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.

A luta continua: A Memorable Day for Eduardo and BIEN

The ancient Greeks had three Gods of Time, and on the auspicious occasion of the 80th birthday of one of our most loyal and outstanding BIEN members, it is a delight to be able to congratulate Eduardo Suplicy, and to say that he defies one of those Gods, Chronos, while being a poster child for the other two, Aion, who represents time as eternity, and Kairos, personified in the ability to take advantage of moments of opportunity.

Following his long, dignified and impeccably moral period as Senator for Sao Paulo, in which millions of people voted for him with smiles on their faces, knowing that he was a good man, many still refer to him as ‘Senador’. But we in BIEN love him for his eternal commitment to basic income, and his constant willingness to seek out any and every moment to promote the values that motivate most of us to want basic income as part of the future.

There is a story of Eduardo flying from Mexico via Miami to New York. A lady sitting next to him asked him about his politics, after which he spoke to her on and off (probably rather more on than off) all the way to New York. When they prepared to leave the plane, she said to him, no doubt with a slightly jet-lagged smile, ‘I don’t know what the questions are, but I do know now that the answer is basic income.’

Eduardo is a living example for all of us, having passion for a cause tempered by a sense of patience, of being on a hard journey. Few great changes come easily. But Eduardo knows we are much closer to where we want to be than when he joined BIEN in the late 1980s. Although this writer is a stripling by comparison, I still recall those early discussions late into the evenings. There is not a single sinew of cynicism in Eduardo. He constantly reminds us that moments when the God Kairos stirs can come anytime and anywhere. The day will surely come when the song he so loves to sing will have a mighty resonance in reality.

Eduardo, on behalf of every BIEN member, we wish you well for the journey ahead.

***

Links to recent talks:
With former President Lula (in Portugese)
With Philippe Van Parijs (In English)
New York Times article with US Rep. Rashida Tlaib ‘Prioritizing People to Build Back the Economy‘ (30 June)

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

‘The Tyranny of Merit’ by Michael J. Sandel

Book Review by Dr. Jan Stroeken

Michael j. Sandel has written a book about the deep causes of the inequality that is a key driving force behind the populist backlash of recent years. His analysis serves as a basis for justification of the introduction of a universal basic income. For the complete review, see: https://basisinkomen.nl/wp-content/uploads/Book-Review-Michael-Sandel-Jan-Stroeken.pdf

And in Dutch:  https://basisinkomen.nl/boekbespreking-de-tirannie-van-verdienste-michael-j-sandel/

Here you will find a short summary, being the last part of the review:

Public Debate and Basic Income
Sandel’s analysis is razor sharp. What he brings to the fore more than anything is how present-day populism is only indirectly fuelled by the unequal distribution of income and essentially dominated by an ethical and cultural component. A growing section of the population feels underrated. This has everything to do with the tyranny of merit driven by the meritocratic ethos that, over the past decades, has led to meritocratic hubris. This hubris is reflected in the winners’ tendency to let their success go to their heads, forgetting about all the luck and good fortune that helped them along the way. Those who make it to the top believe with self-satisfied conviction that they deserve their fate and that those who end up at the bottom do too. This leaves little room for the kind of solidarity that could arise if we were to realise just how haphazardly talent is distributed and how randomly fate can either be kind or cruel. Merit-based pay is, according to Sandel, thus a form of tyranny – an oppressive regime.

And so, Sandel launches into a plea for a sweeping public debate on how to move from today’s individualisation to a greater sense of solidarity and more self-determination for all. What is essential in this respect is his conclusion that for many to be successful in life, all forms of education and work would have to be taken equally seriously. Without explicitly mentioning it, he points to the core of what the implementation of a universal basic income is all about: more equal recognition of current paid and unpaid work, as well as a stimulus to go to school. In an interview with Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant (20 September 2020), Sandel describes this when he speaks about ‘that which contributes to the community’ as a key alternative criterion to purely performance/merit-based recognition:

 ‘It is, in any case, a more democratic method that allows us to recognise contributions that are currently ignored or undervalued. I mean contributions such as the unpaid work that is done within households, for example, such as raising children and caring for relatives. Or all the work that, due to the COVID-19 crisis, has turned out to be much more important than society gave it credit for: nursing care, cleaning work, waste collection, and logistics. Setting aside the matter of usefulness, the fact that there is equal dignity in every human being should also reverberate in the dignity of everyone’s work.’

