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Universal Basic Income: The cornerstone of a just society?

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By Daniel J Broadley

Manchester Met’s Research Centre for Social Change: Community Wellbeing, in collaboration with Steady State Manchester, recently hosted Karl Widerquist, an internationally renowned scholar, activist and Associate Professor at Georgetown University. Since 2008, Karl has co-chaired the Basic Income Earth Network and has written extensively on Universal Basic Income (UBI).

“It is wrong to come between someone and the resources they need to survive,” Karl began. He went on to stress how we ensure criminals are clothed, fed and sheltered, yet people who fail to fit in with the economic system are left to starve and even wind up homeless. So, why can’t people build their own shelter? Grow their own food? Because someone else owns the resources needed to do this and has the property rights to them.

“To work to earn to buy is how we’ve chosen to organise ourselves, so it feels natural to us,” Karl said. “People should not be forced into jobs by deprivation. Jobs and work should be voluntary. To put it bluntly, we’re bad at sharing and the wealth of our society all boils down to natural resources.”

And, it seems, the people who own and control the natural resources are very few (and very rich).

Karl explained that incentives are central to a Universal Basic Income. If a UBI pays everyone just enough so that they can survive, so they can get the absolute essentials, such as food, clothes and shelter, people would not need to force themselves to work in jobs they hate. They’d have the incentive to take the time to find a more preferable job without fear of falling behind.

“If someone doesn’t take a job because of pay or working conditions, they’re often labelled lazy workers,” Karl continued, “but if I look in a shop window and don’t see anything I like, I move on and look for something better.”

As it stands, businesses don’t have any incentive to pay low-skilled workers that work long hours. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s common sense. UBI, however, would incentivise businesses to pay better wages because nobody would need to work, they’d have to want to work. All a Universal Basic Income would do, Karl argues, is ensure people don’t have to work to survive, people would work when they want to. For example, if an elderly family member falls ill and needs looking after, a basic income would make sure their carer gets by whilst out of work.

“Capitalism,” Karl explains, “is not working for money, it is getting paid for how much you own.”

Karl used Harvard University as an example, pointing out that they have so much money they can just keep on investing and investing, paying the world’s best investors to do it all for them and, as a result, make them more and more money.

“All a Universal Basic Income is,” Karl finished with, “is voluntary participation capitalism. It is not something for nothing. You are being paid for using fewer resources than the capital owners. Capitalism with compensation. That’s all it is.”

In the Question and Answer session with members of the audience, the state of Alaska was picked up on. Alaska has a ‘Permanent Fund’ which was set up after the oil from Alaska’s North Slope began flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. In 2016, the dividend paid each citizen of Alaska $1022. Alaska, Karl said, is the “most equal” state in the U.S. and has the least amount of poverty.

Perhaps, then, a UBI could be the solution to poverty and job-related stress. On the other hand, other than this ‘mini’ UBI in Alaska, trials and experiments have only been carried out on a small scale, so it is hard to say whether or not it would work on a national, or even international, scale.

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Daniel Broadley

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