The Case for a Universal Basic Income in the Time of COVID-19

The idea of Uni­ver­sal Basic Income (UBI) has been the sub­ject of much debate in the past few years. The can­di­da­cy of Andrew Yang for U.S. Pres­i­dent brought the issue to nation­al promi­nence, where it has remained dur­ing the spread of COVID-19. What is UBI? Put sim­ply, it pro­pos­es that the gov­ern­ment give every cit­i­zen a cer­tain amount of mon­ey each month to cov­er, at the least, basic liv­ing expens­es. As the video above by YouTube chan­nel Kurzge­sagt explains, those cit­i­zens are then free to live their lives as they like.

Unlike most wel­fare state mod­els, UBI usu­al­ly does not involve any means test­ing. In most schemes, every cit­i­zen, no mat­ter their cur­rent wealth or income, receives the ben­e­fit. (Though most stud­ies of the pro­gram have only giv­en it to poor or unem­ployed ben­e­fi­cia­ries.) Those who do not need the mon­ey can do what­ev­er they want with it, but so too can those who need it. UBI ensures that peo­ple do not have go home­less or hun­gry if they lose their liveli­hood, and that they can sur­vive with­out pater­nal­ist state agen­cies breath­ing down their necks.

UBI is not a new idea but dates back at least to Thomas Paine, whose Com­mon Sense inspired the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and whose Rights of Man defend­ed the French a few years lat­er. As Paine argued in anoth­er, lit­tle-read, pam­phlet, Agrar­i­an Jus­tice, no one could be tru­ly free if they had no means of sub­sis­tence. Since cap­i­tal­ism had placed most of those means under pri­vate own­er­ship, he rea­soned, cit­i­zens should be com­pen­sat­ed for being deprived of resources that belonged to them by nat­ur­al right as much as to any­one else.

This philo­soph­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion doesn’t always enter into the con­ver­sa­tion, which is often framed in more prag­mat­ic terms as a polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic expe­di­ent in times of cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis: in times, for exam­ple, like the present moment. The COVID-19 cri­sis has inten­si­fied calls for a UBI, as mil­lions of lay­offs point toward the inevitabil­i­ty of a depres­sion. Push­ing peo­ple back to work dur­ing the pan­dem­ic seems to be the only thing the U.S. gov­ern­ment plans to do, but no amount of coer­cion can stop the virus from forc­ing clo­sures all over again.

Even the famous­ly lib­er­tar­i­an econ­o­mist Mil­ton Fried­man once embraced a ver­sion of UBI—as an alter­na­tive to the lib­er­al social pro­grams he loathed. Under Richard Nixon, of all peo­ple, such a pol­i­cy almost came into being in 1969. Nei­ther Fried­man nor Nixon believed in the nat­ur­al right of all cit­i­zens to a share in the prof­its of a state’s nat­ur­al resources. But they could see the wis­dom of ensur­ing mil­lions of U.S. cit­i­zens weren’t rel­e­gat­ed to liv­ing in des­ti­tu­tion.

The pro­gram required test­ing, so the admin­is­tra­tion set up a tri­al run. “Tens of mil­lions of dol­lars were bud­get­ed to pro­vide a basic income for more than 8,500 Amer­i­cans” in five states across the coun­try, writes Rut­ger Breg­man at The Cor­re­spon­dent. Researchers want­ed to know: 1. if those who received a basic income would work sig­nif­i­cant­ly less, 2. if the pro­gram would be too expen­sive, and 3. if it would prove “polit­i­cal­ly unfea­si­ble.” The find­ings? “No, no, and maybe.”

The chief objec­tion, idle­ness, held no water. As the chief data ana­lyst for the Den­ver exper­i­ment put it at the time, “The ‘lazi­ness’ con­tention is just not sup­port­ed by our find­ings.” The two groups who did cut back on hours, 20-some­things and moth­ers of young chil­dren, were peo­ple who most need­ed the mon­ey so they could go to col­lege or devote time to their kids. Oth­er­wise, recip­i­ents did not quit their jobs and lay around watch­ing TV.

