Universal Basic Income: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson famously enshrined the motto: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” in the US Declaration of Independence and marked the beginning of a new era: one free from the shackles of the Old World with its monarchies, landed gentry, and colonial taxes. Similar adages exist across Western democracies, e.g. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” in France as well as “life, liberty, security of the person” in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In one way or another, ingrained into the fabric of liberal democracies are these inalienable ideas around freedom to live one’s own life.

What is less known about Thomas Jefferson was his proposal to give 50 acres of public land to any propertyless individual willing to farm it. His contemporary, Thomas Paine, whose works were instrumental to the American Revolution, advocated for creating a “Nation Fund” to pay “every person, rich or poor” over the age of 21 a yearly “groundrent.” In his 1795 work, Agrarian Justice, he observed that human inventions and advancements have led to vast improvements in the cultivation of land in agrarian societies. However, as he points out:

“It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.” — Thomas Paine (Agrarian Justice)

During this tumultuous period where revolutions and the fight for liberty were taking place on both sides of the Atlantic, Paine saw that humans, as inhabitants of the earth, are shareholders of the land in its natural state. However, he defends the right of private cultivation of land and advocates payment for other’s “loss of his or her natural inheritance.” Are these sentiments not echoed around the current conversation of Universal Basic Income and the “fourth industrial revolution” faced by automation and AI?

The call for a UBI has been raised throughout the 20th Century from Martin Luther King, who called it a guaranteed basic income, to conservative economist Milton Friedman, who advocated for a Negative Income Tax (discussed in part two of this series). Recently, the debate around UBI has re-emerged with vigour in the last couple of months due to the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (and Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign). However, the recent conversation surrounding a UBI has been reactionary and lack substance into the fundamental reasons for a UBI.

There is a much more in-depth conversation to be had around UBI than its potential as a technocratic solution to automation or a quick utilitarian fix for poverty. Although I will detail the practical effects of UBI and its implementation in future articles, the core of this series is to discuss whether there is a social and moral imperative for UBI. In this article, I will argue that UBI is essential to ensure the liberty of citizens to pursue happiness. To begin, I will emphasize the importance of freedom and its relationship to the State.

Liberty, the State, and society

During the 19th Century, John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, breaks down liberties, freedom from arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic control(OED), into three basic categories to be upheld: liberties of conscience and expression; liberties of tastes, pursuits, and life-plans; and liberties of association.

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.
John Stuart Mill (On Liberty)

The relationship between the individual(freedom) and the State(authority), the underpinning of our society, has often been overlooked in mainstream liberal discourse (relegated to conservative talk shows and the fringe elements of society). In recent years we’ve become more willing to give up individual freedoms to the State for a perceived increase in security and socio-economic stability (especially post 9–11). In the 17th and 18th Centuries, early political philosophers such as Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke tackled the question poised by this fundamental relationship through the social contract model. Although our societies have evolved since then, the underlying thought experiment is still relevant.

The social contract intends mainly to justify, or not, the authority and limitations of the State. These arguments are primarily built on the state of nature — the natural state of humans before civil society. For example, Locke, in Second Treatise of Government, considers human’s state of nature to be one of “perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man”(Locke). From a Lockean perspective, the law of nature is the basis of all morality: “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” He posits men explicitly consent to create/join “one body politic under one government” to protect better and preserve the natural rights of humans. The legitimacy of the government derives from its ability to protect the rights of individuals and pursue the public good of society.

More recently, Nozick in Anarchy, State. And Utopia, 1974, channelling Locke, concludes the need for only a minimal state:

Our main conclusions about the state are that a minimal state, limited, to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified, but any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right.
— Nozick (Anarchy, State, And Utopia)

The thinkers mentioned above and many others have differing opinions, and it is up to the reader to make up one’s mind. However, we can simultaneously recognize the importance of the State as well as the limits set on its authority. I believe the majority of readers would agree that it is imperative to protect the freedom of the individual and uphold civil liberties in so far as it does not harm others.

Liberty and the redistribution of wealth?

In a perfect and idealized state of society, liberty would be inviolable and would lead to a fair distribution of wealth. Unfortunately, humans have never been born equal under the spectre of history, and civilization has always been marked with violence and theft from despotic kings and dictators to slavery and colonialism. Their effects linger on and have fundamentally infringed on the liberty of fellow humankind. It is here that we must attempt to rectify it if we wish to take the first leap to a truly liberal society. It is also here that we encounter a double-edged sword. How do we justify this “rectification,” which would require a redistribution of future wealth, considering the rights of an individual’s property?

