Why I Support the Basic Income Guarantee

I write a lot about the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG)—about its labor-market effects, its use as cushion against instability, and so. In this essay I want to explain in simple terms why I believe it is so worth talking about.

The main reason I support BIG is that it is time to get serious about the elimination poverty. Most, if not all, the countries of the world today have the technical capacity to eliminate poverty and economic destitution. The more industrialized countries of the world have had this capacity for decades, and I believe it is now possible on a worldwide basis. In a world with so much wealth we must no longer force people to live with poverty, fear, destitution, and extreme economic uncertainty. We need to reach a state of economic maturity in which any poverty in our midst is unacceptable.

If we’re ready to talk about the elimination of poverty, BIG is the policy that can do it best, and it may be the only policy that can do it comprehensively. Because BIG is universal and unconditional, it has no cracks to fall through. It puts a floor beneath everyone’s income. If that floor is above the poverty line, poverty is eliminated universally.

Although BIG might have radical effects, it is not such a radical move. It streamlines and strengthens the welfare system to make it more effective and more comprehensive. Most nations of the world are already spending a substantial amount of money on poverty relief, but too much of that money is going to overhead costs, supervision of the poor, the creation of hoops for the poor to jump through to prove they are worthy, and so on.

Economic destitution is the biggest threat to freedom in the democratic nations of the world today. To be destitute is to be unfree. Economically destitute people are unfree to sleep undisturbed, unfree to urinate, unfree to wash themselves, and unfree to use the resources of the world to meet their own needs. (Jeremy Waldron has an excellent essay on this issue, “Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom,” in this book, Liberal Rights.) The destitute are unfree in the most liberal, negative sense of the word: the destitute are not unable to wash themselves or unable to use the resources of the world to meet their needs, they are unfree to do these things. Because our government enforces a property rights regime that says some people control natural resources and other people do not, someone will interfere with them if they try to do these things that they are very capable of doing.

Poverty is not a fact of nature. Poverty is the result of the way our societies have chosen to distribute property rights to natural resources. For millions of years no one interfered with our ancestors as they used the resources of the world to meet their needs. No one failed to wash because they were too lazy to find a stream.

No one urinated in a common thoroughfare because they were too lazy to find a secluded place to do so. Everyone was free to hunt and gather and make their camp for the night as they pleased. No one had to follow the orders of a boss to earn the right to make their living. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not rich, but they were not poor as we know it today. Our laws today make it illegal for people to satisfy the most natural and simple bodily needs, and our laws make homelessness such a fact of life that we can believably pretend that it’s all their own fault. There are billions of people today who are more poorly nourished than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. It cannot be simply their own fault. We have chosen one way to distribute rights to natural resources; we can just as easily choose a system that does not create poverty as a side-effect.

Many writers have argued BIG has a very good work incentive built into its structure, but the most common objection to BIG is not so much about work incentives as it is about a moral obligation to work. The argument I have in mind goes as follows. BIG is something-for-nothing, and something-for-nothing is unacceptable.

People have a moral obligation to work. Lazy people who will not work should not be rewarded with anything. Therefore, any social benefits should be conditional on at least the willingness to accept employment. Even if BIG has better work incentives than conditional welfare programs, we must reject it because it allows some able people to receive something for nothing and shirk their obligation to work. I believe this is a common argument in everyday political discourse, and versions of it have appeared in the philosophical criticism of BIG.

This argument has several problems. I’ll discuss two of them. The first problem with it is that BIG cannot be accurately characterized as something for nothing. All societies impose many rules on every individual. Consider the discussion of homelessness above. Why can’t homeless people build their own shelter and their own latrine? Why can’t they drink out of a clean river? Why can’t they hunt, gather, or plant and harvest their own food? They cannot do these things because the state has made rules saying they don’t have the right to do these things. The state has imposed rules saying that almost all the resources of the Earth belong to someone else. Those of us who benefit from the rules by which our society distributes ownership of the Earth’s natural resources benefit every day from the state’s interference with the propertyless, and we pay them no compensation. A state without BIG is the state that has something for nothing.

BIG is (and should be seen) not as something for nothing but as the just compensation for all the rules of property and property regulations society imposes on individuals. Democracies, hopefully, make these rules with the consent of the majority. But even the best democracies cannot obtain everyone’s consent. No government can function unless it imposes its rules on the willing and unwilling alike. Governments, therefore, have a responsibility to make sure that their rules are not an undue burden on anyone.

Governments can live up to this responsibility by applying a simple principle in which each person pays for the parts of the Earth they use and receives a share of the payment for the parts other people use. One person’s assertion of ownership of some of the Earth’s resources necessarily involves interference with anything anyone else might want to do with those resources. Under a resource-tax-financed BIG, those who (directly or indirectly) pay more in resource taxes than they receive in the BIG are paying for the privilege of enjoying more resources than the average person. They are paying compensation for the interference they impose on everyone else. Those who receive more in BIG than they pay in resource taxes are being compensated for having less access to the Earth’s natural resources than everyone else. BIG is most distinctly not something for nothing. Furthermore, those who pay more than they receive do so voluntarily and willingly. They obviously think it is worthwhile to pay what they do for resources they hold or they would choose to hold fewer resources and become a net recipient.

