London, UK: The Ethics of UBI in a Changing Economy

The Ethics of UBI in a Changing Economy

King’s College London

London, UK, April 24, 2020

Submission link:

Abstract registration deadline: February 28, 2020

Submission deadline: February 28, 2020

Final paper submission: April 10, 2020

The Department of Political Economy at King’s College London will host a full day interdisciplinary workshop on “The Ethics of UBI in a Changing Economy” in London on April 24, 2020.

The workshop focuses on Universal Basic Income from the interdisciplinary point of view of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Suggested topics include but are not limited to

  • Sufficiency, equality, and the threshold for UBI
  • Political economy and the institutional challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution
  • Unemployment and the citizen: conditional benefits or universal dividends?
  • Enhancing freedom and autonomy in a changing economy
  • Relational equality and democratic empowerment
  • Open borders and the limits of the welfare state

The workshop tackles the theoretical issues surrounding the normative justification(s) for UBI and evaluate the practical feasibility of UBI in comparison to competing policy responses from a political economy perspective.

The organizers invite abstracts from scholars in various disciplines, including but not limited to political economy, citizenship studies, philosophy, and political theory. We especially welcome contributions from underrepresented groups in academia.

To apply, send your abstract of 300 words through easychair (first time users may have to register):

The deadline for abstract submission is February 28, 2020. Limited conference stipends will be available to speakers. The results will be announced within two weeks of the deadline. Accepted attendees will be asked to submit a manuscript (5000 words) by April 10, 2020.

If you have any further questions about the workshop, please send an email to the following address: (Please do NOT use this email address to submit abstracts or papers.)

Thoughts on the British elections and the rise of nationalism

Thoughts on the British elections and the rise of nationalism

I wasn’t planning to write about the British elections until a friend asked. I’m not confident that I’m right about my conclusions, but here are some disjointed thoughts in no particular order.

1. I hate the parallels between US & UK politics: You get Thatcher-Major. We get Reagan-Bush I. We get Clinton. You get Blair. We get Bush II. Blair does double duty as the British Bush II. You get a group of mendacious, xenophobic, nationalist leaders. We get Trump.

2. Labour’s loss wasn’t just Brexit. It wasn’t just Corbyn. It wasn’t just the party moving to the left. Some of those might have been positive for Labour. It was very complex. The best strategy from here and the right thing to do from here aren’t obvious. I don’t know what’s best. I think a hasty decision would be a mistake.

3. The election only shows a limited amount about people’s Brexit. The 43.6% who voted Conservative were at least comfortable with Brexit, and many Brexit supporters probably voted for other parties as well. So, support is probably still about half the population–depending on what Brexit deal is in question.

4. Brexit was a great opportunity for democracy if people hadn’t made it about who beats who. It appears to be a voting paradox: a majority for Brexit, a majority against any possible Brexit deal, and a majority against no-deal Brexit. It would have been a great opportunity to discuss voting-paradoxes, and to use rank-choice voting to see if there was something we could call a majority preference. Even Corbyn didn’t suggest going that far in his effort to find a middle ground and to use democracy to resolve the impasse.

5. The recent election, like every US & UK election shows what’s wrong with first-past-the-post voting. The rules were in place long before the election. I wish people had talked more about changing them before the election. Some US states are doing that now. It could be a significant step toward real democracy in the USA. But getting the money out of politics is the biggest thing we need to transition to democracy. Maybe not as big a problem in the UK

6. But a significant portion of Brexit support was xenophobia, auslander raus thinking. I don’t know whether trying to be a voice of reason like this would have sold.

7. Nationalism is a much bigger trend right now than just the US-UK parallel (e.g. Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, Philippines, etc.). All nationalists have to be opposed until they’re defeated. They are not for the nation. Nations prosper when they work together. Nationalist leaders prosper when they make their people afraid. Not when their people thrive. Leaders who do not put humanity first, do not really care about any religious, ethnic, or national group no matter how much they say their putting them first. Those leaders put themselves first.

8. I wish I could enjoy being in the opposition more than I do. I find it hard to take heart as part of a group of billions of underdogs opposing this worldwide trend. I don’t know what works. But I know that nationalist and especially mendacious leaders have consistently failed to deliver in the long run. Leaders who don’t use fact-based reasoning, can’t get the outcomes they want. We don’t know how much damage they’ll do before their failure becomes obvious and how much of that damage will be irreversible. But they will fail eventually. That will be an opportunity. And that’s a reason for optimism.

X. Perhaps, my active support for the Universal Basic Income (UBI) movement keeps me optimistic. UBI is still far from the centers of power, but after watching it stagnate for a long time, I’ve watched it gather strength for more than 20 years. I’ve enjoyed all of the little victories of that movement whether mainstream politics was getting better or worse at the time. So, I guess the lesson is that a good way to keep your morale up is to have something you’re working on that is making progress however small.

