π Economics
Has the pandemic revived debate over universal basic income?

Universal basic income: utopia or a fuss over nothing?

Richard Robert, Journalist and Author
On October 13th, 2021 |
4 mins reading time
Universal basic income: utopia or a fuss over nothing?
Key takeaways
  • Formalised in the 1980s, the idea of a “universal basic income” has long remained marginal, even utopian.
  • But recently, Kenya, India and Finland launched experiments, Switzerland organised a referendum and, in 2020, the United States distributed $1,200 per person to help households cope with the pandemic.
  • Advocates say it is simple, fair, and effective, referring to the fact that despite the huge sums spent on ‘social’ poverty has not disappeared from rich countries.
  • However, critics complain about how it would remove the incentive to work, making some jobs less attractive and others much more expensive.
  • The idea of a minimum universal income thus raises objections as serious as the justifications that support it.

The Covid-19 pan­dem­ic would seem to have revived the debate around Uni­ver­sal Basic Income (UBI), even though pri­or to that it had remained mar­gin­al. It is an inter­est­ing con­cept in the fact that it exists in numer­ous forms, and new ver­sions or inter­pre­ta­tions can arise. Faced with strong objec­tions on one side and sub­stan­tial sup­port on the oth­er, it remains a con­tentious idea. Nev­er­the­less, as a dis­rup­tive inno­va­tion, UBI is tak­en seri­ous­ly in polit­i­cal debate and con­sti­tutes a use­ful prospec­tive tool to imag­ine a dif­fer­ent future – but also to bet­ter under­stand the present.

A break from utopia?

The idea of a “citizen’s basic income” or a “uni­ver­sal basic income” (UBI) first appeared dur­ing the Great Depres­sion and was lat­er for­malised in the 1980s. Although, though it remained a mar­gin­al, even utopi­an, idea for a long time. Aside from Alas­ka, which intro­duced UBI to redis­trib­ute oil rev­enue, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and pop­u­la­tions have not seemed so inter­est­ed in the con­cept. But recent­ly, in only a mat­ter of years, its appli­ca­tion has been accel­er­at­ed in var­i­ous coun­tries includ­ing Kenya, India and Fin­land which have all launched exper­i­ments; or Switzer­land which held a ref­er­en­dum on the ques­tion, even if the pop­u­la­tion vot­ed against it.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, it is in the Unit­ed States, faced with the pan­dem­ic in 2020, that the most pow­er­ful UBI ini­tia­tive was put into place. Every house­hold received a pay­ment of $1,200 per per­son. But what was it? A heli­copter mon­ey pol­i­cy, for­mer­ly advo­cat­ed by Mil­ton Fried­man? A social pol­i­cy to com­pen­sate for the weak­ness of the Amer­i­can wel­fare state? A pol­i­cy to stim­u­late con­sumers to spend? The mere fact that we ask these ques­tions high­lights the dif­fer­ent assets of a con­cept like UBI that is dif­fi­cult to fit in tra­di­tion­al categories.

The dis­rup­tive nature of UBI is also empha­sised by the aston­ish­ing vari­ety of intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal groups that defend it. On the sur­face, it is a con­cept designed for its sim­plic­i­ty, but the neces­si­ty of such a sys­tem has been con­tro­ver­sial. By momen­tar­i­ly shat­ter­ing the issue of cost sur­round­ing such a mea­sure, the pan­dem­ic would seem to have shown that it could have some ben­e­fits. As such, UBI is now being giv­en seri­ous consideration.

New rep­re­sen­ta­tions

One of the most inter­est­ing effects of UBI comes from its capac­i­ty to bring out new rep­re­sen­ta­tions. For exam­ple, when its exor­bi­tant cost is men­tioned, its pro­mot­ers dis­cuss the con­sid­er­able cost of cur­rent social wel­fare schemes in devel­oped coun­tries. France holds the record with 32% of GDP, but for OECD mem­ber states, the aver­age is around 25%. Fur­ther­more, the com­plex­i­ty of social sys­tems goes hand in hand with con­sid­er­able man­age­ment costs so, by elim­i­nat­ing them, the intro­duc­tion of UBI could lead to savings.