The second problem with the work-obligation argument against BIG is that it conflates two different senses of the word “work”—one that means toil and one that means employment or time spent making money. In the toil sense, work simply means to apply effort whether it is for one’s own or for someone else’s benefit. In the employment sense work means to work for someone else—such as a client or a boss. Anyone with access to resources can meet their needs by working only for themselves or with others of their choosing. But people without access to resources have no other choice but to work for someone else, and they have to work for the same group of people whose control over resources makes it impossible for the propertyless to work only for themselves.

Working for someone else entails the acceptance of rules, terms, and subordination, all of which are things that a reasonable person might object to. There is nothing wrong with working for someone else and accepting the conditions of work as long as the individual chooses to do so. But because we deny people access to resources they need to stay alive until they work for someone who has some control over resources, we deny their natural ability to refuse. We force them, not to work, but to work for at least one member of a particular group of people.

We can create an economy based on truly voluntary trade and voluntary participation by applying the principle described above in which each person pays for the parts of the Earth they use and receives a share of the payment for the parts other people use. With a sufficient BIG to draw on, each person has the power to decide for themselves whether the offers in the job market are good enough to deserve their participation.

Nothing protects a person better than the power to refuse. This power will protect not only the poor and marginal but all of us.

-Karl Widerquist, written mostly in Morehead City, North Carolina, August 2011

I discuss most of the arguments in this essay in greater detail in the following articles:

Widerquist, Karl. 1999. “Reciprocity and the Guaranteed Income,” Politics and Society 33: 386-401. http://works.bepress.com/widerquist/12.

Widerquist, Karl 2006. Property and the Power to Say No: A Freedom-Based Argument for Basic Income. Doctoral Dissertation. The University of Oxford.

Widerquist, Karl. 2010. “The Physical Basis of Voluntary Trade,” Human Rights Review 11: 83-103. http://works.bepress.com/widerquist/12.

Widerquist, Karl. 2010. “What Does Prehistoric Anthropology have to do with Modern Political Philosophy? Evidence of Five False Claims.” USBIG Discussion Paper no. 206. http://works.bepress.com/widerquist/19.

Widerquist, Karl. Forthcoming. “Is Universal Basic Income Still Worth Talking About?” The Economics of Inequality, Poverty and Discrimination in the 21st Century. Robert S Rycroft (ed.)

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist is an Associate Professor of political philosophy at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University, specializing in distributive justice—the ethics of who has what. Much of his work involves Universal Basic Income (UBI). He is a co-founder of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG). He served as co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) for 7 years, and now serves as vice-chair. He was the Editor of the USBIG NewsFlash for 15 years and of the BIEN NewsFlash for 4 years. He is a cofounder of BIEN’s news website, Basic Income News, the main source of just-the-facts reporting on UBI worldwide. He is a cofounder and editor of the journal Basic Income Studies, the only academic journal devoted to research on UBI. Widerquist has published several books and many articles on UBI both in academic journals and in the popular media. He has appeared on or been quoted by many major media outlets, such as NPR’s On Point, NPR’s Marketplace, PRI’s the World, CNBC, Al-Jazeera, 538, Vice, Dissent, the New York Times, Forbes, the Financial Times, and the Atlantic Monthly, which called him “a leader of the worldwide basic income movement.” Widerquist holds two doctorates—one in Political Theory form Oxford University (2006) and one in Economics from the City University of New York (1996). He has published seven books, including Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press 2017, coauthored by Grant S. McCall) and Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He has published more than a twenty scholarly articles and book chapters. Most Karl Widerquist’s writing is available on his “Selected Works” website (works.bepress.com/widerquist/). He writes the blog "the Indepentarian" for Basic Income News, and he is grantually moving content from this blog to there.
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11 Responses to Why I Support the Basic Income Guarantee

  1. Dave says:

    Who pays for BIG?

  2. Anyone who wants to own land and resources.

    • Trish House says:

      We must solve the problem of people that DON’T HAVE MONEY to own land and resources. How can they have the land and resources they need to survive if they cannot buy into BIG? Why are we the only species on the planet that doesn’t seem to get this?

      • Guest says:

        Actually, many people do get. Especially, the few people who benefit greatly from this system get it. They used to be called the ruling class, now the politically-correct term is the 1%. This “1%” will do anything (and I mean anything!) to preserve the status quo. Their power is immense. Don’t expect change anytime soon.

