsterdam 2019

Possibilities and Pitfalls of Basic Income Experiments

This article briefly discusses the findings of my book
A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments for Researchers, Policymakers, and Citizens
Published by Palgrave Macmillan 2018[1]

UBI Experiment, Namibia, 2009

            If the public debate over Universal Basic Income (UBI) is going to benefit from the many UBI experiments happening around the world, the journalists, policymakers, and citizens involved in the debate need to understand what UBI experiments can and—more importantly—what they cannot do. UBI experiments can increase our knowledge of some of UBI’s effects, but they cannot do what many journalists, citizens, and policymakers seem to expect them to. In December 2016, MIT Technology Review perfectly illustrated the common overblown expectations of UBI experiments when the ran the headline: “In 2017, We Will Find Out If a Basic Income Makes Sense.”[2] As much as we might want UBI experiments to be definitive tests of UBI’s efficacy, there is no some crucial piece of information that experiments can find and that will make the difference in most people’s decision whether to support or oppose the introduction of UBI.

            Social science experiments are not like medical experiments. A vaccine trial, for example can directly address the bottom-line question of interest to just about everyone: is the vaccine is safe and effective? Researchers can conduct a random control trial (RCT) by selecting an “experimental group” of—say—1000 people who get the real vaccine and a “control group” of 1000 people who get a placebo. They observe both groups to see whether the experimental group is less likely to contract the disease and more likely to suffer medical complications. Vaccine trials are imperfect tests. RCTs might have difficulty determining whether the vaccine is truly safe and effective in the long run, among people of all ages, and for people with all possible complicating risk factors, but reporting differences between the control and experimental group in an RCT gives people useful and relatively straightforward information on the bottom-line question that interests them about vaccines. If comparison of the experimental and control groups indicates that a vaccine is both safe and effective, people should take it. If that comparison indicates it’s either unsafe or ineffective, people should not. If there is good reason to believe the test is inconclusive, researchers should conduct more tests.

            We can give a UBI to an experimental group for a while and compare their behavior and life outcomes to a control group but that comparison is not a test of UBI in the sense that a vaccine trial is a test of the vaccine. If a UBI experiment is not a test, what is it? It is an indirectly and often inconclusive method of increasing our knowledge of some but not other aspects of UBI. UBI experiments cannot be decisive tests in the way vaccine trials are because they say much less about the long-term effects of a fully implemented, national UBI program than vaccine trials do about the long-term effects of a fully implemented, national vaccine program, and because to the extent RCT findings do say something about a national program, ethical disagreement affects how we evaluate those effects.

            Unlike a vaccine, UBI has many effects that depend heavily on how people interact with each other in local and national markets and in nonmarket settings. The change in behavior of one randomly selected worker who receives UBI might be very different from the change in behavior of 100 million workers who all receive UBI. Employers’ reaction to the changes in behavior of one randomly selected worker with a UBI might be very different from their reaction to the changes in behavior of 100 million workers who all have UBI. The educational effects of experimental UBI on one randomly selected five-year-old child in a 3-year UBI might be very different from the educational effects on 5 million five-year-old children in a country that has a fully implemented UBI, which will be in place for their entire school career.

UBI Rally, New York, 2019

            The things we want to know about UBI are far more complex and difficult to observe than the things we want to know about vaccines. How much will UBI raise beneficiaries’ incomes once they and other people they interact with their behavior in reaction to UBI and to each other’s reactions? How much will that increased income raise beneficiaries’ welfare—according to what measures of welfare? Will beneficiaries react to UBI in ways that make it more expensive or in ways that policymakers believe are desirable or undesirable? What is the relative ethical importance of each of these factors in evaluating UBI?

            Ethical disagreement affects how we evaluate almost all of UBI’s effects. For example, if the experimental group works less than the control group is that a good thing because it empowers disadvantaged people to command better wages, to demand improved working conditions, to pursue more education, or to spend more time with their families? Or is it a bad thing because it allows them to violate some principle that non-wealthy people must work as much as possible? Empirical findings are vulnerable to spin and misuse if people use them not to help make up their minds but as ammunition to support their already considered beliefs on issues like these.

