Two polls conducted in 2021 both found that a substantial majority of Americans now support Universal Basic Income (UBI) or some form of Guaranteed Income. One survey, conducted by Data for Progress, found that 55% of Americans support UBI while 39% oppose it. Another survey, by Skynova, found 67% of Americans support UBI while 20% oppose it.
Compare these findings to a poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports back in 2011. Rasmussen found that only 11% of Americans supported a Basic Income and 82% opposed it.
If we take these polls at face-value, they indicate support for UBI has increased by 6 times, and opposition to it has declined by 3/4ths. If so, the ratio has risen from 8-to-1 against to 3-to-1 in favor.
But of course, no one takes polls at face-value. The headline phrase, “polls indicate” (which I used in the headline), is a bit of an exaggeration, because it assumes a very simplistic, face-value reading of the two most extreme polls. Not even pollsters take poll results at face-value. Polling is a highly imperfect attempt to find out what people think. A good deal of the misunderstanding about polls comes not from the pollsters trying to get people to believe their findings, but from readers wanting to believe polls are more reliable than they are.
Given recent changes in the political dialogue in the United States and the world, it is unsurprising that U.S. support for UBI has increased, but to go from more than 8-to-1 opposed to as much as 3-to-1 is probably an exaggeration.
Some of the difference between polls can be attributed to differences in how the questions are worded.
The 2011 Rasmussen Report poll asked, “Another proposal has been made for the federal government to provide every single American with a basic income grant. The idea would be to provide enough money for everyone to enjoy a modest living regardless of whether or not they choose to work. Do you favor or oppose having the federal government provide every single American with a basic income grant?”
The 2021 Data for Progress poll asked “A guaranteed income is a policy that would provide monthly payments of around $500-$1,000 to individuals, regardless of their employment status and with no strings attached. Would you support or oppose implementing a guaranteed income in the U.S.?”
The 2021 Skynova poll report does not include the exact wording of the question. Their report simply reads, “Respondent Support of Universal Basic Income.”
The Rasmussen survey was worded more negatively than the Data for Progress survey. It didn’t mention a specific amount, and implied it would be rather high. The Data for Progress survey mentioned a specific—and rather modest—amount. Although all three polls seem to focus on a genuine UBI (rather than some other form of guaranteed income), they use three different names for it, “Basic Income Grant,” “Guaranteed Income,” and “Universal Basic Income.” How this wording might affect the results is hard to guess.
Other reasons poll results differ include the methods they use to contact a representative sample of people and the biases of the people conducting the survey alsot. Right-of-center pollsters tend to find results a little closer to what right-of-center people want to be true, and left-of-center pollsters tend to find results a little closer to what left-of-center people want to be true. Rasmussen tends to be right-leaning. Data for Progress and Skynova are more left leading.
Yet, it’s hard to imagine that the differences between the various pollsters’ techniques could account for the stark change from 2011 to 2021. Even though they are highly imperfect, it is likely that the difference between 2011 and 2021 reflects a major shift in U.S. public opinion. In 2011, UBI and other forms of Guaranteed Income had been absent from mainstream political discussion for 30 years. Today, UBI is increasingly a part of mainstream discussion as people with very different perspectives have come together in support of the idea.
The more modest of the two 2021 surveys (Data for Progress) still found substantial majority support for UBI: 55-39. Even if this finding is correct, it does not mean that UBI is on the verge of introduction. Majority opinion fluctuates widely, and the U.S. system has many barriers to enacting the majority’s will. The laws are more closely correlated to opinions of the donor class than to the opinion of voters. Although many mayors across the country have endorsed UBI, only a few members of Congress have gone on record for it so far. UBI still faces an uphill struggle.
Yet, UBI is on the table. People are taking the idea seriously. Support is growing. There is no telling how far that will go.
-Karl Widerquist, first draft Dallas Airport October 2021, final draft Anis Café, Doha, Qatar, October 26, 2021
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.” 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
In addition to many more specific suggestions, the book stresses four broad strategies to help experiments enlighten the discussion of UBI.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.  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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
Wilfred Diergaardt, a long-time leader of the Basic Income movement in Namibia, died of Covid-19 earlier this month. One December 22, Claudia and Dirk Haarmann, sent the following announcement of Dieragaardt’s death:
It is with a very sad heart that we have to share with you that this morning Rev. Wilfred Diergaardt passed on.
He has been a dear brother and comrade in the struggle for social justice in the Namibian Basic Income Grant campaign and in the fight against HIV-AIDS. His passing on leaves a devastating gap for his family, friends and society at large, which is currently beyond comprehension.
He was hospitalized with COVID-19 on the 8th of Dezember and was treated the last days in the ICU. His wife Cynthia informed us this morning and asked us to convey this sad news to you as colleagues and friends. Please keep her and the family in your prayers!