Towards a universal basic income for all humanity

A truly universal and unconditional basic income is ultimately feasible within each nation, coordinated under the auspices of the United Nations. Yet this will initially depend on an unparalleled degree of public support for the cause of ending hunger and needless deprivation, based on a fairer sharing of the world’s resources. That is the only path, writes Mohammed Mesbahi, for a basic income policy to uphold the fundamental human rights of all. And if pursued with this motivation, it is a pioneering and honourable path that inherently says: ‘above all nations is humanity’. 

Contents:

Editor’s preface
Introduction: ‘Everyone has the right to live’
Part I: The threat of a dystopian future
Part II: Missing elements for a people’s strategy
Part III: Inner dimensions of world transformation        
Part IV: A definitively universal vision
Epilogue: Some final words of encouragement
Notes

The following text is excerpted from the print version of this publication, which is available by contacting info@sharing.org


 

Editor's preface

The following publication by Mohammed Mesbahi, founder of Share The World’s Resources (STWR), is written as part of an ongoing series of ‘studies on the principle of sharing’ which explore critical global issues from a more holistic outlook than the usual political and economic analyses. The present work is closely related to Mesbahi’s two recent studies that also examine popular intellectual discourses in a similar way, in relation to the contemporary ideas of the ‘commons’ and the ‘sharing economy’. Yet the emergent discourse about a universal basic income is perhaps closest to the heart of STWR’s concerns, even though few advocates contemplate the definitive vision of a basic income in the truly universal or planetary sense—as indeed Mesbahi sets out to do in this unique investigation of the subject.

While principally aimed at activists within the basic income movements across the world, it is also hoped that lay readers and concerned citizens can easily read and benefit from the author’s intuitive observations. With this in mind, a number of explanatory and contextual notes are included at the end to help clarify where STWR stands on some of the technical issues, and also to help provide some introductory material for interested newcomers to this important (although somewhat controversial) policy proposal.

For those who have read any of Mesbahi’s previous publications, it will be clear that identical themes are focused upon and further elaborated here, particularly around the need for continuous worldwide demonstrations that uphold Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is, after all, our founding purpose and essential vision as a campaigning organisation. However, Mesbahi also seeks to elucidate this proposition by focusing on, in his words, the “inner side” or psychological/spiritual dimensions of world transformation. Any repetitions of the same themes and observations are therefore entirely intentional on the part of the author, given the fact that we are still far from realising a transformational vision of all people’s and nation’s coming together to share the world’s resources.

If the simple reasoning of this study is therefore contemplated with an open heart and mind, then the sympathetic reader may find that the repetition of certain revolving themes serves to bring greater awareness about the nature of the world problem, as well as a clearer sense of the solution. A solution, as Mesbahi repeatedly asserts throughout his writings, that is “forever embedded in the hearts of everyone.” So in the end, whether the vision set forth below is achievable is not a matter of intellectual debate. For it is nothing more than a call to action that only we ourselves, both individually and collectively, can ultimately respond to and co-create.


 

Introduction: ‘Everyone has the right to live’

 “The conception of a universal basic income can remain so simple in our hearts, if each and every member of this movement perceives that the real substance of a basic income policy is, in fact, love. It seems we are always dynamic in responding to ideas, but why are we not so dynamic when it comes to love? If we feel the resonance of this idea in our hearts, it means we have already responded, however unconsciously or incipiently, to the call for love.” - Mohammed Mesbahi

Of all the emerging political debates on the economic policies that embody the principle of sharing, there is one proposal that stands out for its uniqueness and simplicity: the call for a universal basic income (UBI). A growing literature propounds the ethical and philosophical justifications for this enduring idea, as well as its practical applicability within both the major industrialised and less developed nations. Until now, however, the progressive notion of a basic income has yet to be implemented in its definitively universal form within any world region, notwithstanding the small-scale pilot schemes and limited national systems that are endlessly cited in contemporary debates. Hence the purpose of this enquiry is to examine the prospects for achieving an inspiring vision of ‘freedom from want’ for every person on Earth, who should always be entitled to receive a regular, individual and unconditional monetary transfer that is sufficient to ensure an adequate standard of living in perpetuity.[1]