Yet there remains a pow­er­ful species of human busy­body who can­not rest until they’re sure everyone’s work­ing. Such peo­ple con­tin­ue to object—whether in good faith or not—that “just giv­ing peo­ple mon­ey” will turn every­one into a slack­er, as though most peo­ple were only moti­vat­ed by the threat of star­va­tion. And so, tri­als con­tin­ue decades lat­er. Researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Helsin­ki recent­ly con­duct­ed a two-year study in Fin­land with a ran­dom selec­tion of 2,000 unem­ployed peo­ple across the coun­try. Each par­tic­i­pant was giv­en €560 (about $607) a month to ease their bur­den, and received the funds whether or not they sought or found a job.

“The scheme was not strict­ly speak­ing a uni­ver­sal basic income tri­al because the recip­i­ents came from a restrict­ed group and the pay­ments were not enough to live on,” points out Guardian cor­re­spon­dent Jon Hen­ley. Nonethe­less, the researchers found that recip­i­ents were sig­nif­i­cant­ly less stressed than a con­trol group—and that they could make dif­fer­ent choic­es than they might oth­er­wise. “Some said the basic income allowed them to go back to the life they had before they became unem­ployed,” the study authors write. “While oth­ers said it gave them the pow­er to say no to low-paid inse­cure jobs, and thus increased their sense of auton­o­my.”

Oth­er find­ings also showed how UBI could rad­i­cal­ize our rela­tion­ship to work. “Free­lancers and artists and entre­pre­neurs had more pos­i­tive views on the effects of the basic income, which some felt had cre­at­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties for them to start busi­ness­es.” Peo­ple pro­vid­ing unpaid care for oth­ers felt their time was more val­ued. “The secu­ri­ty of the basic income allowed them to do more mean­ing­ful things, as they felt it legit­imized this kind of care work.” The find­ings are being tak­en seri­ous­ly by many Euro­pean gov­ern­ments.

In Spain, Scot­land, and else­where, lead­ers are propos­ing or con­sid­er­ing some form of UBI to com­bat mas­sive unem­ploy­ment due to the pan­dem­ic. While the idea may have lit­tle polit­i­cal future in the U.S. at the moment, where pri­or­i­ties are to use the country’s wealth to fur­ther enrich the wealthy, UBI is becom­ing tremen­dous­ly pop­u­lar else­where. (A recent poll found sup­port among 71% of Euro­peans sur­veyed.) No one believes UBI is a panacea for the world’s ills, but as the Wired video above argues, there may be no bet­ter time than now to make the case for it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Alan Watts’s 1960s Pre­dic­tion That Automa­tion Will Neces­si­tate a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income

Buck­min­ster Fuller Rails Against the “Non­sense of Earn­ing a Liv­ing”: Why Work Use­less Jobs When Tech­nol­o­gy & Automa­tion Can Let Us Live More Mean­ing­ful Lives

To Save Civ­i­liza­tion, the Rich Need to Pay Their Tax­es: His­to­ri­an Rut­ger Breg­man Speaks Truth to Pow­er at Davos and to Fox’s Tuck­er Carl­son

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • And. says:

    There is a peti­tion ongo­ing for intro­duc­tion of an Uncon­di­tion­al Basic Income as an urgency mea­sure in the EU:

  • Michiel Sondorp says:

    The media hard­ly ever cov­er the philo­soph­i­cal side of a UBI. And how it would effect peo­ple psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly.

    All they seem to care about when report­ing about UBI-pilots, is whether those peo­ple found jobs.

    This is because many of us have come to believe that all we are here on earth for is to work hard . We are, in oth­er words, mere­ly our mar­ket val­ue, humam beings sim­ply don’t have an intrin­sic val­ue in this cur­rent type of cap­i­tal­ism we live in.

    This think­ing already starts at the stage of mon­ey sup­ply, the way cen­tral banks cre­ate mon­ey.

    There is an inter­est­ing project going on though, the Mar­shall Islands are intro­duc­ing a new cryp­to cur­ren­cy that has a built-in UBI

    In oth­er words, the state and the cit­i­zens own the coin.

    This could well be the begin­ning of a whole new form of cap­i­tal­ism and also pro­vide us with real knowl­edge on how a UBI effects econ­o­my and the peo­ple.

  • Robert Gé says:

    Coun­tries that can’t offer their peo­ple a pros­per­ous future should do much more about birth con­trol!
    For exam­ple: you could say that a fam­i­ly that already has two chil­dren is high­er taxed when they do get a third or a fourth child.
    And women / men who are ster­il­ized get reward­ed for it…
    Who makes all these chil­dren that have no future!?!

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