The social justice argument for a Universal Basic Income

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Recently, there has been much discussion regarding the desirability of a Universal Basic Income. Arguments used to justify it range from providing security, to alleviating poverty, to increasing freedom, to nurturing a sense of social cohesion. However, one of the most persuasive arguments is that based on justice: on each getting what is their due.

Historically, liberals have tended to be most familiar with, and sympathetic to, John Locke’s justification of property ownership. For Locke, the world initially belonged to everyone, but by individuals mixing their labour with land they came to own it (the possibility that such individuals should simply lose their labour seems not to have occurred to Locke). As long as those who do not possess land, including their descendants, are better off than they would have otherwise been (those who, for example, own no land and work the land of others have, Lockeans would suggest, avoided the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and are thus better off) then the distribution of property, including to later generations via inheritance or sale, is justified.

However, another liberal tradition, one we might call a ‘left-libertarian’ one, and including Henry George, a proponent of a Land Valuation Tax, takes a different view. The world was, and remains, commonly owned; we are all joint heirs to the world. For the left-libertarian, those who claimed ownership of land deprived the community of its assets and, as a result, those who benefit from land ownership today, whether by inheritance or sale, may be likened to the recipients of stolen goods; the passage of time does not turn a wrong into a right. As the Victorian thinker Herbert Spencer wrote in 1851, “The original deeds were written with the sword, rather than with the pen: not lawyers, but soldiers, were the conveyancers: blows were the current coin given in payment; and for seals, blood was used in preference to wax” (Spencer would later adopt a much more conservative attitude towards land ownership; some time ago I purchased a letter by Spencer in which he made clear his refusal to permit the republication of the above and other similarly offending passages). Essentially, for such left-libertarians, much wealth today rests on illegitimate grounds.

However, rather than, for example, seeking to distribute natural resources to every single individual to correct this wrong, and with it inflict a myriad of practical problems, it is via a Universal Basic Income that this historical wrong can be made right. Since the 1970s, for example, in Alaska each citizen receives a dividend from the Alaska Permanent Fund, funded from the state’s oil revenues.

In the eighteenth-century Thomas Paine similarly thought the earth was the common property of all and wrote in his Agrarian Justice that, “it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself, that is in individual property. Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds”. Paine proposed using this ‘ground rent’ to fund his version of a UBI (admittedly, more of a capital grant, than an income).

In this way a UBI may be seen as a policy designed to deliver intergenerational justice. It recognises that much of our achievements, and failings, are the result of brute luck and seeks, insofar as it is possible, to mitigate against this by providing each with their, unjustly deprived, natural inheritance. It is a policy that liberals should be proud to take up.

* Daniel Duggan is a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Gateshead

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  • Peter Martin 21st May '20 - 1:46pm

    Not another article about a UBI!

    It’s often tied in with an argument about a LVT to “fund it”. The quarrel about the ownership of land, as opposed to the means of production generally, arises from a 19th century dislike by the emerging capitalist classes, and usually Liberal, of paying rent to the traditional owners of the land, the aristocracy, and usually Tory. But that’s all ancient history now!

    Modern capitalism requires high land and property values to act as collateral for our loans. The economy would sink without them and if there were a fall in prices leading to large scale debt default.

    So how about looking up Pavlina Tcherneva on why a UBI won’t work?

    Most Lib Dems think that funding the UBI is the tricky part. Not really. That’s easy. The govt can send out as many cheques as it likes. The hard part is making sure that the ££ created will provide a decent living for everyone in receipt of them.

    Those goods and services can only be provided by the efforts of workers. I’ll believe the robots-are-taking-all-our-jobs line when I see them doing the weeding in my own neglected local park!

  • A very well written article, Daniel and directly to the point that Land Value Tax and basic income are about social justice. This is something Liberal thinkers down the ages have recognised from Locke to Paine, JS Mill to Henry George, and from the New Liberals of the 20th century that introduced social welfare to William Beveridge who gave us the blueprint for the post-war welfare state.
    Economic security rests on three key planks – a social security net to catch all (the basic income or minimum income guarantee; full employment for those who can work; and equitable distribution of value created from natural resources (Land value capture).
    Put those three fundamentals together and you have a blueprint for a sustainable and prosperous economy in the 21st century that is driven not by exponential debt creation and ever greater over-consumption but by the things that really matter in life.