Is it realistic to believe we can ever achieve this apparently utopian dream in all countries, which must also be envisioned alongside the universal provision of public services and other social benefits: free healthcare and essential medicines; free education at every level; free childcare provision for every pre-schooler; ample supplementary benefits for old-age care and people with disabilities; adequate support for everyone to afford decent housing; subsidised public utilities and good quality public transport; and more?[2] We have previously investigated the need for Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be established as a foundational law within each country, supervised by the United Nations with the all-inclusive backing of world public opinion.[3],[4] In this regard, is the prospect of enshrining a basic income as a constitutional right one of the surest means for guaranteeing the comprehensive realisation of Article 25 for every man, woman and child?[5] And can we ultimately envisage the right to a basic income being realised in the truly universal sense, whereby nations cooperate on a multilateral level to ensure that every government can provide their citizens with access to the necessities for a dignified life?  

Without doubt, the implications of executing this simple social policy instrument are immense and potentially transformative, especially when we consider the possibility of permanently ending global poverty via some form of international redistributive mechanism.[6] Yet it is not the intention of our enquiry to examine in detail the technical considerations around how a basic income should be constituted within different nations, or the arguments against targeting and conditionality, or indeed the controversial debates regarding options for funding through progressive taxation or more innovative measures. Suffice to say, enough literature already makes a compelling case for a new system of income distribution for the 21st century, in light of the inefficiencies and shortcomings of means-tested welfare systems throughout the world.[7] We shall assume the reader already agrees that new solutions are needed for tackling poverty and inequality, which can no longer be realistically addressed through the established social objective of full employment based on continuous economic growth. The eventual necessity of disassociating everyone’s income from wage labour alone is predictable for many compelling reasons, not least the mounting pressures of technological change and an inequitable model of economic globalisation.[8]

Based on this analysis, the prominent arguments for introducing a basic income in every country—aiming towards the highest possible amount that is sufficient to guarantee an adequate standard of living—should be taken extremely seriously by informed scholars, activists and policymakers.[9] The moral case for realising such an entitlement from birth is central to the founding ideals of our organisation, Share The World’s Resources (STWR): that the Earth is a shared inheritance which equally belongs to everyone, thus conferring upon society a responsibility to fairly distribute and conserve nature’s produce in accordance with egalitarian principles. This rationale is notably reflected in the works of Thomas Paine, Henry George, G.D.H. Cole and many other distinguished writers, who variously conceived of the land and natural resources as part of our collective wealth, which is invariably derived from the combined labour, creativity and achievements of society as a whole and earlier generations.[10] Hence it is reasonable to argue that everyone should be entitled to share in the fruits of our common heritage (including the modern-day benefits of technological progress), which can be directly realised by instituting a policy of ‘social dividends’ payable to all citizens as an economic right.[11]

The underlying principle behind how to achieve this venerable aim could not be simpler: every nation needs to create a common pool of resources that can provide for the essential needs of all, which is facilitated and funded by members of the whole society (according to respective means and ability). We already see that principle in operation in many of our social and economic institutions, however fragile and partial such historical attainments may be. But we have reached a time when the principle of sharing has to be applied as the foundation of economic activity within all nations, all regions and eventually throughout the entire world community, if humanity’s evolutionary progress is to be vouchsafed for future generations. It is in this light that we shall proceed to investigate the implications of distributing a full basic income to all, and not just in the usual political and academic terms.

