Universal Basic Income: A Primer

Here’s why everyone’s demanding free money from the government.

Dayton Martindale April 25, 2018

(Terry LaBan)

u·ni·ver·sal ba·sic in·come

noun

1. A reg­u­lar lump sum giv­en uncon­di­tion­al­ly to all

We might demand a basic income not so that we can have, do or be what we already want, do or are, but because it might allow us to con­sid­er and exper­i­ment with dif­fer­ent kinds of lives.” — Marx­ist Fem­i­nist Kathi Weeks in her 2011 book, The Prob­lem With Work 

Won’t every­one sit around drink­ing mai tais while the econ­o­my crashes?

Some (not all) pro­gres­sive econ­o­mists wor­ry that a uni­ver­sal basic income (UBI) could lead to infla­tion, espe­cial­ly if peo­ple quit their jobs to loaf. Advo­cates sug­gest loaf­ing isn’t so bad — many are over­worked under cap­i­tal­ism, often pro­duc­ing things no one real­ly needs. And besides, they say, pre­vi­ous UBI exper­i­ments sug­gest most would still work. When res­i­dents of Dauphin, Cana­da, were giv­en an above-pover­ty income, most kept their jobs but also spent more time with their fam­i­lies. Hos­pi­tal­iza­tions and domes­tic vio­lence decreased. As French ecoso­cial­ist André Gorz sug­gest­ed, a UBI allows us to both work and con­sume less and bet­ter,” giv­ing us more time for leisure, art and relationships.

Where would the mon­ey come from?

Pro­pos­als include tax­es on high incomes, finan­cial trans­ac­tions, land, pol­lu­tion and more. Some sug­gest nation­al­iz­ing resources and pay­ing a div­i­dend on the prof­its. (Alas­ka does this with its oil.) Oth­ers say that U.S. fed­er­al bud­get deficits don’t actu­al­ly mat­ter, and the gov­ern­ment can sim­ply pay for things. 

Could a UBI actu­al­ly happen?

It almost did. There were sev­er­al UBI exper­i­ments in the 1960s and 1970s — includ­ing in Dauphin — and Con­gress con­sid­ered leg­is­la­tion. But as the coun­try drift­ed right­ward, momen­tum died. (Anoth­er blow: one analy­sis of a UBI tri­al erro­neous­ly report­ed a rise in divorces, pro­duc­ing much pearl-clutch­ing.) Today, gov­ern­ments from Ontario, Cana­da, to Fin­land are again exper­i­ment­ing. Pri­vate char­i­ties are find­ing that giv­ing poor peo­ple cash can be more effec­tive than con­ven­tion­al aid pro­grams. A U.S. com­pa­ny that invests in star­tups is run­ning its own UBI test across three states. 

Did­n’t Mil­ton Fried­man sup­port this?

UBI attracts strange bed­fel­lows. Some lib­er­tar­i­ans sup­port a mod­est UBI — below the pover­ty line — to replace wel­fare. Pro­gres­sives wor­ry that could be a Tro­jan horse for wider cuts. Most left­ist UBI advo­cates favor some­thing expan­sive enough to end pover­ty and decou­ple basic sub­sis­tence from work. This ulti­mate­ly takes pow­er from the boss­es, who would no longer be able to use the threat of pover­ty to force peo­ple into unjust work­ing con­di­tions — and gives labor a per­ma­nent strike fund.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For recent In These Times cov­er­age of uni­ver­sal basic income, see, Would a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income Strenght­en or Shred the Social Safe­ty Net?”

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is a free­lance writer and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Jour­nal, Har­bin­ger and The Next Sys­tem Project. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @DaytonRMartind.

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