Reciprocity and UBI (Mandatory Participation on Trial, Part 6)

The above discussion answers one of the most common arguments against UBI, the allegation that it provides something for nothing in violation of a principle of reciprocity under which everybody who gets something gives something back.

The phrase “UBI is something for nothing” has it exactly backwards: property-based economies without UBI are something for nothing. People who own the resources of the Earth have a government license to interfere with everyone else who might want to use those resources, and they have no legal obligation to fulfill their reciprocal obligation to compensate the people who have no such license.

Eve Poole, “The time for a Universal Basic Income is ripe,” Church Times

UBI, as I envision it, is a system in which everyone pays for the property they own, and everyone gets paid for the property they don’t own. That way, people who control, use, or use up more of the Earth’s resources and the things we make out of them, give something back to people who, therefore, must make do with less access to resources than they would if resources were commonly available or divided equally. If you receive more than you pay, that’s your reward for making a smaller demand on resources than the average person. If you pay more than you receive, that’s your fee for making a greater demand on resources than the average person. That’s reciprocity.

Property owners might say you can get resources if you work for them, but wages are for labor: they can’t double as compensation for lost access to resources. The existing system imposes two obligations on the 99%: not only are they obliged to respect the property rights of the wealthy few, but also, they’re also obliged to provide labor for them.

You have already given a great deal to your betters by being forced to accept rules that give you less access to resources than others. You are due compensation for obligations that have been imposed on you without your consent. A livable UBI compensates you for the loss of access to the commons in a way that restores the independence that common land provided for your ancestors.

Compensation is always unconditional–whether it is for for loss, harm, or damage. Somebody who breaks your leg has to pay cash. They can’t say, “Cash is something for nothing. You can take a job working for me if you want compensation for your broken leg.” A broken leg is something. Rules that give some other group of people control over the resources we’re all evolved to depend on is something too. You don’t have to do anything for Basic Income because something has already been taken from you. Only when we compensate people unconditionally will our system live up to the principle of reciprocity: if you interfere with other people by treating natural resources as your private property, you must pay for the obligation you are imposing on anyone who has less access to resources than you.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Most of the posts in this series were written with the intention of going into my forthcoming book, Universal Basic Income: Essential Knowledge for MIT Press, and many, if not most, of the ideas presented here did make it into the book, but the publisher suggest I soften the wording and some of the arguments, because as is, in this version of it, “the anti-UBI crowd seems like a bunch of mustache-twirling robber barons,” and she rightly thought that the antagonistic stance would be less convincing than more confrontational one here. So, for the book, I made those changes, but I liked what was left out as well. I thought there must be a place for it. And I decided that place was on my blog. I refer everyone to the book because it has a different approach; because it benefits from peer review, copyediting, and more extensive proofreading; and because it has important ideas that aren’t here. Also, many of the arguments here are developed more fully in other books and articles of mine, most of which you can find on my website:

Karl Widerquist,

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