Should we worry about Basic Income earners slacking?

Should we worry about Basic Income earners slacking?

One of the most common objections to Universal Basic Income (UBI) states that the policy will disincentive individuals from working. There is an apparent fear that a UBI will bring widespread idleness. While we should be optimistic that basic income (or Negative Income Tax) experiments, which have recorded relatively low reductions in labour effort while decreasing poverty and increasing well-being, the devil’s in the details (and caveats) [1]. Instead, let’s take a step back and reflect on whether we should be working the long hours we still do and whether a hardline approach [2] to incentivising employment is necessary and effective.

Historical increases in productivity since the start of the 20th century developed predictions that citizens will not need to work as much as they had in the past. In the 1930s, Bertrand Russell remarked at the great productive capacities of the British economy during WW1 and detested the continued obsession with work for its own sake[3]. Nowadays, the need for basic products and services is adequately met and producing more does not mean working more. We need not be working the long hours we are required to for our societies to continue to grow. As economic historian Robert Skidelsky put it, “with our post-machine standard of living, we can afford to shed some of the Puritan guilt that has, for centuries, kept our noses to the grindstone” [4]. As such we should not worry about UBI earners enjoying more leisure time.

Increased leisure time allows individuals to pursue several goods in life, be it developing skills, learning something new, caring for the elderly or children, or just watching their favourite show. Shortening working days has been shown to increase productivity, promote well-being, reduce sick leave, and allow for a better work-life balance [5]. What should one do in their leisure time is up to them to decide. Long hours of work, however, seem to exhaust the worker as to prevent him from enjoying leisure time actively. Picture an “average Joe”, slumped in his armchair, watching a game of football with a beer in his hand. Admittedly, when a UBI is first introduced, the belief of many may be akin to that of “average Joe”. Long working days and passive evenings is what we’re used to after all.

Bertrand Russell thought, “…the wise use of leisure […] is a product of civilisation and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will become bored if he is suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things.” [6]

If there are many slackers, we shouldn’t worry about them. With no requirement to work they should be able to pursue ends they would have attempted to do anyway. This may still be work, albeit in a different form, or training for a job for which you were previously thought unqualified. Many people may have waited for these activities or efforts until they had earned enough income. UBI reduces concerns of financial stability. We are not used to a society where individuals do not have (serious) personal financial concerns. It may take a generation or two for us to get used to it and be able to make wise use of our leisure time. In the meanwhile, many will be bored with the extra time they have on their hands and that might be a good thing.

Individuals work for reasons far exceeding the need to earn subsistence. Unfortunately, despite years of technological development and raised standards of living, individuals are still thought only capable of being motivated to work through the deprivation of their physiological needs. Empirical evidence suggests people care about their work for more than just earning a wage [7]. When the labour market does not offer a sufficient supply of meaningful work that a labourer can take on, earning subsistence seems to take precedence. Systematically denying individuals meaningful work, however, could be detrimental to the individual’s capacity of devising and pursuing their conception of the good life.

It is difficult to conceive of alternative ways to sustain oneself and pursue a good life. It is arguably easier to find meaning in the responsibilities placed upon you by virtue of employment rather than to find yourself bored, seeking meaning, deciding upon a pursuit, and motivating oneself to do it. A new field of psychological research, developed by Ryan and Deci, called Self-Determination Theory (SDT) should raise optimism.

SDT posits “human nature […] is deeply designed to be active and social and which, when afforded a good enough (i.e. basic-need-supportive) environment, will move toward thriving, wellness, and integrity” [8]. Humans achieve optimal functioning when managing their physiological needs, their psychological needs are often achieved as well. These needs include autonomy – when one’s behaviours are inline with one’s authentic interests, competence – feeling mastery in significant life contexts, and relatedness – when you feel cared for or significant in front of others.  “People’s curiosity, creativity, productivity, and compassion are most robustly expressed” in social contexts in which their psychological needs have been taken into account.

