The ideal of an unconditional basic income and why it is flawed

17 July, 2017 1,130 views 1 likes

There are only a handful of ideas in economic theory that bring as much passion to the table as the idea of a universal basic income (UBI). It’s an idea that has excited many great minds. It is also an idea that has received new found attention, and Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, is one of the major contemporary voices in favour of the idea.

Historically, proponents with widely varying perspectives have favoured the idea for two main reasons:

In spite of such strong arguments in favour of this idea, there is one question that begs for an answer:

“Why don’t we have a basic income yet?”

Before you read any further, let me stop you right here. If you are a believer of a UBI, the chances are that you will revolt against some of the things you read. I urge you to take a deep breath when you feel a creeping feeling in your stomach that says, “No!”

The principles of a basic income and why they are flawed

The UBI is built on the best values humanity has to offer: equality, compassion and brotherhood. The idea that every human being can have a life without struggle is very compelling.

Unfortunately, the problem is that this is not the mainstream perspective of our species. At the time of writing, the only country that has put the idea of a UBI to a vote was Switzerland, and over 76% voted against it. Ironically, many people who would have benefited from a UBI actually voted against it.

The main reason that people who oppose the idea of a universal basic income give is that they claim we cannot pay for it, as there is just not enough money. This is a seemingly strange argument if you accept that there is an infinite money supply. Money is not something that grows on a tree; it’s just a number in a computer. There is literally an unlimited supply of money.

The psychology of this argument cuts deeper though, in that it is deeply rooted in a mindset of scarcity. Scarcity impacts the way we think and the way we feel. A perspective of financial scarcity decreases our willpower and increases stress levels, causing our limbic brain to take over.

The paradoxical consequence is that our current scarcity-driven economic system hinders the uptake of a universal basic income. People who are forced into scarcity thinking will not believe that there is enough for everybody, just because their brains tell them.

So, the plot thickens. A rarely heard argument against a universal basic income is that it is considered to be unfair, as a UBI is considered to be the pinnacle of fairness. However, this is not exactly true; it feels unfair that someone who is already rich would receive the same amount of money as a person who is struggling. Elon Musk does not need a basic income.

It feels unfair when a person who is ill and in need of additional care gets the same amount of money as a healthy person. The belief that we are all equal is something that is factually incorrect and which people do not want. People don’t want equality; they want fair inequality. Implementing a UBI would distort this.

Why the discussion about a basic income is the wrong type of discussion

In today’s UBI discussion, a powerful argument given by technologists is the claim that there are not going to be enough jobs around for all the working population. As a consequence, we would achieve more by installing a universal basic income.  If we don’t, we could end up with a society of massive poverty.

This idea is quite appealing, but it misses the very important point that people do not work only to achieve financial security. We also go to work to connect with like-minded souls, to grow our talent and to contribute to something bigger, possibly the mission of an organisation.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: ”Won’t a basic income in a largely automated hi-tech society leave many amongst us feeling depressed?” This is because people might feel useless as they cannot contribute, or learn and develop their talent.

What the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are missing is the fact that they indeed have that sense of personal growth and self-development as they are building the technologies of tomorrow.

Therefore, the discussion we need to have is about the role of technology and economy to drive the quality of our lives forward, rather than about the utility of a universal basic income. It is a debate that transcends the financial dimension of a universal basic income.

Does this mean that we need to abort the idea of a universal basic income and all of its virtues? The answer is simply “No.” We can upgrade the idea. In the next article, we explore the idea of a dynamic happiness income, which is an upgraded version of a universal basic income.

Want more?

Curious how we can upgrade our economic system so it supports the quality of your life and of those you care for?

In the book “Happonomy, Roadmap to Utopia”, Bruno Delepierre takes you on a 300 page journey to explore how work, money and technology impacts the quality of your life. Expect insightful analyses, intimate portraits and 35 daring recipes for upgrade. Interested? Take a look!

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Categories: Feel at ease, Financial Security

Socially inspired entrepreneur, organizer of TEDx in Leuven, friend of M.I.T. Happonomy alchemist.


  • anaplexa says:

    Hi Bruno,

    Not totally agreed with your postulate.. I see the UBI as a matter of protection to all those low education citizens who are going to lose their jobs, and therefore any kind of income due to to AI, automation/robotics.

    Also we should ask ourselves, is everybody doing what they like or they are doing what the can to get a salary? So, what people would rather do if their income is already secure? In my case I could tell you that I rather be doing something else than coming to my office from 9am to 5pm.
    It would be nice to do a research on volunteers and why the spent their free time doing something for free after working hours… what would be the impact if we give a UBI to all the volunteers in the world? wouldn’t it be fantastic to have somebody “working” 100% in something that they are pasionate about it?

    cheers !!

    • Bruno Delepierre Bruno Delepierre says:


      I see your point. What you are describing is very much a potential scenario where we could end up. I honestly hope though that this won’t be the case as we might end up very depressed because we’ll feel useless, even though a form of UBI pays for our minimal needs. The financial part is only covering one of the four reasons why we work.

      It is also up to us collectively to decide how technology fits into the equation. If you consider technology and economy a means to an end, an end being increasing our quality of life, we might end up in a better future where people can work on the things they like even though there may be technology that can replace that person.

      That being said, I’m curious where you disagree?

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