  • I’m intrigued to know where the justice is in taking money off someone who has worked 60 hour weeks for a couple of decades to give it to a Benefits Benny type who lounged around in school then managed to live off welfare for a couple of decades?

  • Peter Martin 21st May '20 - 4:21pm

    @ Frank West,

    I wouldn’t quite put it in these terms but I agree that most voters, of all parties, will see it the same way as yourself. It won’t be popular.

    This isn’t to say that all benefit claimants are “Benefit Bennys” or have lounged around in school. But unemployment over previous decades has led, possibly via substance and alcohol abuse, to unemployability for many. The only way to break the link is via the Job Guarantee.

    @ Stephen Howse,

    You can convince yourself that a UBI isn’t “illiberal” if you like. I’m not sure what good that will do if it ends up losing you votes.

    It should say that we need to differentiate which is what the public find acceptable now, as an emergency measure, and what will be acceptable afterwards. Mind you. I’ve always said that the UBI is a neoliberal con! They are never ones to let a good crisis go to waste so they’ll be doing their best to squeeze it through while they can.

  • The common sense objective is to have a robust benefits system that targets those who most need it and avoids lavishing benefits on those who do not.

    I rather doubt that liberalism should come in to it.

  • It may not be wise to base long term policy decisions on hopefully very short term exceptional circumstances.

  • Peter Martin ~ “I’ll believe the robots-are-taking-all-our-jobs line when I see them doing the weeding in my own neglected local park!“

    I’m the last person who should take issue with light flippancy but I do feel this is pretty complacent.

    I work in a profession where ‘bots’ are a clear threat to me and those in similar roles. Not immediately but in five years? Suffice to say I’m more than a little apprehensive.

    My wife is leading an automation project that could have similar repercussions where she works. She herself is sceptical but her bosses may not need it to actually work but be perceived to do so, and then everyone is vulnerable.

    Automation isn’t going to make everyone jobless but it’s likely to put a lot of pipelines out of work, at least until it’s proven not to be cost-effective.

    Separately, how lovely to read an article where someone speaks positively of the libertarian left. Maybe I’m in the right party after all!

  • Peter Martin 22nd May '20 - 1:06pm

    @ Stewart,

    Automation is palpably good thing. I would presume that you use an automatic washing machine and perhaps a dishwasher like nearly everyone else. We don’t use dolly tubs and mangles any longer. We use the time saved to do something else and/or have more free time.

    This is how it should work in the wider economy too. Those who are displaced by automation and technology can do something else. If we have too little work for 37 hour weeks and 48 week years we move towards 30 hour weeks and 44 week years.

    This way the benefits are shared out and everyone is still making a contribution to society generally. This is essential for maintaining everyone’s self respect. Most people do want to make a contribution. Hardly anyone wants to be a passenger in the sense that they are taking a free ride.

  • Peter Hirst 22nd May '20 - 1:41pm

    Knowing you will receive an amount of money regardless has many effects on your security and spending habits. Some will use it to build up reserves, others for vital spending and others treat themselves. It will be taxable so not everyone benefits equally. Presumably you will need a bank account to get it. When levels of unemployment reach a critical level, it starts to make sense.

  • @ John Littler

    The public may very well support free money for all as an abstract concept. They will soon change their mind when they discover their income tax would be tripling in order to fund people able to work but choosing not to.

  • John Littler 24th May '20 - 9:08pm

    John Smith, yes UBI would be expensive, but so is renewing the Cold War Trident pointlessly paying USA £100bn, or playing a residual colonial role in the world that makes us less safe from terrorism

    UBI will replace a lot of other benefits that would be being paid to millions. It reduces costs by simplicity and allows unemployed to find some work, start small business, or get paid expenses for Charity work etc. When the jobs go with manual work and intellectual/learning work at the same time. They will have to do it or they would be disorder.

    UBI could be tapered off at the top end to cut cost to those for who don’t need it, but there would be political opposition created.

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