Updated: Jan 22, 2021
How differently would you live if you never had to worry about meeting basic needs - good food, warm clothes and shelter, basic health care and education, the essential components of economic dignity? Perhaps you already don’t worry about these things, but for a moment, imagine a world in which society has completely eliminated them by guaranteeing to every human their basic needs. Notice if any tension loosens inside you, or if you feel a rush of excitement at the thought of pursuing your passions rather than your economic security. These are signs of a freedom we don’t yet have.
Universal Basic Income grants that freedom as a fundamental right. Advocates on the political right and left from neoliberal economist Milton Friedman to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have argued forcefully for UBI. Though cast in different terms, they each see a world with UBI as one in which all people are fundamentally more free than today. And why wouldn’t we want the freedom that comes from eradicating the specter of poverty from our lives? Why not as a society, guarantee to each other a baseline quality of life with human dignity as a starting place from which to create lives of meaning?
Often people react negatively to the idea of UBI. They casually dismiss it as infeasible, wishful thinking, or they even view it as a threat to society by rewarding laziness. The common criticisms that UBI is too costly or reduces the incentive to work are both not supported by the large and growing body of evidence we have from economic studies. You probably know intuitively that you would still work if you were receiving unconditional payments, even as you might choose more meaningful work.
“The realm of freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases… Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis.” - Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 3.
UBI guarantees to all, as a birthright, the freedom from poverty and all the ways it undermines human life. Those who once experienced life as a cog in a wheel are set free to shape those very wheels and direct how they move. No longer must we hoard our resources to guard against poverty; instead, these resources are available to enrich life under the independent direction of each person’s unique creativity. We are all the beneficiaries of the lives liberated from the toil of survival and struggle of poverty. The work pursued, the art created, the discoveries made, and the communities that thrive enrich our lives far more than the energy previously lost in daily struggle to make ends meet.
During this pandemic, many countries have issued direct cash assistance to their citizens. In the U.S., these stimulus payments along with increased unemployment assistance actually lifted millions out of poverty for the first time. Over the same time, the better-off saw their wealth increase as stock markets reached all-time highs. This demonstrates the economic feasibility of UBI, which is supported by a growing number of pilot studies around the world. UBI can be implemented to eliminate poverty without imposing hardship on other citizens. Doing so, we can also return dignity to poor people by recognizing poverty is caused by a lack of resources, not individual capabilities or moral character.
If we can achieve this during a pandemic, we can certainly do it in normal times. Although unequally distributed, we already have the power and resources needed to lift ourselves from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom. Programs like UBI are a step towards this. They are also an expression of our collective commitment to a world in which we are truly free. We must recommit ourselves to this daily – as individuals, communities, and as a society – and to the steadfast support of the institutions that expand our freedom and the tearing down of those that constrain it. We can do this. This is how, together, we can be the change we wish to see in the world.
Further Reading on UBI:
drawing by susu bo