Firstly, we must shift our mindset from that of scarcity to one of abundance. We live in a society where we have enough to feed, clothe and shelter everyone.

Secondly, this abundance arose from the usage of land and resources, natural and, more increasingly, artificial (data).

Lastly, we must recognize this state of abundance with its increased standard of living, medical advancements, and technological achievements that came out of capitalism and “free markets.” That private property is not inherently evil.

The redistribution of wealth is often associated with a socialist welfare state; however, although a welfare state has played an essential role in alleviating poverty, it involves a vast state apparatus and is often based on means-testing and plagued with inefficiencies. A provision of a UBI, whereby all citizens are entitled to a no strings attached cash payment to ensure basic necessities, comes from collectively sharing a part of the private profiteering of resources (akin to Thomas Paine’s idea as mentioned earlier of “natural inheritance”). Since all modern economies build upon the use of resources such as natural gas or data mined by tech companies, we allow the continued use of said resources in return for a citizen’s dividend — the common good.

In the concept of the common good, we find the crux of the justification for redistribution. Redistribution through taxation, in theory, can be seen as a violation of liberty as forced theft of private property. However, in practice, taxation is often accepted to pursue the common good and provide public goods or services that cannot be fulfilled efficiently by the market. Traditionally, these are known as public goods, including national defense, law enforcement as well as water and air quality.

The rectification of injustices that violated the liberty of others supersedes current claims of taxation as forced theft. Since there cannot be an exact solution for many of the innumerable injustices across time and space, it would be near-impossible to determine each individual made better or worse off (let alone the amount required)*. It is only fair that we provide a solution to treat everyone as equal and make the redistribution as universal as possible. Universal in the sense that although everyone would receive it and the majority would benefit, in purely nominal terms, a minority would pay more through their share of taxes (however, this is no different in the way taxes are levied for public goods). Nevertheless, the overall positive socio-economic effects can not be discounted in the long run. It is here that we must make the trade-off between taxation and the freedom gained from a UBI for the common good — no violent revolutions or “eating the rich” necessary.

“The good life” and the pursuit of happiness

So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.
Kant (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785)

Although not a panacea for all society’s problems, UBI provides all citizens with the freedom of choice, the opportunity to pursue their lives as they see fit unimpeded by the State or others. People at birth are not endowed with equal capabilities and agency to actuate on their natural freedoms. UBI returns agency to all individuals.** Agency in a capitalistic society requires the option to refuse meaningless work without fear of poverty or the humiliation of reliance on a welfare state. Of course, UBI in itself not enough for most people, but it provides the first step to restructuring their life to make a better living, hopefully.

Throughout the history of humankind, philosophers have pondered what it means to live a good life. For most people, the good life seems to involve some sort of pursuit of happiness. However, Socrates once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” While Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, explained that “the good life is that which succeeds in existing for the moment, without reference to past or future, condemnation or selection…” Then you have those who seek pleasure and desire to live hedonistic lifestyles. The reality is there is no size fits all answer to the good life due to the unique experiences and backgrounds that each individual has.

UBI treats everyone as an end, not as a means to an end. It does not purport to know what is best for each individual. It merely provides the basis for freedom to pursue whatever one desires. If one chooses to squander their UBI, that is their right to exercise their freedom. It is demeaning to assume that the State knows what is best for the people. However, the human condition necessitates that one must take responsibility for one’s actions. Of course, if someone violates another’s liberty, then the State must step in, as mentioned earlier.

When I titled this section, I did so with a narrative license. Perhaps the “good life” is more than the pursuit of happiness. Maybe it is the pursuit of meaning or self-creation. Is there nothing more damaging to the human spirit than the shackles that bind us to toll away without purpose? Nonetheless, UBI liberates us to flourish and prosper — to figure out what a good life is.

*Although strong cases have been put forth, e.g. reparations for the descendants of slaves in the United States

**Also, it is important to recognize specific people in society may need more to address different disabilities or mental health issues, etc., and therefore additional resources, whether financial or not, may be required from the State.

Okay, but what does this mean in socio-economic terms? What are the pragmatic reasons for UBI considering the present? Won’t UBI make people lazy? In the next article in this series, I will discuss ailments of the 21st Century and how UBI provides socio-economic benefits as well as addressing concerns about its implementation.

Economics. Politics. Culture. Society. “Pennies for my thoughts?” @natesnotwoke

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store