        • stuubin says:

          so…essentially the 1% will get everything and then we’re back to square one…

          • Stuubin,
            The taxes to support BIG should come mostly from the 1%, but BIG is not the end of social justice. There is a lot more that we can and should do. However, if BIG set at the poverty line should be called “square one,” then–when you think of how badly off so many people are–getting everybody unconditionally up to square one would be an enormous improvement.

  3. Barbara says:

    Karl, thank you for this post. There is understanding here that is desperately needed in the States and all over the world. I intend to get to the occupation at Freedom Plaza in D.C. in the upcoming weeks, as they’ve obtained a four month permit to occupy. I will identify BIG as a specific program that can bring great remedy not only to poverty but, as you know, to what is a truer state of freedom and equality. Hopefully someone has already brought BIG to the table, but I will push it along with a few other key ideas.

    Discussions of the ‘fundamental’ are needed and I am not sure how much of it is happening. I would like to know if anyone from US BIG has reached out to october2011.org, in particular. This was a long planned occupation of seasoned activists. If not, I wonder if there is a BIG advocate in D.C. who would be interested in making contact. Or another approach would be for me to interview you or another BIG advocate via video call, if that can be worked out. I could record it and get it out there. I could interview a number of other individuals as well.

    This is a long comment. Perhaps I should have emailed. Please do not feel obliged to post this comment on your site, if it is not fitting.

    In any case, Karl, thank you for caring about the billions of individuals whose faces you’ll never see. Compassion. It should be a prerequisite to public office. And if you have any thoughts on this goal of mine to move this mass occupation movement to the deeper discussions and the remedies that come of it, I’d appreciate hearing from you. It would be great to know of someone who has the math down in a way that could work, perhaps even benefit in excess, during these terrible times. I would love to see as sound of a math argument as there is an ‘ethics’ argument–if ethics is the word. It feels more like simple truth or reality.

    Best regards, Barbara

  4. J. says:

    Is it just me or is the formatting bad on this? There are no indentations or spaces between paragraphs. It makes it hard to read. Thanks:)

  5. Trish House says:

    My contention is that like every other species on earth a share of the land and resources we need for survival should be our birthright. If we choose to share land and resources to build self-sustaining eco villages and to make our workload easier we should be free to do so. If a person is lazy he should be free to be so – why must we tell him what to do and how to live? He won’t have much of a social group or quality of life by our standards – but why should we impose our standards on someone else, if they are not hurting us?

    The United States of America has a land mass of 3,717,813 square miles; the US government holds and controls around 30% of that land and buys more each year. That is equivalent to 1,115,344 square miles and is equal to the combined land masses of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Greece, New Zealand, Ireland, Bahrain, Hong Kong, Liechtenstein, the Cayman Islands, Anguilla, and Bermuda. Some is parks, some is military bases, some is Native American land but there is no excuse for people to be homeless in a country of this much wealth. There is no excuse for people to be forced to work for money in order to have a right to live. Hoarding of land and resources by individuals must be made illegal. There is no logical reason that a man like T. Boone Pickins should own a massive aquifer under Texas and have the right to sell for profit that resource necessary to life to other people in drought stricken Texas. Basic resources like water should belong to the common wealth of the people as has been done by indiginous people throughout the world.

    Only by giving people a right to land and resources they need to be self sustaining can we have a society of free people. When they are truly free people will build a culture, a government, and an economy that serves them and not the hoarding elite.

  6. Tyler says:

    I’ve never heard of this approach to addressing the overwhelming need for something better–something that allows people to truly be free to take care of themselves. Some people are fine working for others and the luxuries it provides. But some people find that same work to be draining and perhaps at the root of so many emotional/psychiatric disorders. Not everyone wants those luxuries, they simply want the ability to -live-, yet they are incapable of doing so without ‘selling their souls’ (as they would see it), for someone elses profit.

    Not everyone wants/needs possessions. Not everyone wants luxuries. Not everyone wants to work for someone elses profit, nor do they want to run a business themselves. I think a lot of people simply want the ability to live a self-perceived ‘free’ life. A small plot of land—even an acre or less, would be sufficient for a lot of people. They could grow crops, appropriate livestock, and be their own ‘bosses’. Yet this is far out of reach for most people. They work jobs they dislike–jobs that cause physical pain and emotional disorders. They live in cities because they have to be close to their jobs (or alternately, commute), which eats a large portion of the usually meager income they make. The costs of living add up and it leaves nothing left over to ‘save’ for that dream they have of simply living freely. If they can manage to scrap together money to put towards this goal, it generates a sense of hopelessness. Who wants to slave away until they’re 40, 50, 60 before they can actually realize the simple life they’ve always wanted–will they even be young enough to sustain it by the time they acquire it?

    It’s sad… and so easily remedied.

    I don’t think very many homeless people -want- to be homeless or are lazy. Many -want- to work, they just don’t want their energy/life devoted to toiling away at a ‘job’.

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