            UBI experiments will produce better or more quantifiable information about some effects than others. This innocuous fact makes the experiments vulnerable to the streetlight effect—drawing attention to questions that are easier-to-answer but less important at the expense of questions that are harder-to-answer but more important. For example, RCTs might be able to say something about the short-term effects of UBI on economic insecurity, but that information does not answer the questions we really want to ask about economic security, such as whether new born children whose families will never face food or housing insecurity because of a national UBI tend to grow into heathier, better educated, happier, more productive, and more pro-social adults than children who grow up with food, housing, and other economic insecurities.

            RCTs can answer the question of whether the control group works more hours than the experimental group, but they can’t answer whether employers will respond to a national UBI by offering better wages and working conditions and whether these workplace improvements will partially reverse the initial decline in labor hours. Like a bright light, UBI experiments will draw the attention of everyone—even the most rational, knowledgeable researchers—toward quantifiable numbers produced by the comparison between the control and experimental groups and away from the more important but hard-to-answer questions.

            Partly because of the complexity of UBI’s effects and partly because of ethical disagreement, UBI does not lend itself to a simple, bottom-line question analogous to the question of whether vaccines are safe and effective. In the medical sense, UBI is both safe and effective. UBI will raise the incomes of net beneficiaries without holding them to any obligation to work or prove they are needy, and it will not make them break out in hives or develop any other medical complication. The central disagreement about UBI is not over the unknowns but over the ethical value of its well-known effects: is it right or wrong for a government policy to raise the incomes of low-income people whether or not they work? It is reasonable for people to have made up their minds one way or the other based on their answer to this ethical question.

            Little if any empirical investigation addresses the question of whether UBI can significantly raise net-beneficiaries’ incomes whether or not they work, because there is overwhelming evidence and very little disagreement that it can; the disagreement is whether it should. Empirical investigation of the effects of UBI does little to settle that basic moral disagreement. We could ask the question, is a UBI of $X sustainable, but for most relevant levels of X, that question is in little doubt and the answer to it will only be decisive for the group of people who support a UBI of $X if it is sustainable. UBI opponents and skeptics are not by-and-large driven by the belief that proposed levels are unsustainable. If they were, the political debate would be made up of UBI supporters who disagree about how high it should be.

            The above issues make it impossible for researchers to formulate a bottom-line question analogous to whether a vaccine is safe and effective or to give a definitive answer to any of the bottom-line questions of interest to people with different ethical positions. The ethical evaluation of the many tradeoffs involved and even the question of whether some effects should be considered positive or negative are in the eyes of the beholders.

            That being the case, why do people conduct UBI experiments at all? People conduct UBI experiments partly for strategic political reasons and because even with all these difficulties, more knowledge is better than less. Not everyone has a strong opinion about UBI, and reasonable people who do have strong opinions remain open to changing their minds about it or about some aspect in light of new knowledge.

            But information is not knowledge. More information only produces better knowledge if people understand it and its relevance. The researchers who conduct experiments do not have the ability to clear up all the potential misunderstandings discussed above. Researchers are trained to conduct experiments and report their findings to other specialists. To the extent that researchers present their findings to nonspecialists, it is usually to help them understand the research on its own terms—e.g. this is what an RCT is; this is a control group; this is an experimental group; these are the measured differences between the control and the experimental group. If laypeople’s eyes haven’t already glazed over, they almost certainly will when researchers add a bunch of caveats about the limited relevance of that comparison. As caveats get longer, journalists, policymakers, and citizens become more likely to skip to the numbers. A full understanding of the caveats is likely to leave people disappointed at how little experimental findings indicate about the actual market effects of a fully implemented, long-term, national UBI program.

            Researchers could combine their experimental findings with evidence from other sources and use tools such as simulation models to translate differences between the control and experimental group into estimates of actual market outcomes. They could combine these results with yet more data and modeling to connect estimates of market outcomes to estimated answers to the various bottom-line questions relevant to people with differing ethical positions. But this would involve doing several more nonexperimental studies in addition to the UBI experiment. And their results would be driven more by the assumptions of those models and those other sources of evidence than by the actual findings of the experiment they are reporting on.

