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

July 17, 2017
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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:

    •       For those looking for efficiency, a UBI offers a solution to eradicate ‘government waste’.
    •       On the other side of the spectrum, you will find those who focus on brotherhood and human potential. To these people, a UBI offers a way of eliminating suffering, and enables people to be creative and truly productive.

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!


Categories:   Financial Security
Bruno Delepierre

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

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