Regrettably, Sandel hardly gets around to formulating specific solutions in his book. Nevertheless, his most concrete suggestion with respect to the revaluation of work is to improve wages at the bottom of the labour market, such as through wage supplementation schemes and by shifting the tax burden away from labour and onto consumption, speculation, and capital. While the latter suggestion is an excellent one, it would be even better if it were substantiated further to ensure that those who do unpaid work also benefit. 

This further substantiation also takes us to a second key argument for downgrading the role of merit-based pay, which is that the link between current wages on the one hand and individual work performance on the other is loosening. Pay is increasingly less personal. Our current level of prosperity, as initially reflected in people’s primary income, is the result of many years of productivity growth to which many generations have contributed. Our high income levels can, therefore, not be put down only to the labour performed and capital invested in companies at this point in time. In this context, distributing primary income only to those directly involved in the production process seems to be increasingly less of a given and implementing a universal basic income for all is an obvious alternative, i.e. regardless of someone’s position in the productivity-driven labour process. The state collecting taxes directly at the source, i.e. at the level of companies’ production, would then be the obvious choice. This would also automatically shift the tax burden to sources other than labour, which is merely one production factor.

The figures provided in the book demonstrate that there is growing support among the general public for the idea of universal basic income. Even so, there is a hard core of people who are against it and keep using counter-arguments that they cannot back up with facts, such as a universal basic income having adverse effects on the labour market and being too costly. Their rejection might very well have little to do with those counter-arguments and rather be driven by a strong meritocratic bias. There is a clear relation between implementation of universal basic income and the public debate that Sandel wants to initiate.

Finally, the results of the most recent parliamentary elections in the Netherlands can be explained based on Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. On the one hand, right-wing populist parties are on the rise. One in five Dutch people voted for populist right-wing parties that have become increasingly extreme since the days of Pim Fortuyn’s first populist revolt in the early 2000s: full of mistrust and bitterness directed at everything and everyone and not shy about avowing discrimination. Even in the knowledge that these parties will not be part of a coalition government and play no role in the actual governance of the country, people still vote for them. And people vote for these parties even though their election programmes are, at least in a socioeconomic sense, more likely to be prejudiced than to favour them. On the other hand, the two winners of the elections are supreme exponents of meritocracy, namely the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD, the party for the successful) and Democrats 66 (D66, the party for the highly educated). What we need to do over the coming years, therefore, is to assemble a left-wing populist programme that addresses three pressing issues:

  • How to achieve a sustainable world as soon as possible;
       
  • How to reach a post-capitalist state by shifting the balance of power;
       
  • How to accomplish lasting labour market change in line with the foregoing through a national debate as proposed by Sandel.

Some possible solutions include a large-scale shift from taxation of labour to direct taxation of companies’ production as well as implementation of universal basic income.

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?‘ is available from Penguin Random House, published September 2020

‘Forward to a better world!’ International Basic Income Week 2021 starts organizing

by Robin Ketelaars

History
Matthias Dilthey called for a day of basic income in 2006, which unfortunately received little support at the time.*

The first week of the basic income was held in 2008 and was designed as a sub-project of the EU-funded “Basic Income on the way to Europe.” This was initiated by Günter Sölken, from an idea the Basic Income Network Germany (Netzwerk Grundeinkommen) had proposed. It happened with the support of Basic Income Network and Social Cohesion Austria, BIEN Switzerland, Attac branches in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, along with the help of many independent basic income initiatives in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

In 2009, a significant expansion took place. A call started from various initiatives, and finally 247 organizations and over 2,800 individuals participated. In Germany a website was developed to showcase the activity and creativity, with countless ideas, suggestions, and planned actions, under the editorial supervision of Martina Steinheuer. 

The 4th International Basic Income Week was held 19 to 25 September 2011 with a focus on “Basic Income in Europe“. In Germany and Austria, there were about 100 events and activities: discussions, workshops, readings, theater and film screenings, exhibitions, etc. The fifth International Basic Income Week happened 17 to 23 September 2012 with the focus on “Ways to Basic Income”.

In 2013, the year of the European Citizens’ Initiative for Unconditional Basic Income, “Basic Income a Human Right“, a further internationalization of the 6th week of basic income took place. The Netherlands organized the “Week van het Basisinkomen” but not much action was involved, we were all too busy collecting signatures for the ECI.

