Mandatory Participation on Trial

Editor’s note: Karl Widerquist, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University-Qatar), has recently launched a new 17-part series on his blog titled “Mandatory Participation on Trial”. USBIG is going to repost this series with our audience on our blog. Part 1 of this series was released, and the remaining 16 parts will be released every week for the next 16 weeks. This series challenges the critics of Universal Basic Income (UBI) by creating a mandatory-participation model that encompasses all systems without any form of guaranteed income, and then critically evaluating this model.

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Series Contents

  1. Mandatory Participation on Trial (Part 1) (April 13, 2023)
  2. The essential reason I support UBI and a voluntary-participation economy (April 20, 2023)
  3. Knee-jerk criticisms of UBI (April 27, 2023)
  4. UBI and incentives (May 4, 2023)
  5. The “work ethic” or the money-making ethic? (May 11, 2023)
  6. Reciprocity and UBI (May 18, 2023)
  7. Exploitation and UBI (May 25, 2023)
  8. UBI: Good for workers (June 1, 2023)
  9. UBI: Good for women (June 8, 2023)
  10. UBI: Good for people of color (June 15, 2023)
  11. The false promise of conditional social policies (June 22, 2023)
  12. The circle of obligation and the mandatory-participation “social contract” (June 29, 2023)
  13. Mandatory-participation and voluntary-participation as competing ideals (July 6, 2023)
  14. UBI and the Human Need to Work and Contribute (July 13, 2023)
  15. UBI and the “natural” right to private property (July 20, 2023)
  16. Rescuing Individualism From Selfishness and Subordination (July 27, 2023)
  17. Manufactured desperation (August 3, 2023)

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Every time you take a breath, you use something you don’t own to meet your needs without asking anyone’s permission and without paying anyone for the privilege. Although you don’t own the atmosphere, you’ve never had to get a job to earn the money to buy the right to use the atmosphere to keep yourself alive. You simply breathe it in as if the free use of a common resource was the most natural thing in the world.

I bet you’d be pretty angry if somebody made a rule dividing the atmosphere into private property without giving you a share large enough to keep you breathing.

I don’t think you’d feel much better if these new owners somehow improved the atmosphere, say, by taking out pollutants or making it more breathable. I don’t think you’d feel much better if atmosphere-access subscriptions were “affordably priced,” so that, only a few people end up begging on the streets for breathing money. I don’t think you’d feel better, if after working for years, saving your money, and investing it wisely, you have the chance to become one of the small portion of people who own enough of the atmosphere to rent breathing rights to other people.

If any authority tried to privatize the atmosphere, you might want to say something like this. “My ancestors and I have used the atmosphere freely for millions of years. We’re evolved to depend on it. If you interfere with our independent use of it, you make us dependent on whatever group of people owns it. If there’s some benefit in dividing the atmosphere into private property, either everybody should get a share, or we should get compensation in cash for interfering with our ability to breathe on our own.”

Source: Frits Ahlefeldt, The real Tragedy of the Commons?, www.hiking

Source: Frits Ahlefeldt, The real Tragedy of the Commons?, www.hiking

I don’t think you’d find it very compelling if the authority said, “You’re requesting something for nothing. Everyone has to work for what they get. Therefore, this atmosphere-privatization program will compensate you by creating new jobs with better wages that offer you the opportunity to get a job to earn the money to buy the right to breathe in your area.”

You might want to respond by saying, “My wages are for my labor. They can’t double as compensation for anything else. If your plan involves interfering with my ability to breathe, you have to compensate me in cash, and it has to be at least enough to buy back the right to breathe plus extra both for my trouble and to make sure I get a share of the benefits you say are coming from this atmosphere-privatization program. That compensation better keep coming as long as breathing is something me and my descendants need to do, or you’d be in a great position to take advantage of us. Once that compensation starts flowing, I’ll look at these supposedly great jobs you want me to do for you.”

If the authority insists you have to take their jobs before you get any compensation, you might be wise to doubt whether it has your best interest in mind. They say you’ll be better off once you get one of those jobs, but until then, the authority just made your starting point a lot worse than it is now. Entering the job marketing in a world where you have buy access to the atmosphere is a much lower starting point then entering the job market in a world where breathing is free even if the opportunities in the private-atmosphere economy are better.

If you’d be that angry and suspicious about needing someone else’s permission to use the atmosphere to meet your need to breathe, why aren’t you angry that you need someone else’s permission to use the Earth’s other resources you need to meet all your other needs?

