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Universal Basic Income: A Primer

Here’s why everyone’s demanding free money from the government.

BY Dayton Martindale

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u·ni·ver·sal ba·sic in·come


1. A regular lump sum given unconditionally to all

We might demand a basic income not so that we can have, do or be what we already want, do or are, but because it might allow us to consider and experiment with different kinds of lives.” — Marxist Feminist Kathi Weeks in her 2011 book, The Problem With Work 

Won't everyone sit around drinking mai tais while the economy crashes?

Some (not all) progressive economists worry that a universal basic income (UBI) could lead to inflation, especially if people quit their jobs to loaf. Advocates suggest loafing isn’t so bad—many are overworked under capitalism, often producing things no one really needs. And besides, they say, previous UBI experiments suggest most would still work. When residents of Dauphin, Canada, were given an above-poverty income, most kept their jobs but also spent more time with their families. Hospitalizations and domestic violence decreased. As French ecosocialist André Gorz suggested, a UBI allows us to both work and consume “less and better,” giving us more time for leisure, art and relationships.

Where would the money come from?

Proposals include taxes on high incomes, financial transactions, land, pollution and more. Some suggest nationalizing resources and paying a dividend on the profits. (Alaska does this with its oil.) Others say that U.S. federal budget deficits don’t actually matter, and the government can simply pay for things. 

Could a UBI actually happen?

It almost did. There were several UBI experiments in the 1960s and 1970s—including in Dauphin—and Congress considered legislation. But as the country drifted rightward, momentum died. (Another blow: one analysis of a UBI trial erroneously reported a rise in divorces, producing much pearl-clutching.) Today, governments from Ontario, Canada, to Finland are again experimenting. Private charities are finding that giving poor people cash can be more effective than conventional aid programs. A U.S. company that invests in startups is running its own UBI test across three states. 

Didn't Milton Friedman support this?

UBI attracts strange bedfellows. Some libertarians support a modest UBI—below the poverty line—to replace welfare. Progressives worry that could be a Trojan horse for wider cuts. Most leftist UBI advocates favor something expansive enough to end poverty and decouple basic subsistence from work. This ultimately takes power from the bosses, who would no longer be able to use the threat of poverty to force people into unjust working conditions—and gives labor a permanent strike fund.

This is part of “The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent In These Times coverage of universal basic income, see, “Would a Universal Basic Income Strenghten or Shred the Social Safety Net?”

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Dayton Martindale is an associate editor at In These Times, and a founding member of Symbiosis. His writing has appeared in In These Times, Earth Island Journal and The Next System Project. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.

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