Drawing on a more holistic outlook, we can also view the longstanding efforts to institute a new social security settlement as an expression of maturity, responsibility and even love within this painfully divided world. Know that to entertain the very idea of achieving the highest vision of a UBI is, in itself, an expression of intelligence and common sense that arises from one’s inherent maturity, responsibility and love; for what else can the policy of UBI reflect in these grossly unequal times, if not our unsuppressed conscience that says ‘everyone has the right to live’? It appears that many participants within the basic income movement are motivated by an intuitive belief that the world can be such a freer, more creative and joyful place, as there is obviously so much wealth and material produce that is unfairly shared among a relatively small minority of the world population. So the very idea of applying the principle of sharing to our economic problems, as realised through a UBI and manifold other redistributive policies, is to give concrete substance and structure to the aspirations enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When viewed through such a lens, the meaning of a UBI is not merely to ensure ‘the right to live’. For it can also be understood in the following terms: as the art of creating balance in the world’s social and economic affairs, until ‘right human relationship’ is an established reality in our everyday lives.

 


Part I: The threat of a dystopian future

Let us now examine the prospects for achieving the most far-reaching vision of a UBI worldwide, although we shall attempt to perceive this subject through the simple logic of our common sense, without resorting to complex intellectual arguments. Thus on the surface, it may appear theoretically possible to implement a full UBI at least in every highly industrialised country, where established tax systems are already able to generate enough revenue to fund a universal social welfare system.[12] But then we have to ask ourselves a pertinent question: can we rely on the government of any country today to voluntarily prioritise the common needs of all their citizens? The history of social protection in the twentieth century may attest to huge improvements in the lives of millions of people, yet we now remain entrenched in a climate of financial austerity, declining public services and growing poverty in the majority of the world’s nations, despite the vast amount of wealth that is continually amassed by billionaires and large corporations.

Although humanity is producing more wealth and resources than ever before in history, most developed nations remain preoccupied with selling armaments and increasing their international competitiveness through inequitable trade arrangements, rather than striving to guarantee everyone’s basic socioeconomic rights through universal public goods and unconditional monetary transfers. What will therefore happen to this modest proposal for economic sharing, if there is an escalation of war or another global financial catastrophe? We can be sure that the vulgar words ‘national security’ will soon be invoked to defend our government’s self-interested priorities, as we have already observed with the callous response of European leaders to the record influx of impoverished refugees and migrants.

Another question to ask is whether it is realistic to implement a full UBI policy today, when every society is subsumed by a dark and irrepressible influence that we have previously defined as the forces of commercialisation.[13] The term ‘globalisation’ is insufficient to describe the iniquitous nature of these forces that now dominate our political and economic institutions, forces that are divisive, destructive and violent to the point of being inhuman. Assuredly many advocates for a basic income understand the magnitude of this problem, even though we are apt to interpret it in misleading academic terms as the outcome of mass consumerism or so-called neoliberal capitalism. It is as if we have been distracted and deluded by unbridled market forces, which is the underlying factor that has given rise to the pervasive influence of commercialisation in recent decades, poisoning our politics, our societies, our values and collective behaviours. Indeed at the root of the world problem is not only a political ideology or certain modes of economic organisation, but our self-centred attitudes and intentions that make us all susceptible to commercialisation in its myriads of forms. Thus from the most basic psychological assessment, we can observe that one of the biggest hurdles to realising a UBI in any nation today, however rich or poor, is the pursuit of profit and wealth that dominates our social structures and our everyday lives.[14]

How then can we introduce a full basic income policy that ensures no-one lives in poverty, when everyone is somewhat conditioned by these profit-driven forces that compel us towards materialistic, competitive and atomising behaviours? There is a symptomatic element in our societies that results from this prevalent mentality, which we call indifference—an indifference that is given physical expression in the complex administration of means-tested welfare schemes, with all their associated consequences of stigmatisation and punishment by government-appointed bureaucrats. We cannot only blame a lack of ‘political will’ for preventing a UBI from succeeding, when we all play a part in prolonging the systemic impasse by inadvertently conforming with this status quo.

What do we think will happen if every citizen is given an obligation-free cash handout each month, when our governments are privatising public assets and selling armaments to authoritarian regimes, and constantly manoeuvring to control the resources of weaker or dependent nations overseas? Through causing death and destruction with their covert foreign policies, many nations are in fact sustaining the idea of the ‘right to kill’, not the ‘right to live’. And through our collective indifference and conformity, a vast proportion of the public continues to vote for these same types of politician, thus lending their energy to the established thinking and attitudes that perpetuate the whole state of affairs.