            My recent book, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments for Researchers, Policymakers, and Citizens, examines the difficulty of conducting and reporting the results of UBI experiments in an effort to help researchers, policymakers, and citizens gain as much useful knowledge as they can from the information UBI experiments do provide.[3] This article is an attempt to summarize some of the most important arguments from that book.

            The book discusses several general problems that virtually any UBI experiment will have to deal with: community effects, long-term effects, observer effects, the streetlight effect, the difficulty of separating the effects of the size and type of program being studied, the practical impossibility of testing a genuine UBI under most circumstances, and the problems created by using a means-tested program as an experimental approximation of UBI.[4]

            Although the book does not take a position on whether people should or should not conduct UBI experiments, it discusses the scientific and strategic reasons for having or not having experiments and the record of past experiments in achieving their goals. Virtually all experiments have succeeded in gathering useful information. Not all have successfully led to a more-knowledgeable public debate over UBI. For example, experiments conducted in the 1970s were badly misunderstood, and their findings were often misused by people intentionally or unintentionally misleading the public.[5] From UBI supporters’ point of view, some experiments have been a strategic success in building the movement and others have not. Arguably, the 1970s experiments had a negative effect on the movement at the time but are having a positive effect on the movement today. Experiments conducted in Namibia and India about 10 years ago appear to have had a large positive effect in building the worldwide UBI movement. The effects of the more recent experiments remain to be seen.[6]

            The book’s goal is not to criticize contemporary experiments but to offer some useful analysis for the people commissioning, designing, conducting, reporting on, and reading about them. To get the most out of an experiment, all of those people need to know what questions about UBI’s effects are important to the debate in the relevant political context, what questions about UBI’s effects are answered by the experiments, and most importantly what the experiments findings do and to not indicate about the important issues in the UBI debate. Researchers and journalists conducting and writing about current and future experiments need to understand how their finding have been misunderstood and misused to make their findings relevant to the contemporary debate.[7]

           The book discusses the surprisingly complex political economy that has brought about UBI experiments as a response to a movement more interested in the immediate introduction of UBI than the experimentation with it. UBI experiments are a risky strategy for the UBI movement, but as long as UBI remains a political longshot, experiments present the possibility of shortening the odds.[8]

            Anyone deciding to go forward with a UBI experiment should be aware of the inherent complexity of the material and the differences in background knowledge of the people involved. They should, therefore, also be aware that the results are vulnerable to misunderstanding and misuse, and they need to come up with strategies to increase understanding and decrease misuse as much as possible.

            That’s a difficult task. The book can do no more than begin the attempt to come up with those strategies. The book recommends the following. Treat experiment(s) as a small part of the effort to answer the questions necessary to evaluate UBI as a policy proposal. It is not enough simply to explain the experiments on their own terms (what is an RCT; what is a control group; what is an experimental group, etc.) with a list of caveats on their limits. Experiments don’t have to be conducted in conjunction with other research efforts to answer all the questions about UBI, but experiments in isolation must not be presented as saying very much at all about UBI as a policy. The true value of an experiment is its small contribution to this larger effort. For nonspecialists to understand this, someone needs to help them understand the limits of experimental methods and the additional evidence that would be necessary to connect experiment findings to the things they actually want to know about a fully implemented UBI program.[9]

            In addition to many more specific suggestions, the book stresses four broad strategies to help experiments enlighten the discussion of UBI.

