On June 5th, Switzerland will be the first country to vote on an unconditional basic income (UBI). UBI is “an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement”. Although not new, the idea is revolutionary in that it decouples income from work, and it conflicts with many people’s intuitions about justice. It cannot be fair if someone who chooses not to work because she wants to read novels all day is entitled to the same basic income as a person who cannot work due to disability, right? At the same time, the idea has been defended not only on economic and pragmatic grounds, but also for reasons of justice. I will assess the idea from the perspective of justice and conclude that justice recommends giving it a try.
First of all, UBI would be just from a strong egalitarian perspective: everyone would be equal in the sense of being entitled to the same basic income. But the idea of decoupling income from work and achievement seems unacceptable to many of us. We endorse equality in front of the law as well as equal civil and political rights, but we are struggling with the idea of equality when it comes to income. An income is something that needs to be earned, not something that humans are entitled to simply in virtue of being human. Yet in times where there is not enough paid work for everyone, we have to ask ourselves whether it is just to make the financial means for subsistence dependent on work. There are people who do not have the capacities and talents currently asked for by the labour market, and there are those who lose their job because of rationalisation measures.
In judging whether a certain policy measure or institution would be just, we have to compare it with its alternatives. Is it just that a person who cannot find a job that suits her skills and talents is forced to live under the stigma of being unemployed, or to accept a badly paid job that doesn’t suit her skills and talents? Is it just that some people have to have several jobs at the same time in order to be able to support their families? Is it just that people are forced to accept unbearable working conditions? If we answer these questions with “no”, this moves us towards the idea of a UBI. UBI can be said to be just in that it would counteract such injustices.
Whether people are in favour of UBI seems to crucially depend on their view of human nature. Do they think that humans are such that many if not most of them would choose not to work when given a UBI? Or do they believe that most people appreciate working and wouldn’t be satisfied by just living on their UBI and being lazy? I tend to believe the latter, but we cannot make a well-grounded judgement on this. We simply have to try it out. I can imagine that in a society where UBI has been implemented, very few people, if any, are willing to accept a job that is poorly paid and involves overly straining working conditions. If the implementation of UBI causes a big shortage of nurses, carers for the elderly and the like, this has to be answered with better working conditions. Every job that requires a person to perform it has to be made – if not attractive – at least acceptable. Surely such measures would make a society more just.
The vice editor of the Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag, Nicole Althaus, criticised UBI as a “male play of thought” (“Bedingungslos für ihn, Hausfrauenlohn für sie?” NZZ am Sonntag, 24 April 2016). According to her, only families with the traditional division of roles would profit from it. She blames the advocates of UBI for failing to recognise unpaid work as work. “What does the unconditionality of a basic income for cleaning, washing and cooking consist of precisely?”, Althaus asked provocatively. Is UBI unjust from a gender perspective? I think that it is not, because it decouples income from work, both paid and unpaid. Every woman will be entitled to UBI, independently of whether she takes care of a family or not. That she cannot raise her income by bringing up children and doing the washing is a different problem. UBI will not solve that issue, but that does not make UBI responsible for it. I disagree with Althaus that women would not profit at all from UBI. In a society in which UBI was implemented, no woman would depend on a man for subsistence. Additional policy measures are necessary to solve other problems related to gender equality, but this does not disqualify UBI as a purely male idea.
Of course, we need economists to tell us what the effects of implementing UBI will be, but, as far as justice is concerned, I conclude that we should give it a try.