 

End of excerpt

A full copy of the publication can be obtained by emailing info@sharing.org

 

Notes


[1] The assumption of this investigation is that a UBI would be of the most ideal type imaginable, as broadly envisioned by prominent advocates and progressive campaigning organisations. The commonly accepted ideal characteristics of a basic income is that it should be universal i.e. automatically paid ex ante to all legal residents of a given country or province; it should be paid in the form of a cash grant to every individual (including children at a possibly lower sum), and in a uniform amount i.e. with no variability according to household or family status; it should also be unconditional i.e. provided without means testing, behavioural requirements or restrictions on how the money should be spent; and it should be transferred on a regular and predictable basis, such as monthly, without the threat of being withdrawn i.e. due to bankruptcy or the foreclosure of debts. These characteristics distinguish the definition of a genuine UBI from its many variants, particularly the ‘minimum income guarantee’ or ‘negative income tax’ proposals, both of which are targeted measures that may require complex means tests.

[2] It is generally accepted by most proponents that a basic income should not be introduced as a means to privatise social services, or to effectively dismantle what remains of the welfare state in rich industrialised nations. STWR firmly stands behind the agreed position of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), for example, in opposing “the replacement of social services or entitlements [via the introduction of a UBI at whatever level], if that replacement worsens the situation of relatively disadvantaged, vulnerable, or lower-income people”. While it is not the author’s intention to engage with the particulars of this controversial debate, it should also be emphasised that STWR firmly supports social policies based on solidaristic and democratic principles. We therefore recognise that—within the context of the prevailing economic paradigm—the most immediate and rational response for progressive activists is often to defend collectively-funded social services and established labour rights.

[3] Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (General Assembly resolution 217 A): (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

[4] Mohammed Mesbahi, Heralding Article 25: A People’s Strategy for World Transformation, Matador books, 2016. 

[5] Our exceptional focus on Article 25 is not meant to disregard those other fundamental rights that are necessary for a dignified and fulfilling life, as embodied in the core provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966. This would include those Articles associated with the right to social security; the right to health; the right to education; the right to participation in cultural life; and also those labour rights that recognise the right to decent work with adequate protections. It is noteworthy that the right to a basic income is also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Emerging Human Rights, compiled by civil society associates on the occasion of the Universal Forum of Cultures in Barcelona 2004 and Monterrey 2007, which also recognised “the right to an unconditional, regular, monetary income paid by the state and financed by fiscal reforms… as a right of citizenship, to each resident member of society, independently of their other sources of income, and being adequate to allow them to cover their basic needs.”

[6] In part IV, we broadly consider the possibility of implementing a definitive vision of a basic income on a coordinated global scale. It should be stressed from the outset, however, that we are not envisioning a global basic income that is paid and funded by a supranational political unit of some variety, as per some of the speculative ideas promoted by a small number of scholars and grassroots organisations. While these proposals for universal worldwide coverage are unique and honourable in their focus on ending extreme poverty, it is taken for granted in our discussion that a UBI will always need to be administered, controlled and primarily funded by sovereign governments. To be clear, STWR is not advocating for a global-level system of progressive income taxation (or a more innovative proposal for raising international revenues) that acts to redistribute a basic income, via a centralised administrative agency, directly to every citizen of the world. In contrast to such a notion, we envision an important future role for a democratically reformed United Nations—and any new agency that may be set up under its auspices to supervise the redistribution of global finances—in facilitating the process of enabling governments to establish full UBI schemes in their respective countries, which is the tenor of our discussion in part IV.

[7] As shall become clear from part I, a UBI is not considered as politically realistic or achievable at the present time, but only viable in the context of extensive structural reforms to the global economic system. We are also considering the means for achieving a UBI as a permanent system within every country, not only as an immediate possibility (however theoretically plausible or implausible it may be) within the most wealthy industrialised nations with established welfare states. For the purposes of our discussion, it is not therefore deemed necessary to review the many technical arguments in favour of a UBI as a proposal for individual countries under existing conditions. This would include the arguments for streamlining the benefits system, for overcoming ‘poverty traps’ associated with targeted systems, for creating a better alternative to social insurance systems that increasingly fail to reflect the reality of precarious employment, and so on. A plentiful literature exploring these issues can easily be researched by interested readers.

