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.
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.