Autonomy and Solidarity - Prospects of an Unconditional Basic Income
By Dr. Sascha Liebermann
The idea is simple and powerful, challenging and disturbing. It has been around for years in academic circles, but has recently gained momentum ever since the idea has been advocated for publicly (e.g. in Germany since 2003). But what roughly is it about?
An Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) would be provided from cradle to grave, paid to individuals not to households, irrespective of any income from other sources, without requiring the performing of paid work or any expression of a willingness to work. Pundits berate the idea as naïve, a land of milk and honey-vision, which, at the very least, confirms the decline of modern civilization.
It might seem so at first glance, especially when looking back and remembering that workfare policies have dominated European welfare states for more than a decade. But the closer you get the less plausible such objections appear. Of course, a UBI counters workfare policies and the idolatry of wage-labour as the most valuable contribution to community-life. But a closer look also shows us that a UBI is consonant with the lives we live in modern times. Moreover, the core idea reminds us of the basic premises of republican democracies: namely, the sovereignty of the people as citizens.
Why is "unconditionality" so important? Present welfare states beyond all variations provide an assortment of different insurance benefits (unemployment benefits, statutory pension insurance schemes etc.), forms of assistance and allowances often managed by independent funds. All are conditional; they either require willingness to work, acquired entitlements or claims to benefits through contributions, a certain age (child benefits), or means testing. For adults wage-labour is pivotal, so that benefits are conditional as a way of guiding one back into the labour market; to get off the benefit roll is the ubiquitous normative goal.
The term unconditional refers to the achievement-conditions a beneficiary must meet to receive benefits today, and it is this which the UBI wants to get rid of. In this way, a beneficiary of UBI must meet status-conditions, either citizenship or a permanent residency, a fact, which does not-as some say-contradict the idea of unconditionality. Unconditionality is conditional, because it presupposes a political community to provide UBI.
The higher a UBI is in terms of purchasing power, the more means-tested allowances it eliminates and the further it gets in recognizing wage-labour as only one among other important activities within a political community of citizens. A consequence would be that the status of wage-labour would decrease, while that of child-care, volunteering and other activities would increase. UBI would not have this equalizing effect immediately, but it would come about as a result of recognizing people as citizens and not as contributors through wage-labour. By being provided without obligation, UBI tells 'beneficiaries' that they receive it for their own sake. Just as citizen rights are bestowed without obligation, so is UBI.
Through a UBI, high enough to secure a livelihood, employees would gain bargaining power. Being independent of wage-labour implies the ability to say 'No'. On the one hand, companies could rely on motivated employees who work voluntarily and, on the other hand, companies would have to offer attractive working conditions and an attractive working environment. Both would help to create an innovative atmosphere in companies and organizations. A controversial argument is that the community could get rid of the legal restrictions necessary today to protect an employee's status; for example, regarding restrictions on the laying off and hiring of employees. To hire individuals for only a short time in order to work on a project would become common (if employees agree) and not a threat to the individual. Because of bargaining power, it would be up to them to define acceptable working hours. Each individual would be in a much better position to find an appropriate answer in accordance with his or her life, inclinations, capacities, and so forth. The amount of time someone is willing to spend in an occupation depends on what he or she regards as reasonable.
Some accuse UBI of being a neoliberal Trojan Horse. It helps, they say, to extend the low-wage-sector and by doing so perverts the idea. But a relatively low wage under the circumstances set by UBI does not necessarily mean low income. Today wages fulfil two functions: 1) to secure a minimum income and 2) to provide a share in a company's success. With UBI the situation is altered. A UBI would secure a steadily available minimum income, while a wage would be additional and separate. Consequently, if UBI were relatively high, a lower wage than today would not imply a lower income (UBI plus wage).
Plurality would be encouraged. Neither growth nor labour is a goal in itself. With a UBI different ways of living a self-determined life are respected. Instead of financing employment-programs and educational trainings to "bring" people back into the labour-market-both of which are more or less compulsory for the unemployed-education could be a goal in itself following the individual's interests and inclinations. By providing a UBI, the community signals that it trusts the citizens' will to contribute to the wellbeing of the polity and, thus, fosters solidarity.
Workfare these days put enormous pressure on families. The value of work even exceeds the value of family as debates about extending childcare institutions to support working parents show. Some proponents of UBI argue that what seems to be progressive and emancipatory turns out to be the opposite. Parents are put under increasing pressure by public debates and political decisions. They have to decide whether they should take care of their children, or whether they should pursue their professional career to fulfil the community's normative expectations. By enhancing childcare institutions without providing means, such as UBI, to opt out of the labour market, the normative ideal of doing wage-labour is reinforced. Therefore, what is considered to be a step into the future by praising, for example, Scandinavian childcare policies, is a step backward. In the common use of the term, stay-at-home parents are unemployed because they do not work in the wage-labour market. Of course, they contribute to the common welfare-without families the political community has no future. Nevertheless, their contribution neither helps to acquire entitlements to benefits, nor is it recognized as central in the same way as having a full time occupation. UBI, however, would open up the opportunity for staying at home, without stigmatizing it. It would leave the decision up to parents, without directing them toward any normative goal.
Why is it so difficult to get UBI on the political agenda? Is it an idea existing in Cloud Cuckoo land? What the situation reveals is a contradictory phenomenon that helps explain why UBI is still confronted with unrealistic objections. On the one hand, there is a discrepancy between the fundamental meaning of citizenship and political community already incorporated in democratic institutions. Political communities still trust the citizens' will to contribute; on the other hand, there is how this is interpreted in the self-conception of the people. In Germany especially the ongoing public debate about UBI has helped to make this contradiction apparent and, thus, set interpretive patterns going.
Dr. Sascha Liebermann (PhD in Sociology, Master of Arts in Philosophy). Research focus: Political Sociology, Welfare State, Economic Sociology, Theory of Professions, Sociology of Socialization, Qualitative Methods. Assistant Professor at Ruhr-University Bochum, Visiting Fellow at ETH Zurich (Switzerland); Founding member of "Freedom not Full Employment" (www.freiheitstattvollbeschaeftigung.de) (in 2003), a group of German citizens arguing for an Unconditional Basic Income.
Upcoming books (August 2012) to which the author contributed a chapter about the UBI-debate in Germany:"Manifold Possibilities, Peculiar Obstacles -Basic Income in the German Debate", in: Basic Income Worldwide. Horizons of Reform, edited by Carole Pateman and Matthew C. Murray, Palgrave Macmillan - International Political Economy Series
"Far, though close. Basic Income in Germany - Problems and Prospects" in: Basic Income Guarantee and Politics: International Experiences and Perspectives on the Viability of Income Guarantee, edited by Richard K. Caputo, Palgrave Macmillan - Exploring the Basic Income Guarantee Series,