Universal Basic Income: A Tool to Reimagine Human Dignity?

Daniel Riveong has written his third installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, he explores the possibilities of governments implementing a universal basic income. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Since the late 1990s, there has been an explosion in excitement around the idea of universal basic income (UBI). As of April 2018, there are UBI pilots underway in parts of Canada, the United States, Netherlands, Spain and other countries. While the concept was previously popular among policymakers in the 1970s, today’s interest in UBI has been driven by increasing anxiety over inequality and the threat of automation, especially among Western countries. For the Global South, UBI could be a useful tool to challenge our ideas about labor, poverty, and dignity and help us imagine alternatives.

The concept of UBI is less radical in the Global South as countries like Indonesia, El Salvador, and Brazil already has extensive conditional cash-transfer programs (CCT). Brazil, for example, is home to Bolsa Família one of the most famous conditional-cash transfers, which provides qualifying poor families cash-aide in return for school attendance. UBI differs from CCT in that is supposed to be both universal and unconditional. It is less open to political favoritism, corruption, and avoids debates over defining poverty.

For much of the Global South, the promise of UBI – rather than a bulwark against automation or inequality – is as a powerful tool to alleviate poverty. The assumption here is that the lack of income is a major source of poverty. At its most utopian, UBI is an attempt to decouple the myth that a dignified life – a life of security, health, and education – requires labor-derived income. Further, if we can decouple dignity from labor then we can also challenge the need for endless economic growth.

To spin this the other way, if dignity is not dependent on labor and an economy driven by growth then from what path? Answering this question, there are proposals for a Universal Basic Services (UBS): universal access to housing, food, healthcare, education, and efficient government services. Government policy focus on UBS could a framework for accomplishing the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which also focus on ending poverty through better access and better quality of services. Additionally, by focusing on access to services over income, it would help support the movement to shift away from GDP as the leading indicator of welling being.

For the Global South, where such access may not be as robustly supported by the government, universal access to services may be more critical than receiving an unconditional income from the government. Indeed, a set basic monthly income may pale in comparison to housing cost, where the cities of the Global South – such as Hanoi or São Paulo – rank among the most unaffordable in the world.

Together, UBI and UBS are powerful concepts that could multiply the number of possible futures. Given the correct set of larger supporting policies, these policies can encourage entrepreneurship, risk-taking, and innovation to reimagine capitalism as a tool to maximize an individual’s opportunities rather than maximize corporate growth. More powerfully, however, by asking us to disaggregate labor, income, and dignity it may help pave the creation of new post-capitalism alternatives.

© Daniel Riveong 2018