Universal Basic Income, for or against human dignity?

World Youth Alliance Europe attended a presentation in the European Parliament on the Universal Basic Income (UBI) by Dr. Patrick Diamond, Chair of the Policy Network. He highlighted in his presentation that UBI could be an answer for some of the challenges that social Europe and welfare states face today: affordability, international competitiveness, new social risks, restricting of labour markets, the aging society, and public support.

The case of UBI can combat those social challenges, by granting an unconditional income paid to all citizens irrespective of means. This idea is historically supported across the political spectrum of both radical left and libertarian right, and existed already in the long-standing proposal by Thomas Paine, an English-American Revolutionary:

“There shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of …as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property; and also the sum of …, during life, to every person, rich or poor…because it is in lieu of the natural inheritance which, as a right, belongs to every man, over and above the property he may have created, or inherited from those who did.”[1]

Image by Domas @Morguefile

He explained some of the key arguments to justify the case for UBI:

(1) UBI helps workers to cope with the impact of automation and future labour market restructuring. (2) UBI improves job quality and work life balance and offers parents more time to focus on family life and caring responsibilities. (3) Gender equality will be improved. (4) UBI gives young people greater economic security and more autonomy in the flexible labour market. And lastly (5) UBI will address long-term ‘crisis’ of welfare states in industrialised economies: inequality of social security; stigmatising effects of welfare systems etc.

Concerning the risk of automation and labour market risks, which will affect more than 50% of jobs in the EU, UBI offers a solution: UBI could provide people with a platform of security, that would help them to retrain into new jobs, offer them training for new skills and/or enable them to live without the concern of working for a wage.

UBI raises 3 key political and policy issues, which make the proposal of UBI unconvincing.

The first issue is the doubt whether UBI can achieve public support and legitimacy. The current welfare state is bureaucratic and ‘dehumanising’. UBI would require a higher tax settlement, and this enjoys little public support. UBI is also at odds with social norms on need and contribution: UBI goes to those who are less in need as well as to those who do not contribute. However, social policy should be designed to help those in need and not those who are not in need. Also there is an importance attached to value of ‘work’ as a social institution.

The second issue is whether UBI would have a transformative effect on the social landscape of Europe. UBI views inequalities of power and wealth as inevitable. It might reduce women’s working hours and reinforce gendered norms around domestic labour. So UBI does not seek to improve structural inequalities in incomes and the labour market, because it treats those inequalities as inevitable.[2] Also worklessness is still likely to have negative sociological and psychological effects individuals. And modesty of UBI schemes means that labour market dependency will probably continue.

The final issue is how UBI would impact on existing welfare and social security arrangements. Cost of UBI might squeeze out other welfare programmes. According to Charles Murray, UBI is a replacement for the welfare state. There is also a risk that existing social programmes and benefits are rolled back to finance basic income.

UBI might encourage marketization of public service when it is used to ‘purchase’ goods currently provided by the state: healthcare, education, pension, unemployment insurance and childcare. And UBI risks ‘crowding’ out expansion of social policy.

The discussion about the Universal Basic Income is more and more present in the European political life. This difficult debate with bad and good consequences should be driven by the research of a better protection and recognition of the Human Dignity bringing the economy and the society to the central problem that’s the Human Person.

“I am now convinced that the simplest solutions to poverty is to abolish it directly by a new widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” – Martin Luther King, JR.

Written by Marie-Christine Alting von de Geusau WYA Europe intern.


[1]The Political Works of Thomas Paine, in Two Volumes, Volume 2 – 1796, p. 611; 612-6

[2] http://esharp.eu/opinion/the-case-against-universal-basic-income