  1. Work backwards from the public discussion to the experiment and then forward again. Anyone commissioning, conducting, or writing about experiments should respect the national or regional discussion of UBI. Find out what people most want to know. Design a study oriented as much as possible toward the questions that are important to that discussion with careful attention to the extent to which experiments can and cannot contribute relevant evidence and the extent to which nonexperimental data and modeling can help.[10]
  2. Focus on the effects rather than the side effects of UBI. The streetlight effect has led past experiments to focused on quantifiable side-effects, such as labor effort and cost at the expense of more important but less quantifiable issues, such as whether UBI has the positive effects on people’s long-term wellbeing supporters predict.[11]
  3. Focus on the bottom line. Although the public discussion varies enormously over time and place, and not everyone agrees on any one bottom line, the desire for an answer to questions is ubiquitous. Therefore, experimental reports must address how people with different ethical positions can use the results toward making an overall evaluation of UBI as a long-term, national policy. Experiments alone cannot provide enough evidence to answer a bottom-line question, but researchers can relate all of their findings to it. Citizens and policymakers often need a great deal of help to understand that relationship meaningfully.[12]
  4. Address the ethical controversy. Researchers cannot resolve the controversy over the ethical evaluation of UBI, nor should they try. But they do the public a disservice by ignoring it. They can better head off spin by recognizing the controversy and explaining what the findings mean to people who hold different ethical positions that are common locally and internationally.[13]

            The overall cost-effectiveness of a fully implemented, national UBI is probably the closest thing to a bottom-line question relevant to people on all sides of the relevant ethical disagreements, but issue-specific bottom-line questions for any variable of interest are also relevant. [14] The book discusses claims made by supporters and opponents and tries to identify testable empirical questions about those claims. Several empirical claims that should not be ignored cannot be tested on an experimental scale. Evidence about these claims will have to come from other sources, which will have to be combined with experimental evidence to connect any experimental findings any relevant bottom-line question.[15]

            Although experiments alone cannot conclusively answer any questions about a national UBI, the book identifies many claims that UBI experiments can examine if only partially, indirectly, and/or inconclusively. It discusses the implications these limitations have for conducting a study and communicating its results.[16] The book does not take a position on the question of whether UBI experiments should or should not be undertaken. That answer depends on the particularities of the local political context. The question is not whether to have an experiment. Experiments are happening right now all over the world. The question is how to learn the most from them.[17]

            The book concludes with a discussion of how to work forward from the experimental results to the public discussion with the awareness of the role those claims play in the political economy of the UBI discussion so that they might be explained in ways that overcome communication barriers and reduce the problems associated with misunderstanding and misuse of experimental findings.[18]

            I wish I could say this strategy fully resolves the problem, but that isn’t possible. A social science experiment is a very limited tool, and its implications are inherently difficult to understand. The effort to treat experiments as a small and incomplete part of a wider effort to answer all the important empirical issues about UBI will help but won’t eliminate misunderstanding.[19]

            There will always be gaps in understanding between the people involved in the discussion of such a complex issue and such complex evidence. If a nonspecialist learns everything specialists know, they become a specialist. But experimentation and communication can always be improved. I hope this book, this summary article, and this special issue make a small contribution to that effort.


[1] This article summarizes and draws heavily on the book, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments for Researchers, Policymakers, and Citizens, Karl Widerquist, Palgrave Macmillan 2018. I summarized that book very differently in the article, “The Devil’s in the Caveats: A Brief Discussion of the Difficulties of Basic Income Experiments,” Karl Widerquist, CESifo Forum 19 (3), September 2018, 30-35.

[2] Jamie Condliffe, “In 2017, We Will Find out If a Basic Income Makes Sense,” MIT Technology Review, December 19 2016.

[3] Widerquist, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments.

[4] Widerquist, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments pp. 19-42.

[5] Karl Widerquist, 2005. “A Failure to Communicate: What (if Anything) Can We Learn From the Negative Income Tax Experiments?the Journal of Socio-Economics 34 (1): 49–81; Widerquist, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments, pp. 43-56.

[6] Widerquist, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments, pp. 57-70.

[7] Ibid., pp. 77-92.

[8] Ibid., pp. 71-76.

[9] Ibid., pp. 11.

[10] Ibid., pp. 11.

[11] Ibid., pp. 12.

[12] Ibid., pp. 12.

[13] Ibid., pp. 12.

[14] Ibid., pp. 93-98.

[15] Ibid., pp. 99-114.

[16] Ibid., pp. 115-130.

[17] Ibid., pp. 141-144.

[18] Ibid., pp. 145-150.

[19] Ibid., pp. 12.

Basic Income March, New York, 2019

A translation in Chinese can be found here.