Universal Basic Service

According to a PwC report written in March 2017[1], robots could steal 38% of jobs in the United-States, 35% in Germany, 30% in the United Kingdom, and 21% in Japan by the early 2030s. Robots are going to be tomorrow’s workforce. This technological shift will profoundly challenge societies’ economy leading to job losses and a rise of inequalities. It also questions State’s ability to secure the well-being of its citizens. As a result, society will be more fragmented than ever. Some people argue that there is a requirement for more State support in order to overcome those challenges, create a fairer economy and offer equal opportunities for all. This is in this context that the request for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has gained notoriety. UBI can be defined as a fixed amount of money, at a level sufficient for subsistence, unconditionally delivered to all individuals regardless of their sex, gender, social status and other identity markers. UBI is very popular in some countries because it is perceived as an effective compensation to rise of unemployment due to automatisation. However, it should be stressed that UBI is still at an experimental stage. If some countries like Finland, the Netherlands, or some States like Alaska, have experimented UBI, it has never been enforced at a national level.

Even though I agree with the idea there is a need for more State support, I don’t think UBI is the best answer to address socio-ecnomic inequalities. My claim is that UBI fails meeting people’s basic needs. I think States should provide Universal Basic Services (UBS) instead of UBI. This essay will be threefold. In a first part, I will consider UBI’s beneficial effets on eradicating poverty, building people’s confidence and boosting State economy. Then I will reflect upon what would be the capabilities people’s critics of UBI . Finally, I will argue that States should enforce a Universal Basic Services system instead of UBI.

I/ UBI advocates argue that UBI will have an effect on poverty and economy.

The main reason why UBI seems to be such an appealing idea is because it is universal. Indeed, contrary to other welfare programs, UBI does not discriminate anybody. However, UBI should not be considered as a purely redistributive measure. The key point I want to stress here is that UBI captures a significant philosophical shift. Equality is no longer considered only as a matter of redistribution but also as a matter of respect. In other words, the main feature that distinguishes UBI from other welfare program is that it acknowledges the fundamental worth and autonomy of individuals. Recognition of human dignity is the core principle of UBI. As a consequence, every single person of a society is entitled to receive a fixed amont of money from the government because they are human beings and as human beings, they should be treated in equal dignity. In that sense, UBI aims to promote and to preserve the inherent human dignity among different actors of society. As the most destitute are treated the same way than the most well-off, they don’t loose their confidence nor and their self esteem.

Moreover, UBI advocates underline its potential effect in increasing households’ purchasing power. On the one hand, UBI could play a great role in removing poverty traps and empowering low-paid workers. According to UBI supporters, not only UBI would increase living conditions by helping the least well-off people to make ends meet, but it would also secure the dignity of those who are dependent of welfare aids and suffer from job insecurity. On the other hand, UBI would boost consumer spending and standards of living of the well-off. So not only UBI would eradicate poverty and contribute to the redistribution of wealth, but it would also grow the economy of the State.

II/ Critics of UBI based on the capabilities approach as expressed by Sen and Nussbaum

In this paragraph I will argue that the capabilities approach people (Sen and Nussbaum) would be against UBI for the same reasons they are against Rawls’ primary goods approach. Capabilities people would be against UBI because they would argue that it tends to universalize people’s needs. Indeed, UBI presupposes two things. On the one hand, it implies that all human beings desire the same primary social good to subsist, money in this case. On the other hand, it assumes that money would be the most adequate and efficient coverage to address poverty. However, it cannot be denied that people around the world have different need varying with « health, longevity, climatic conditions, location, work condition »[2]. Moreover, it si a well-known fact that there are geographical contingencies that affect cost of living within a given country. As a result, if two people receive the same basic income but one lives in New-York and the other one lives in a remote town, they won’t have the same purchasing power and inequalities will remain.