[8] Although this enquiry does not set out to argue the case for a UBI, it is worthwhile noting that the combination of these factors presents a compelling overall justification. As variously explained in the contemporary literature on the subject, new solutions are needed for the intractable problems associated with the relentless pursuit of GDP growth and growing unemployment. The traditional policy objective of full-time work for all who are able—based on an interdependent relationship between the state, the individual and capital that formed the post-war social contract—is no longer a meaningful response to the growing adversities of our societies in this new era of globalisation. Millions of people in the global South are now growing up without realistic prospects of employment, due in large part to global chains of production with increasing technological efficiency, rendering vast swathes of the world population surplus to the needs of capital. Although the full scale of the future impact of technological and digital change is debateable, it is certain to bring large-scale disruption to almost every section of the labour force over time. It is also certain that developing countries are most vulnerable, where the automation of manufacturing and other industries could soon lead to a further massive displacement of low-skilled labour. Yet the elusive objective of full employment is not only unsustainable from an economic and social point of view. Even if it were possible to maintain full employment despite the continued increases in production with less labour, the planet itself cannot sustain this enduring assault on its resources. The old formula for addressing poverty and inequality—to produce more, work more and grow the economy more so that people can consume more resources—has already pushed humanity to the very brink of (if not beyond) the ecological limits to growth. Hence in our search for a new macroeconomic model that resolves these contradictions, a UBI may pose a significant part of the answer for how to achieve steady-state economies and sustainable lifestyles. Indeed to the extent that it disassociates income from productive contribution, a UBI points the way to an alternative vision of society as John Maynard Keynes hesitantly dreamt of in the 1930s, where we can share work more widely and enjoy an age of leisure, instead of blindly pursuing the path of ever-increasing wealth. Thereafter the nature and purpose of work can be reconceptualised, enabling people to prioritise those things that matter most; rebuilding communities and nourishing relationships, caring for one another and the Earth, exploring the spiritual meaning of our lives through voluntary simplicity and the art of living. In time, therefore, technological progress can eventually be a means to free humanity from its thralldom to materiality, whereby the basic needs of society are produced with maximum material efficiency and minimal human labour, while full UBI schemes help to ensure that the fruits of machine-produced wealth are equitably shared. This represents an essential vision of a more emancipated, participatory and egalitarian world that appears to be dearly embraced by many UBI proponents, including the present author. However, the ponderable question that underlies our discussion concerns the means by which humanity may safely reach this hopeful vision in light of the foreboding trends that are summarised in part I.

[9] What amount of money may be necessary to ensure an ‘adequate standard of living’ is a complex question, and it may vary greatly between countries and remain subject to democratic debate and adjustment. In general terms, however, the amount of a basic income can be understood as ‘basic’ in the sense that it will provide a fundamental level of economic security to every citizen, or a ‘social floor’ that is sufficient to cover all essential needs (in combination with the public funding of universal social services and other welfare programmes – see note 2). We are thus envisioning the possibility of a ‘full’, ‘liveable’ or ‘high-level’ UBI in the most consummate and universal sense within each nation, while remaining mindful of the fact that partial or introductory-level schemes may be the most pragmatic route to achieving this end goal. It is beyond the scope of our discussion to take a position on whether a full UBI should altogether replace existing contributory social insurance schemes, as well as other non-contributory social protection measures for the poorest in society. At this stage, common sense would attest that neither the specific amount of a full UBI should be given too much importance, nor the specific structure of UBI schemes that may also vary greatly between countries in their final forms. It should certainly not be taken for granted that a basic income must automatically replace all existing transfers and other forms of state benefit.