“A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments:” an early version of this book is available for free download

An early version of the book, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments,  is available for free download on my selected works website.
The devil’s in the details is a common saying about policy proposals. Perhaps we need a similar saying for policy research, something like the devil’s in the caveats. I say this both because nonspecialists (the citizens and policymakers who are ultimately responsible for evaluating policy in any democracy) have great difficulty understanding what research implies about policy and because specialists often have difficulty understanding what citizens and policymakers most hope to learn from policy research.
This problem creates great difficulty for Universal Basic Income (UBI) experiments which are now getting underway in several countries. These experiments can add a small part to the existing body of evidence people need to fully evaluate UBI as a policy proposal. Specialists can provide caveats about the limits of what research implies, but nonspecialists are often unable to translate caveats into a firm grasp of what that research does and does not imply about the policy at issue. Therefore, even the best scientific policy research can leave nonspecialists with an oversimplified, or simply wrong, impression of its implications for policy.
This short book discusses the difficulty of conducting UBI experiments and communicating their results to nonspecialists given both the inherent limits of experimental techniques, the complexity of the public discussion of UBI, and the many barriers that make it difficult for specialists and nonspecialists to understand each other. This book is an effort to help bridge those gaps in understanding with suggestions in an effort to help researchers conduct better experiments and communicate their results in ways more likely to improve public understanding of the possible effects of UBI.
The book, A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments, by Karl Widerquist is Published by Palgrave Macmillan (2018) and is available on Palgrave’s website, on, and other online retailers. But an early version is available for free download on my selected works website.
End the threat of economic destitution now

End the threat of economic destitution now

Karl Widerquist (This article was originally published by Open Democracy, 17 September 2019)

UBI is the opposite of something for nothing. It is the just compensation for all the one-sided rules of property and property regulations that society imposes on individuals.

The biggest threat to freedom in the world today is economic destitution. We need universal basic income (UBI) because destitute people are unfree to sleep undisturbed, unfree to urinate, unfree to wash themselves, and unfree to use the resources of the world to meet their own needs. Being unfree in these ways makes them unfree in all their economic relationships.

The destitute are unfree in the most basic sense of the word. The destitute are not unable to wash themselves and they are not unable to use the resources of the world to meet their needs: they are unfree to do these things. Because our governments enforce a property rights system in which some people control natural resources and other people do not, someone will interfere with them if they try to do these things that they are very capable of doing.

Poverty is not a fact of nature. Poverty is the result of the way our societies have chosen to distribute property rights to natural resources. For millions of years no one interfered with our ancestors as they used the resources of the world to meet their needs. No one failed to wash because they were too lazy to find a stream. No one urinated in a common thoroughfare because they were too lazy to find a secluded place to do so. Everyone was free to hunt and gather and make their camp for the night as they pleased.

No one had to follow the orders of a boss to earn the right to make their living. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not rich, but they were not in poverty as we know it today. Our laws today make it illegal for some people to satisfy their most natural and simple bodily needs, and our laws make homelessness such a fact of life that we can believably pretend that it’s all their own fault. There are billions of people today who are more poorly nourished than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. It cannot be simply their own fault. We have chosen one way to distribute rights to natural resources; we can just as easily choose a system that does not create poverty as a side effect.

We have created the threat of economic destitution, and we have used it as a ‘work incentive’. In doing so, we have made virtually everyone dependent on their employers or on the government or private charities for which they might be eligible. This policy allows a few privileged people to dictate the terms of employment to virtually everybody.

We need to stop judging people and restore the freedom people had before governments took away their direct access to the world’s recourses.

The most common objection to UBI labels it as something for nothing, and declares that something for nothing unacceptable. They say people have a moral obligation to ‘work’. Lazy people who will not work should not be rewarded with anything. Therefore, supposedly, any social benefits should be conditional on at least the willingness to accept employment.

This argument is filled with problems. I’ll just discuss two. The first problem with it is that UBI is the farthest thing from something-for-nothing. All societies impose many rules on every individual. Consider the discussion of homelessness above. Why can’t homeless people build their own shelter and their own latrine? Why can’t they drink out of a clean river? Why can’t they hunt, gather, or plant and harvest their own food? They cannot do these things because governments have made rules saying they don’t have the right to do these things.

Governments divided the Earth into ‘property’. The wealthy got a share, while most people got nothing but the opportunity to ask the wealthy for a job. Those of us who somehow managed to get a share of the Earth’s natural resources benefit every day from the state’s interference with virtually everybody else (i.e. the people who didn’t get a share). We pay them no compensation, no reparation, nothing to restore the freedom you get from the ability to work for yourself with no boss, no client, and no caseworkers. A state without UBI is the state that has something for nothing.