I think you should be. Our ancestors used the resources of the Earth freely for hundreds of thousands of years, just as you and I use the atmosphere now. Every one of us is evolved to depend on it. No group of people “naturally” “owns” a special right to an extra-large share of the Earth’s resources. A few generations ago, governments took away the independent access our ancestors enjoyed. They created a system in which the resources we all need are owned by a few people who have to legal responsibility to compensate the rest of us. By doing that, they made us dependent on the people who own the Earth’s resources.

The vast majority of us don’t own a large enough share of natural resources or of the stuff we make out of natural resources to keep ourselves alive and thriving. Throughout the following posts, I’ll use the term, “external assets” to mean “natural resources and the stuff we make out of them.” I use the term “external” because these are the assets external to the human body—assuming we all have special rights over ourselves. It’s a little broader than the term “physical capital” (which includes only external assets used in the production process) and a little narrower than the term “property” (which might include your body and abilities).

The vast majority of us aren’t allowed to use any resources except air and public spaces without the permission of an owner. We can’t build a shelter, hunt, gather, fish, farm, start a cooperative, or start our own business without serving (i.e., providing some service for) the people who own the resources we need to do these things. Except for the wealthy few, we are effectively required by law to get a job to earn the money to buy the right to use the resources that were here before anyone and that we’re all evolved to depend on. There is no formal penalty for violating this legal requirement, but the informal penalties include poverty, economic destitution, homelessness, malnutrition, and hunger. If you want to live, you can’t just work for yourself, the needy, or other nonwealthy people: you have to spend a substantial amount of time serving the people who own external assets.

Many people meet most of their needs through the labor market, but only the lucky few get to the point where they’re free to do something other than paid labor before they’re too old to work anyway.

The division of the Earth’s resources into property has many benefits, but if some people get a share and others don’t, the private property system has many cruel side effects, among them poverty, homelessness, alienation, fear, and hopelessness. Because most of us have no alternative to paid labor, we are willing to accept lower wages, longer work hours, and less appealing work conditions than we otherwise would accept if we had direct access to resources. Our opportunities in a society where resources are privatized might be better, but our starting point is worse than people with direct access to the resources they need to keep themselves alive and thriving.

In some situations, people are forced to accept dangerous jobs, sexual harassment, and other forms of abuse from employers or spouses, because they need someone with money to keep them alive. That need is artificial. It was created by the way our governments chose to allocate access rights to the Earth’s resources.

Universal Basic Income (UBI) would change that situation. It would give us a starting point that would allow us to enter the labor market by choice rather than by necessity. UBI, in and of itself, it is a mild reform. If we introduce UBI without making other major reforms, it simply creates a market economy where income doesn’t start at zero. But it has far-reaching consequences.

A UBI high enough to live on necessarily creates a voluntary-participation economy. And many of us are committed to mandatory participation—at least for the poor and middle class—although we seldom reckon with the absence of a participation requirement for the independently wealthy or with how different the standards for fulling this obligation are for the advantaged and disadvantaged.

If we can free ourselves from the commitment to mandatory participation, we can have a thriving economy without poverty, homelessness, or the fear of economic destitution. Children would grow up better fed, safer, better educated, and better prepared to thrive as adults. Caregivers would be freer to pay full attention to the loved ones who need them without worrying about how they both would survive. We would make it possible for people receiving benefits to enter the labor market without the fear that they would lose eligibility if they lose or have to quit their job. We would reverse the growth of inequality through at least three channels: by direct grants, by giving workers greater power to command better wages and salaries, and by making everyone who owns, uses, and uses up our natural resources pay for them.

What more do you need to know to conclude that we should introduce UBI? An argument that stops with the overwhelming evidence for the sustainability of UBI and for its positive effects fails to address the biggest sources of opposition to UBI: pro forma commitments to the property rights of the wealthy and to mandatory participation for everyone else. So, this series of blog posts (envisioned to be a total of 15) considers the significance of the choice between voluntary- and mandatory-participation. UBI supporters who side-step or playdown this issue can lose an audience to an opponent who plays the supposed responsibility of “everyone” to “work” like a trump card overriding any interest in all the practical good UBI can do.

UBI will not sneak into policy without people noticing that it creates a voluntary-participation economy. The case for UBI needs to put the mandatory-participation economy on trial and show how weak the argument for it is. That’s what I intend to do in this series.

Karl Widerquist (


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