Universal Income: a discussion of ‘rights’ and ‘obligations’

Simone Weil

I was forwarded a piece of news about Andrew Yang lately. This democratic hopeful 2020 Presidential Candidate is making of Universal Basic Income (UBI) the spearhead of his campaign. This evoked in me the mixed feelings I would like to share here.

First, and to the point, Yang’s approach is seriously flawed. His plan to fund UBI frames the latter as a substitution of current welfare programs (from Andrew Yang’s website: “people already receiving benefits would have a choice but would be ineligible to receive the full [UBI] in addition to current benefit”). This is more inspired by Milton Friedman’s idea of negative income tax than the more progressive versions proposed first by Thomas Paine and resurrected by leading economists in the 1960–70s, such as John Kenneth Galbraith and James Tobin, for whom the basic income was to be distributed on top of existing welfare support.

Especially if coupled with the VAT increase that Yang lists as another possible source of funds, his proposed policy backfires by making it essentially a hyper-market mechanism. The monthly payment would not translate into higher purchasing power as welfare programs are replaced with discretionary — but unavoidable — spending and the contextual increase in consumer prices leads to a quick dissipation of the monthly USD 1,000 UBI that Yang proposes.

Yet, Yang’s bold proposal has the merit of eliciting a debate on what is in reality an extremely important and deep topic.

Two hijacks, however, stand on the way to have a holistic, all-out, productive discussion about this topic.

First, the debate on UBI has been getting renewed traction lately because of the discussion on labor-displacing robots and the future of work. This is not even particularly new. Already in the 1960s, Robert Theobald was proposing a new distribution of income as automation in factories threatened to displace work:

‘Our first problem is to break the link between jobs and incomes so that we can begin to plan on a social basis. I can see no alternative in the cybernated era but to provide every individual with a constitutional right to an income adequate to allow him to live with dignity.’

Robert Theobald, “Education and the Cybernation Revolution”

Immediately, when confronted with this quote, the sceptics of today retort how those 50+ year old bleak predictions — and the urgency implied in the passionate tone through which they were expressed — have not since materialised. They extrapolate that nowadays’ alarmism on Artificial Intelligence making human beings jobless is a myth, and dismiss UBI.

I could riposte that maybe today it is different, as robots do not simply overlap with humans’ manual abilities but also with cognitive skills… But this is exactly what we should not do. UBI should not be construed as a ‘reaction’ to an event, a discovery, an economic or political development. Rather, we should discuss the moral and ethical justifications of UBI, whether or not the very existence of society inherently justifies these forms of income redistribution — even before checking the financial consistency of such a policy.

Another, even more damaging form of hijacking of this concept is how, in political discussions, the idea of a citizenship income strongly connotes populism and radical left. This instantly discredits it in the eyes of the ruling, less progressive class — the so-called bien pensant — at best as a beautiful utopia, more frequently as a matter that does not deserve serious attention.

It is ironical that the UBI nowadays’ connotation with populism and radical leftist-idea is an exception in history, rather than a norm. The backlash that this idea receives, especially as it comes from the more affluent segments of the population offers a strong departure from how the financial support for poor was conceived in the 14–15th century, when the first ancestors of UBIs burgeoned. The Tudor-era system of ‘Poor Laws’ was strongly supported by the elite as part of what was seen then an effort in ‘disciplining’ the non-elite. Charles Taylor (in ‘A Secular Age’, Chapter 2) explains how rural migration into cities (where the elite resided) required a joint effort from the elite and the Church to ‘civilise’ poors, and how this was a measure that was aimed at preserving the elites’ power and privileges.

So a good progress in a serious discussion about UBI would be the consideration that, exactly because it is ‘universal’, UBI is for and from everybody. It is not a leftist recrimination, nor a populist slogan. It pertains to all of us as member of the society and as such it should be addressed and discussed.

So how to lay the ground for the serious discussion that UBI deserves?

I think a significant breakthrough would be to stop considering it as a right and reason instead around the concept obligation.

As beautifully explained by Simone Weil, rights can only exist as the counterpart of an obligation:

‘A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much. […] Rights are always found to be related to certain conditions. Obligations alone remain independent of conditions. They belong to a realm situated above all conditions, because it is situated above this world.’

Simone Weil, “The Need for Roots”

The fact that in most Constitutions human dignity is expressed as the ‘Right to work’ is not only normatively confusing but fundamentally flawed: the obligation to give work is never mentioned and so the right to work, if we follow Weil’s logic, is an empty right, a promise bound to be dishonoured.

Similarly, construing UBI as a right invariably leads to confrontation and polarisation, most notably on the often discussed moral grounds of ‘financing laziness’ using the resources produced by hard-working human beings.

Consider, instead, how discussing UBI in terms of an obligation of society would change the very grounds on which this issue is laid. We should stop debating about the right to universal income and start asking ourselves if it is an obligation, as members of the society, to facilitate a distribution of income that would not prevent this membership to the society to decay.

There is no personal right to Universal Income; there is (or not) a social obligation to Universal Income. Unless the debate shifts to the realm of obligation, the discussion on UBI will remain flawed, polarised, and unproductive.