The wealthy got control of resources without paying their real cost, and control of resources gives them effective control over the labour of virtually everybody. UBI is not, and should never be seen as, something for nothing. It is the just compensation for all the one-sided rules of property and property regulations society inherently imposes on individuals.

The second problem with the work obligation argument against UBI is that it conflates two different senses of the word ‘work’ – one that means toil and one that means employment or time spent making money. In the toil sense, work simply means to apply effort regardless of whether it is for one’s own benefit or for someone else’s. In the employment sense work means to work for someone else – such as a client or a boss. Anyone with access to resources can meet their needs by working only for themselves or with others of their choosing. But people without access to resources have no other choice but to work for someone else. Furthermore, they have to work for the same group of people whose control over resources makes it impossible for the propertyless to work only for themselves.

Working for someone else entails the acceptance of rules, terms, and subordination, all of which are things that a reasonable person might object to. There is nothing wrong with working for someone else and accepting the conditions of work as long as the individual chooses to do so. But there is something wrong with a society that puts one group of people in the position where they do not have the power to say no to the jobs offered them by more privileged people.

When we take away access to the Earth’s resources and make no reparation, we are not forcing people to work, but to work for at least one of the people controlling the Earth’s resources. When we do this, we create a mandatory participation economy the makes people unfree, vulnerable, and miserable.

The evidence is found in every sweatshop, in every ‘trafficked’ person, in every on-the-job instance of sexual harassment, in every homeless shelter, and in every worker who can’t afford any basic necessity of life.

The solution is to create a voluntary participation economy based on truly free trade. In this sort of economy, each person would pay for the parts of the Earth they use and each would receive a share of the payment for the parts other people use. This principle is the basis of UBI. With a sufficient UBI to draw on, each person would have the power to say no to a bad job offer, and the power decide for themselves whether the offers in the job market are good enough to deserve their participation. And that’s what it means to enter the job market as a free person. Nothing protects a worker better than the power to refuse a job. This power will protect not only the poor and marginal but all of us.

–This article was originally published by Open Democracy, 17 September 2019

Destitute in Britain. Garry Knight/Flickr. Creative Commons

Destitute in Britain. Garry Knight/Flickr. Creative Commons

Basic Income as 40 Acres and a Mule

Basic Income as 40 Acres and a Mule

This whole program is voluntary…The men don’t have to…if they don’t want to. But we need you to starve them to death if they don’t.

“Milo Minderbinder,” Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Basic Income does something virtually no other policy in the modern economy can do: it protects your status as a free person.

What does it mean to be a free person? Consider an answer given by someone who experienced chattel slavery. Garrison Frazier was the spokesperson for a delegation of former slaves called “freedmen” (although many were women) who met with General Sherman on January 12, 1865, before the end of the U.S. Civil War.

Asked what he understood by slavery, Frazier replied, “Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent.”

He defined freedom as, “taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor [and] take care of ourselves.”

Asked how best to secure their freedom, Frazier said, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor.”

The story of what happened after the meeting has come to symbolize broken promises to African Americans, but it has much greater significance for everyone. Sherman distributed land seized from former slave owners to freedmen in a large area of the southeastern coast, sometimes along with surplus army mules. Rumors spread that all freedmen would receive 40 acres and a mule. Less than a year later, the Federal Government reversed Sherman’s order, restored the prewar property rights of former slaveholders, and forcibly evicted the freedmen, many of whom had to work for their former masters, taking the least desirable jobs and the lowest pay. Some descendants of slaves continue to serve the holders of those property rights to this day.

The significance of Frazier’s request for land to secure his freedom is not that freedom requires the opportunity to become a subsistence farmer; it requires the freedom from indirectly forced labor. Frazier recognized that the legal self-ownership slaves were granted at the close of the war was not enough to make the fully free. It does not free an individual from the “irresistible power” to do the bidding of others. Individuals who are prevented from working for themselves alone (and not sufficiently compensated for being denied that option) are forced to work for someone who controls access to resources. Forced labor is unfreedom whether that force is direct or indirect.

The freedom from indirectly forced labor has been taken away from the vast majority of people in the world today—when governments forcibly took control of the resources of the Earth to give them to their most privileged citizens. These newly established “property rights” not only gave privileged citizens control over resources: it gave them control over people. People who had shared access to those resources for thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years were now forced to provide services for the wealthy to maintain their most basic subsistence. Eliminating indirectly forced labor is not all there is to ensuring everyone is fully free, but it’s an essential step.

We have owed each other a Basic Income since we enclosed the commons, since we abducted the slaves, since we killed the Buffalo.

NOTE: this essay includes a long excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book, Freedom as the Power to Say No: Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income

40 acres and a mule

40 acres and a mule