In 2014 a Basic Income Week website was set up in English to further internationalize the event by Robin Ketelaars. Manja Taylor handled promotion and activities.

Unconditional Basic Income Europe (UBIE) adopted the 8th International Basic Income Week in 2015 as a key item to organize every year by all countries individually. Also at the 15th Annual North American Basic Income Guarantee Congress, International Basic Income Week was adopted as a way to publicise UBI.

That year, 19 countries participated with live events: Belgium, China, Danmark, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Malawi, Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Sweden, Swiss, Zimbabwe, Spain, South Korea, Hungary, USA. A further eight countries participated on the internet: Australia, Brasil, Bulgaria, Finland, India, Italy, Mozambique, New Zealand, Zambia, South Africa.

9th international Basic Income Week had the motto “Basic income goes worldwide”. In 2016 Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) contributed to the week´s further globalization by starting a group on Slack for better collaboration. Jenna van Draalen from Canada and Christof Lammer from Austria were among the promoters of the IBIW along with many more UBI activists.  Themes for other yearly events can be found on basicincomweek.org.

International Basic Income Week is a self-organised participatory week. A lot can be done, from spreading the news to friends to organising your own event with films, speakers or creative action. We can help with finding presenters and promoting your event with our shared Basic Income Week website. We welcome new participants who can share time, money or ideas! Get in touch with your regional group or the international coordination team, and let us know what you decide to do! This year there was the start of the Videothon Playlist

From 2018 onwards there have been three synchronised events.
1)    Make a photo and share it on social media with the hashtag #countonbasicincome on the Wednesday
2)    Come and socialize, organize a #basicincomebeer on the Friday
3)    Since 2019 the #basicincomemarch is part of the week on the Saturday

Basic Income Marches
In April 2019, social worker and co-founder of Basic Income NYC Diane Pagen and 2020 candidate for U.S. Congress James Felton Keith came together to organize a public event in a show of force and inclusion for basic income.

2020 saw a huge growth in support for basic income in the United States. It was important to provide different ways for the community to celebrate. All sorts of events, live and online, from a film screening, panel discussions, to a Year of Basic Income Livestream event featuring commentary from Andrew Yang, Andy Stern, and over 10 Mayors from Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and more, marked the important progress made in 2020.

With COVID measures in place, city organizers got creative. From art installations, to bike and car parades, to street corner protests, Income Movement in the US built tools to make it easy for organizers to plan amazing, highly successful events while allowing for safe social distancing for community members. Many people who did not go on the streets posted a photo with the hashtag #talkonyourwalk and held Zoom sessions with shoes.

This year’s motto for International Basic Income Week is ‘Forward to a Better World!’

You can follow #basicincomeweek on the web
* Basic Income Week website
* Twitter: @basicincomeweek (for sharing)
* Facebook: basicincomeweek (also for adding events)
* Insta: @basicincomeweek
*The Basic Income March website (organizers can add your march to the calendar)

Future plans? Who knows? We hope that with BIEN’s support we can involve more countries in India, Africa, Asia and Latin America this year.

How can people contribute to or participate in IBIW this year?
Organize events and spread the B-word!
Social media activists wanted for @insta and other media outlets
There is a Slack group where activities are discussed which you can join: the Basic Income Outreach Group. Please let us know if you want an invite via the contact form.
We’re always on the lookout for more ideas!

*) Basic Income Day
In 2014 a website promoting Basic Income Day was started by Robin Ketelaars.
“If everyone is his own king, nobody has to be the king of the other.” This sentence by Michael Sennhauser (Swiss Radio DRS) in the review of the film Kulturimpuls Grundeinkommen by Daniel Häni & Enno Schmidt and the film scene at Basel SBB train station inspired the crowning of the first 500 heads 1 May 2009 on the market square in Lörrach. Since then, we want to unite with everyone who burns for an unconditional basic income to trigger a wave of change.”
The action was followed up in 2014 by Sylvia Mair and Oliver Der as a Basic Income Day on the 1st of May. This was supported by Scott Santens, a Basic Income activist from the United States, and other activists in Europe and the US.
The website is in use for more “basic income days”.
Human Rights Day is celebrated annually across the world on 10 December. In 2013 we participated by showing the world through our profile pic that an Unconditional Basic Income is a human right. The action this year will take place 4 to10 December.
International Women’s Day on 8 March could also become  a “Basic Income Day”.