The second critic is that UBI only give money to people and ignore how they can use it. It should be stressed that the capability approach is not only concerned with « the persons satisfaction with what she does, but about what she does, and what she is in a position to do (what her opportunities and liberties are). And we ask not just about the resources that are sitting around, but about how those do or do not go to work »[3]. Amartya Sen illustrates this point with the cripple example. He argues that we should take into account not only the goods we give to disabled people but also their ability to use it efficiently. In this case, it seems that a disabled person would need more medical support than a fixed amount of money.

III/ Arguments in favor of Universal Basic Service (UBS) instead of UBI.

An alternative to UBI would be that States provide to their citizens Universal Basic Services (UBS). The idea behind UBS is that State should provide, the most fundamental building blocks for life required by every citizen to reduce sharply the cost of basic living for those on the lowest income. For example, States could increase the number of existing social housing stock and provide rent-free accommodation for the most destitute. An other policy would to be to deliver food supply for those who are experiencing food insecurity. Then, free bus passes should be available to everyone in order to increase people’s mobility. Finally, States should promote digital inclusion by providing free internet access and basic phone services to encourage equal chance of opportunities and connect people[4]. So, UBS keep the universal appeal of UBI but focus more on services rather than money. In that sense, UBS would help increasing « the basic capabilities » of people as theorized by the capabilities people, that is to say «  the ability for a person to do some basic things such as move about, meet one’s nutritional requirements, the wherewithal to be clothed and shelter » [5].

Not only it would be more effective, but it would also be less costly for the government. According to a report from UCL[6], if UBI were enforced in the UK on the base of £73.10 ($99) per citizen per week, this policy would cost to the British government around £250 billion per year, that is to say around 13% of total United-Kingdom’s GDP. Such a policy would be unaffordable for the state and it would increase state dependency. By contrast, if UBS were implemented, it would cost £42 billion per year, that is to say 2.3% of UK’s GDP. As a result, the recommendations we have considered present a more affordable response to potential disruption to the labour market from technological advancements than UBI[7]. Moreover, UBS advocates argue that focusing on more comprehensive service provision rather than handouts would preserve incentives to work while strengthening the cohesive of society all as whole.

To sump up, even though UBI might be an appealing idea at first sight, I argued that it was not the best answer to the threat of worsening socioeconomic inequalities and job insecurity posed by technological advances and automatization. The main downside of UBI is that it tends to deny the recognition of the fundamental diversity of human beings. As a result, UBI fails in meeting people’s basic needs. Instead of implementing redistributive payments and other kinds of welfare programs, I supported the idea that States should provide Universal Basic Services instead. In other words, States should provide everyone with basic services such as food, shelter so people feel secure in society.

 

Bibliography :  

BERRIMAN, Richard; HAWKSWORTH John, « Will robots steal our jobs? The potential impact of automation on the UK and other major economies », UK Economic Outlook, March 2017

  • CHAMPAM, Ben, « Universal basic services could work better than basic income to combat ‘rise of the robots’, say experts», The independent, October 11th 2017

– NUSSBAUM, Martha, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp 71

  • PARTINGTON, Richard, « UK state should pay for housing, food, transport and internet, says report», The guardian, October 11th 2017

– SEN, Amartya, ’Equality of What?’, in Sen, Amartya, Choice, Welfare, and Measurement, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Chapter 16, pp 353-369

[1] BERRIMAN, Richard; HAWKSWORTH John, « Will robots steal our jobs? The potential impact of automation on the UK and other major economies », UK Economic Outlook, March 2017

[2] [2] SEN Amartya, ’Equality of What?’, in Sen, Amartya, Choice, Welfare, and Measurement, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Chapter 16, pp 366

[3] NUSSBAUM, Martha, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp 71

[4] CHAMPAM, Ben, « Universal basic services could work better than basic income to combat ‘rise of the robots’, say experts », The independent, October 11th 2017

[5] SEN Amartya, ’Equality of What?’, in Sen, Amartya, Choice, Welfare, and Measurement, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Chapter 16, pp 367

[6] IGP’s Social Prosperity Network publishes the UK’s first report on Universal Basic Services, UCL institute for global prosperity, October 11th 2017

[7] PARTINGTON, Richard, « UK state should pay for housing, food, transport and internet, says report », The guardian, October 11th 2017

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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