Basic Income and the Idea of a Good Society (Part-I)

This is Part I of the Blog series on Basic Income and the Idea of Good Society. Part II is also published now. Find it here. Thanks for reading! Do subscribe, comment, clap, and share the blog pieces

So what is this idea of good society, is it is a more free and fair society, something which Rawls argues for through his second principle or is it the inherent idea of social justice, which is argued by Amartya Sen in his conception of justice. For someone like Ayn Rand and Milton Freidman, it would be the postulation of ‘Financial Freedom’, which has become the millennial goal in the last decade. There is some credence to this argument as this freedom is directly proportional to a ‘passionate life’. So what does this freedom actually means? Freedom from the paucity of money or Freedom from scarcity of resources. These larger than life issues are tied to the basic granular fragments of ‘Income’ and ‘Security’. But more importantly, it also means that the resources are scarce and the humans’ access to these resources will depreciate as the needs of the budding tech-savvy social culture grows in leaps and bounds.[1]

Within the annals of the last decade, the ubiquitous revolution of financial freedom has gained some traction in the developed nations on either side of the Atlantic, majorly due to the factor, that national economies are trying to push an agenda of ‘larger good’ for the societal relations.[2] This revolution is majorly fueled by the pallbearers of ‘unconditional cash transfers’ or as it is popularly known, the Universal Basic Income.

UBI has garnered massive support from mainstream bureaucrats, politicians and propagandists in the;

“British Labour Party, the US Democratic Party, the French Socialist Party, and the Green Parties in several European countries, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia”.[3]

To expositate on the concept’s viability on practical grounds, UBI has been experimentally tried in countries like Finland, Netherlands and even Ontario. It has been the major bone of contention in the 2016 Referendum in Switzerland. Overall, the concept of UBI has been resonating well with the audience globally including the international organizations such as World Bank, World Economic Forum, IMF, UN etc. who have zeroed on ‘unconditional transfers’ as an effective mechanism to weed out the inequitable distribution in the world, and as a fitting alternative to the extraneous in-kind subsidies.[4]

GOOD SOCIETY AND RAWLSIAN CRITIC

Although a catena of theorists[5] have expounded on this principle of a good and more efficient society theoretically throughout the latter half of the medieval and the enlightenment era, it has remained in obscurity, majorly due to the taboos associated with the implementation of the concept and intricacies surrounding the removal of injustice and inequalities.[6] To make a statement on the historical context of the UBI would be a futile exercise in here, as the glorification of this concept took place through a series of theorists in different eras of the modern world.[7]

Despite the origins of UBI in the works of Thomas Paine, it was the parallels drawn with Rawl’s Idea of Justice (something which has regarded as the founding version of the family of justice) that finally pushed the ideal into the central limelight but also brought significant controversy. For a better understanding, we have to undertake a brief analysis of Rawlsian ideas. In the Rawlsian synthesis, liberal means equal concern (E) and equal respect (L) for all. For Rawls, has always been about removing inequalities and considering notions of efficiency. Other iterations of his principles being the creation of the better for the worst off and maximization of the minimum rather than equality perse. Rawlsian principle in general is nothing but a liberal egalitarian theory.[8] It is nonetheless, also sensitive to efficiency. When a question with respect to this interpretation of Rawls theorization was raised by one of the popular modern Basic Income proponent Phillipe Van Parijs to John Rawl’s, it was Rawl’s contention that;

“That the lucky few who enjoy all day in Malibu surfing around the shores must not be supported in any manner. To prove the worth of his argument, Rawls later on added leisure as a component to social and economic disadvantage within the difference principle. He further argued that income corresponds to full time economic wage. Hence, there is no need to give them anything out of free will, that too unconditionally. In social positions, some people working will have much more better income than others.”[9]

This statement was a harsh critic of the optimists, who believed in the fact that Rawlsian Idea of Justice supported the principle of Universal Basic Income. Infact, it genuflects the theorems of Basic Income altogether.

Now coming back to the central idea of good society? What is it? For libertarians it is nothing more than liberty of the individual deriving its legitimacy from the free market of competitive values. Contrarily, For Marxists like Hegel, Engel and Marx, it would be about limiting the unequal exchange to carve out the discrimination caused to working class through capitalistic attitudes. There is no one single answer to this proposition. It’s a subjective and perspective based study. To quote liberal egalitarians like Philippe Van Parijs (who argues for a Real Freedom for All), a good and fair society is something where individuality remains sacrosanct but genetic disabilities do not govern the competitive values of the masses.[10]

My idea of good society revolves around the intermingling or intersection of these ideas. This is mainly due to the fact that generalities are too toxic and dangerous for an effective growth of the system. Though I have chosen to critic the idea of basic income in my conception of good society, it nonetheless is an effective method to nullify the poison of discriminated labour and gender roles in an inequitable society like that of India. To realize real freedom though, competition of the free market cannot be ignored, but this does not mean that the inequitable distribution due to differences has negligible effect. Infact, a lot of ideas of fair society now revolves around bringing more opportunities of good jobs, more liberal family structures and ensuring security of individual liberties, something for which I vie for.