Anoth­er exam­ple: when we think of the income gen­er­at­ed by work, we tend to relate our salary with the inten­si­ty of our efforts, our exper­tise, or the time we spend work­ing. The idea of UBI high­lights every­thing that is over­looked by this type of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. In a way, we are all heirs ben­e­fit­ting from the accu­mu­la­tion of inno­va­tions and efforts inher­it­ed from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. Strict­ly speak­ing, a large part of our income comes from this lega­cy. With this in mind, the share of our efforts, our tal­ent, or our per­son­al time, becomes minor. As such, the con­cept of UBI trans­lates into a col­lec­tive real­i­ty: we are all beneficiaries.

This cul­tur­al shift leads to a var­ied panora­ma of jus­ti­fi­ca­tions; three of which are pre­sent­ed here. The first is sim­plic­i­ty, in con­trast to the com­plex­i­ty of social wel­fare sys­tems built over time in devel­oped coun­tries. Hence, its straight­for­ward­ness is asso­ci­at­ed with a bet­ter overview of a sys­tem that would allow states to reduce man­age­ment costs and regain con­trol of vast social wel­fare sys­tems. The sec­ond is the idea of jus­tice. Much like the “flat tax” which puts every­one on an equal foot­ing in terms of tax­a­tion, the con­cept of a uni­ver­sal allowance has the advan­tage of clos­ing the end­less debates on the rights and mer­its of dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories of ben­e­fi­cia­ries. Final­ly, the third is effi­ca­cy. The fact is that due to sev­er­al fac­tors (poor knowl­edge of the sys­tem, illit­er­a­cy, social stig­ma), many peo­ple eli­gi­ble for cur­rent wel­fare sup­port slip through the cracks and do not ask for social ben­e­fits they are enti­tled to. Fur­ther­more, despite enor­mous social expen­di­ture, pover­ty has not dis­ap­peared from wealthy nations mean­ing that social wel­fare schemes are not nec­es­sar­i­ly com­plete­ly successful.

A con­tro­ver­sial proposal

How­ev­er, crit­i­cism is just as pow­er­ful in the face of these jus­ti­fi­ca­tions. Jus­tice, espe­cial­ly, is both well and poor­ly served by the con­cept of UBI. The idea of cor­rect­ly com­pen­sat­ing effort or work, and pro­mot­ing tal­ent is cen­tral in our soci­eties and feeds a cer­tain notion of jus­tice. There is fear that they would be under­mined by estab­lish­ing a UBI. From an eco­nom­i­cal point of view, the cen­tral argu­ment is the incen­tive to work. Today, many pro­fes­sions are only guar­an­teed because of the way they are paid. Estab­lish­ing UBI in its more ambi­tious ver­sion (€1,000–2,000 per month in devel­oped coun­tries, depend­ing on the ver­sion) might make these jobs less attrac­tive, and sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase the cost of oth­er pro­fes­sions – poten­tial­ly desta­bil­is­ing the whole econ­o­my. A third objec­tion, on a nation­al scale, is that the deci­sion to intro­duce a sig­nif­i­cant UBI would have dis­rup­tive effects in terms of immi­gra­tion. Yet, it should be said that this is the rea­son why some advo­cates even sug­gest to imme­di­ate­ly imple­ment it at a glob­al scale, which opens the debate to fur­ther unsolved issues con­cern­ing the uneven lev­el of devel­op­ment in dif­fer­ent coun­tries around the world. The con­cept of UBI gives rise to both sig­nif­i­cant objec­tions and sub­stan­tial jus­ti­fi­ca­tions in its favour. Today, this idea offers two key ben­e­fits. First, its seri­ous­ly dis­rup­tive nature, both in the sense of dis­turb­ing and inno­vat­ing, makes it pos­si­ble to revi­talise reflec­tions on social mod­els, explore new angles and refresh rep­re­sen­ta­tions. Sec­ond, because it is linked to very dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal or intel­lec­tu­al visions, it pro­vides a space for debate on ques­tions which have remained closed, or even blocked, for a long time. The con­cept of UBI is there­fore a prospec­tive tool. It enables us to explore pos­si­ble devel­op­ments in the world of tomor­row; on a more devel­oped plan­et, with more robot­ics, in which the ques­tion of human labour becomes key – and to take a fresh look at the world we live in.


Richard Robert

Richard Robert

Journalist and Author

Editor of Telos and author, Richard Robert teaches at Sciences Po. He directed the Paris Innovation Review from 2012 to 2018. Latest books: Le Social et le Politique (dir., with Guy Groux and Martial Foucault), CNRS éditions, 2020, La Valse européenne (with Élie Cohen), Fayard, published in March 2021.