July 20, 2022
A basic income for everyone, utopia or necessity?
Insight by Alessandro Sahebi
No, it is not the naive dream of a fool disconnected from reality. Universal Basic Income (abbreviated as UBI (1)) is a serious and current topic, for some of utmost urgency. There are several theorizations of it from both ideological and economic perspectives (2), hundreds of pilot experiments around the world, and a continental petition to the European Commission that, although it did not reach the ambitious quorum, neared 300,000 signatures. With Italy among the countries most open to it.
What UBI is and why there is an urgent need to implement it, at least from a social point of view, is explained by Sarath Davala, an Indian sociologist, currently President of Basic Income Earth Network and co-author of the book: 'Basic Income: A Transformative Policy for India'.
Davala, in addition to supervising pilot experiments on UBI in India is also an expert on gender inclusiveness issues and gave an interview to Voice Over Foundation.
First of all, we asked Sarath what Universal Basic Income is. As mentioned, there are numerous models, mainly of social democratic inspiration (3), but there is no shortage of Marxist theorizing, such as that of economist Michael Roberts, or those of the liberal right, if we include the Negative Income Tax of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman.
The next insight will address Universal Basic Income from an economic perspective as well.
Q: UBI: what is it?
«UBI is an income given to all citizens regardless of their economic status. It is not a poverty subsidy but a redistribution of wealth in a horizontal way. Net of the different variations, universal income has five defining characteristics. First, as the name implies, it is universal: it is given to everyone without any principle of merit. Secondly, it is distributed through a direct form of income (money, ed.) and not through vouchers or food coupons: thus those who receive it self-determine their own consumption. Third characteristic is its individual nature: today many subsidies are given to households but this sometimes imprisons women or marginalized individuals in families they would like to emancipate themselves from. Fourth element is temporality: the UBI is distributed monthly, every month. Finally, it is unconditional, meaning that it does not depend on wealth or poverty status or the existence of a particular labor condition".
Q: Laziness is one of the most common resistances: the Basic Income, according to the general litany (in Italy it has been seen with the Citizenship Income), would make people lazy and uncaring about their own growth in community. From an individual perspective, why provide an income to everyone without any effort?
«The idea that everything we need can only be satisfied by labor and toil has its roots in the ideology established by the Industrial Revolution (4), but today more than ever we must come to terms with what has happened in the past three decades around the world. Work has become cheaper and cheaper, with great productive advantages but with a gradual weakening of workers. Flexible jobs, self-employed, precarious, but especially the unemployed are increasing. A huge and growing number of individuals are sinking into precariousness, and we know that an unstable cognitive system has major social and health costs that primarily affect the individual and then the society. What happens, then, to a person who cannot plan his or her life? He or she will likely become entangled in harmful dynamics and this will affect the community negatively. UBI attempts to solve the problem at its root, through the belief that a mentally free human being contributes better to society. A belief proven by hundreds of pilot and local experiments around the world (5)».
Q: Does the citizen therefore receive the minimum necessary to live a respectable life?
«Not only that. He or she receives first and foremost the right to say no. No to degrading work, no to blackmail driven by necessity. Several marginalized groups, e.g., women in many areas of the world, thus have the opportunity to be able to self-determine and contribute to society as human beings and not as gears. Being able to say no to a violent family condition would solve part of the consequences related to gender-based violence, freeing oneself».
Q: When we talk about basic income we are immediately pointed out as dreamers. Is this correct?
«From a purely philosophical point of view, UBI is the assertion that every citizen should live with dignity. To us it seems impossible, yet we know the resources are there, they are just misdistributed. Each of us should be a beneficiary, for instance, of the resources that nature makes available to us. Still, we know that they are often held by a few people who generate profits from the basic needs of the communities from which they have stolen a common good. Technology itself today produces well-being and health for everyone, yet the wealth it generates is jealously guarded by a few companies. The philosophical key, but also the economic one (6), is there and it is called redistribution».
Q: A referendum on a European scale was held recently, yet many are calling for an international UBI. Given the recent diplomatic crises, can a worldwide income be considered a viable path?
«Only if we carefully observe the process of increasing cultural globalization. Individuals today are more and more citizens of the world, and the concept of nationality perhaps needs to be revised. People, contrary to the past, feel more connected even with those who live far away exactly because they are more connected by technology and the production system: today Italian companies produce in India, which means that what an Italian needs is closely related to the quality of life of an Indian. Human communities are becoming closer and more interconnected, and the belief that we should soon consider the needs and rights of what is far away from us is not unthinkable. Therefore, the benefits of UBI should be expanded on a global scale».
Q: To conclude: how do you support universal basic income?
«This is the most common question, perhaps the greatest resistance. The UBI disrupts the existing pairing of income and work, and for that reason alone it seems a measure on the edge of the thinkable. Global resources today experience a constant imbalance in favor of the wealthiest, and redistribution has now become an urgent and necessary initiative more than ever. But first, perhaps, we should find ways to change the paradigm in which we are embedded. I am sure UBI can be a reality before long».
(1) Universal Basic Income or Unconditional Basic Income in its version that emphasizes the unconditional nature of income.
(2) For an in-depth study, see "Basic Income: a radical proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy" by Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, Il Mulino 2017.
(3) Rarely in the theorizations, though, the ideological root is made explicit.
(4) On this subject, it is recommended to read the essay "The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time" by Karl Polanyi.
(5) The following is recommended for the list of experiments https://basicincome.stanford.edu/experiments-map/.
(6) All of the main theorizations involve increased taxation of income and wealth and only in some versions the return of natural resources to common good. A virtuous example is that of the state of Alaska, whose characteristics can be read in an overview here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska_Permanent_Fund. It should be specified, however, that APF does not meet the 5 criteria listed above, as it is not unconditional and it is annual.