If the current generation is afforded a UBI many who reduce their time at  work will become bored. A well-implemented UBI policy guarantees one’s physiological needs are met and frees individuals to fulfill their psychological needs. When these same individuals recognise their boredom they will seek to alleviate it. Initially, this may take the form of passive entertainment (and some may stay here) while others will try and fulfil their psychological requirements through meaningful activities (congruent with their psychological needs). Those that never make an effort to improve themselves likely already have this inclination under the current social system, and this should be rare anyway. Figuring out one’s intrinsic interests is difficult and takes serious reflective deliberation. While instinct leads us to the fulfilment of psychological needs, we may not have these clearly defined ourselves or be properly aware of them. As such, in order to ease the existential burden of the first generation of basic income earners the public should be educated about their psychological needs and ways to pursue them.


About the author:

Aleksander Masternak is a freelance writer and web developer based in Berlin.
He holds an MSc in Political Theory from the University of Amsterdam and an MA in History and Economics from the University of Glasgow. In the past, he worked as an archival research assistant to the Great War Project in Glasgow, a TEDx conference event organiser, an English language teacher, a marketing manager for a start-up, and Centre Manager of a language school.


[1] Widerquist, Karl. (2017, November 28). The Basic Income Guarantee Experiments of the 1970s: A Quick Summary of Results. BIEN.

Weller, Chris. (2017, May 10). Finland’s Basic Income Experiment Is Already Lowering Stress Levels – and It’s Only 4 Months Old.

Widerquist, Karl. (2017, November 21). Basic Income Experiments-The Devil’s in the Caveats. BIEN.

[2] stick-approach: when one is incentivised to act through the threat of punishment and coercion rather than through the promise of reward (carrot-approach).

[3] Russell, Bertrand. (1932). In Praise of Idleness.

[4] Skidelsky, Robert. (2013). Rise of the Robots: What Will the Future of Work Look Like? The Guardian.

[5] Bernmar, Daniel. (2017, January 06). Ignore the Headlines: A Six-hour Working Day Is the Way Forward. The Guardian.

[6] Russell (1932).

[7] Gheaus, A., &; Herzog, L. (2016). The Goods of Work (Other Than Money!).

[8] Ryan, R. M., &; Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.


A response to ‘The dangers of a basic income’

A response to ‘The dangers of a basic income’

Michael A. Lewis

Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College

A recent post, by Nathan Keeble, which appears on the Mises Institute’s website is titled The Dangers of a Universal Basic Income. The main danger seems to be that a basic income (I’m paraphrasing) would provide non-productive people with an income they would not have to work for. “Non-productive” in this context isn’t synonymous with lazy, shiftless, or anything like that.

The non-productive among us could be very busy writing poetry, composing music, playing it, or engaging in other pursuits. What makes one non-productive isn’t a lack of effort or initiative but the lack of a market for their goods or services. That is, if you create or produce something no one wants to buy, you’re non-productive. The problem with a basic income is that it would subsidize such activities. According to the Mises article, this is bad because it would allow people to continue such non-productive pursuits, instead of trying to figure out how to do something there’d be a market for. The result, Keeble writes, is that a society with a basic income would be less productive and experience a lower level of social welfare than a society without one.

I think this is a questionable line of reasoning because it’s based on the shaky assumption that the market is the sole determinant of what’s productive. If someone wants to buy your good or service, you’re productive; if not, you’re not. This is an extremely narrow view.

Consider folks who’re currently employed in factories that make cigarettes, firearms, sugary snacks, or alcoholic beverages. There are huge markets for all of these activities. But if a basic income were enacted, folks working in the above industries reduced their labor supply, and this resulted in a decrease in the production of cigarettes, handguns, Twinkies, and liquors; it’s not clear to me this would amount to a net reduction in social welfare. This is because there’s evidence that all these goods contribute to serious public health problems. And if people spent less time producing cigarettes and more time making art, even if there weren’t markets for their work, this might amount to a net increase in social welfare.

What does or doesn’t contribute to net changes in social welfare is far too complex to be reduced to what people are willing to buy in the marketplace.

About the author: Michael A. Lewis is a social worker and sociologist by training whose areas of interest are public policy and quantitative methods. He’s also a co-founder of USBIG and has written a number of articles, book chapters, and other pieces on the basic income, including the co-edited work The Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee. Lewis is on the faculties of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the Graduate and University Center of the City University of New York.

Image: Mises Crest – By ConcordeMandalorian – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,