[10] Johannes Ludovicus Vives (1492-1540) is in fact attributed as the first to develop an argument and a detailed plan for a minimum subsistence scheme, as early as 1526. In a memo to the mayor of Bruges, titled De Subventione Pauperum (‘On Assistance to the Poor’), he writes of nature and its resources: “All these things God created, He put them in our large home, the world, without surrounding them with walls and gates, so that they would be common to all His children.” More than two centuries later, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) famously developed the essential idea underlying the basic income concept, namely the notion that the aged and indigent deserved public assistance not as charity but as a right, which should take the form of a basic endowment that is distributed to all. “Poverty... is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state,” writes Paine in his pamphlet Agrarian Justice, where he argues the case for: “a National Fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.” In Paine’s immortalised words: “It is a position not to be controverted that the Earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.”   

[11] In contrast to the usual descriptions of a ‘basic income’, the term ‘dividend’ is more preferable for many reasons, as long advocated by earlier academic theorists such as G.D.H. Cole and James E. Meade, as well as many contemporary writers such as Guy Standing, Peter Barnes, Charles Eisenstein, James Robertson and several other Georgist thinkers. By framing the policy in this way (in Cole’s words, “as a dividend payable of right to all citizens as their share in the common heritage of mankind”), then it is more likely to gain widespread public support on the grounds of social justice, recognising that a basic income should indeed be a universal right based upon the collective wealth of society. This rationale is notably different to the old labour principles of social solidarity, based on direct contributions and pooled risk-sharing mechanisms, which underpinned social insurance schemes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Not only is the idea of ‘dividends for all’ more likely to overcome prejudicial opposition to the idea of ‘free money for nothing’, but it also naturally aligns with the most progressive options for funding such schemes—taxes on land value, a levy on royalties and licenses from intellectual property, sovereign wealth funds based on the sale of non-renewable natural resources (or other forms of common assets), and so on. However, the term ‘universal basic income’ is used throughout our discussion due to its familiarity and growing popularity during this new phase of its evolution. It is clearly the most identifiable term in common usage, while the word ‘universal’ also aligns with the moral aspirations enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[12] The issue of affordability is somewhat disputatious, and there is no straightforward answer as to whether a basic income for all is fiscally compatible with an expansive welfare state under existing conditions. Most studies that attempt to model the introduction of a UBI are looked at in a budget-neutral context, and are often based on the assumption that it will replace most other (if not all) cash benefits for working age households. On this basis, a UBI is unlikely to prove an effective means of reducing poverty and inequality, given the fact that a limited welfare budget would be spread equally across the whole population (or to all individuals below normal retirement age), leaving the poorest households with less financial support than existing guaranteed minimum-income benefits. But there are a number of larger considerations, particularly the question of how progressive the UBI system will be, and whether it will be funded by taxing higher-income earners proportionately more. Other administrative and cost savings also need to be accounted for, including the removal of means-testing and behaviour conditions, and the full or partial consolidation of other programmes and tax credits that the new transfers would make redundant. Most of all, the question of government spending priorities needs to be considered, and the possibility of switching expenditures from regressive subsidies paid to other areas, particularly the military, agribusiness and fossil fuel industries. Although difficult to quantify in economic models, it is certain that subsidy shifting could free up enough government revenue to justify a UBI that keeps all households above the relative income poverty line, even on the assumption of fiscal neutrality. However, the full or liveable UBI that we are envisioning is no doubt unfeasible without a much wider transformation of the economy, in which alternative means to fund truly unconditional basic income schemes are implemented. For more on this issue, see note 28.

[13] Mohammed Mesbahi, ‘Commercialisation: the antithesis of sharing’, Share The World's Resources, April 2014.

[14] This line of enquiry forms the basis of many of our previous studies on the principle of sharing. For example, see; ‘A discourse on isms’, July 2014; ‘The intersection of politics and spirituality in addressing the climate crisis’, June 2016; ‘Christmas, the system and I’, December 2013, all published at www.sharing.org/studies


Mohammed Mesbahi is STWR's founder.

Editing and research assistance: Adam Parsons.

Image credit: cafecredit, flickr creative commons

The full print version of this publication can be obtained by emailing info@sharing.org