WHAT IS BASIC INCOME?

Before considering arguments for and against UBI, the conceptual nuances and viability of the concept must be discussed. The general position associated with UBI, that it is excruciatingly important for freer society, will be refuted later.

The idea of an unconditional basic income (UBI) is quite simple: every legal resident in a country receives a monthly stipend sufficient to live above the poverty line. Let’s call this the ‘no frills culturally respectable standard of living’. The grant is unconditional on the performance of any labour or other form of contribution, and it is universal — everyone receives the grant, rich and poor alike. Grants go to individuals, not families. Parents are the custodians of under-age children’s grants, which may be smaller than the grants for adults.”

Basic Income is a simple idea, but it’s radical at the same time. But can we call it a new idea, and also because it is the part of the urban modern debate, can we call it a good idea for an ideal society. The answer would be rather no but we can posit on it later. The primary formulation of a system that grants Basic Income is based on three major ingredients, i.e. ‘unconditionality’, ‘universality’ and ‘cash transfer alternative to in-kind transfer’. Without these three, the true nature of Basic Income can never be realized up to its full potential.

(1) Cash Income (instead of social doles) make the whole process administratively simpler as per a few theorists. But in developed countries everyone has a registration number and so it becomes easy to seek a cash flow with dissemination of technology. Thought what happens in developing and lower income economies in altogether different problem. We can better understand the issue with Cash Income distribution in developing societies with the postman dichotomy. To quote, “If suppose a postman is tasked with the distribution of cash income. In an ideal situation, he has to go with all the coins in his pocket, ring bells at homes and then ask for everyone’s signature in order to distribute equitable income”, the spending on the administration of the whole procedure would largely overtake the intended purpose of the distribution itself, i.e. distributing the income equitably & saving it for the poor.

(2) In terms of Universality there might be a dimension of humiliation for some or rather the fear of being called a loser or a freerider. Now if one gets this basic income and gets a job alternatively, then they have to declare about this access to basic income. This further leads to unwanted investment and a spending spree. We can for now, call this the employment trap. There is also a doubt that the person will remain in the job because of fear of debts. So they will be happier without these benefits.

(3) Unconditional basic income is giving money both to the rich and poor. Rich will pay one way or the other for their own Basic Income. Then it also means giving money instead of in-kind benefits like public healthcare and free public education. These are really problematic notions in terms of market economy’s productivity, freer society’s progressive taxation conundrums, GDP calculations, decreased efficiencies and more inequalities.

Part II will argue firstly for a case in favour of Basic Income and then secondly towards the significant loopholes in its implementation

End-Notes:

[1] Alstadsæter A, Johannesen N, Zucman G. 2019. Tax evasion and inequality. Am. Econ. Rev. 109:2073–103; See Also Atkinson AB. 1995. Public Economics in Action. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

[2] Piketty T, Saez E. 2013. Optimal labor income taxation. In Handbook of Public Economics, Vol. 5, ed. AJ Auerbach, R Chetty, M Feldstein, E Saez, pp. 391–474. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

[3] Van Parijs P, Vanderborght Y. 2017. Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

[4] Banerjee AV, Niehaus P, Suri T. 2019. Universal basic income in the developing world. Annu. Rev. Econ.11:961–85.

[5] Van Parijs, Historical Context of Basic Income, Accessed at https://basicincome.org/basic-income/history/.

[6] Id.

[7] Thomas Paine, Joseph Charlier, Charles Fourier, John Mill, Milton Freidman and Philliphe Van Parijis to quote a few.

[8] Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, Philippe van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017), 400 pp.

[9] Wax, A.L., 2003. Something for Nothing: Liberal Justice and Welfare Work Requirements. Emory LJ, 52, p.1.

[10] Parijs, P.V., 1997. Real freedom for all: What (if anything) can justify capitalism? OUP Catalogue.

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Bard of Burke

Bard of Burke

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Overcoming Marxist Lies. Libertarian Conservative. Comments on law, politics, religion, and art. Prefers tea over coffee and sanity over politics!