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Universal Basic Income, Civil Libertarian Style? (Some Philosophical Musings To Inform Level-Headed Debate)

With the pandemic, financial collapse, and a desire for national stability, a concept like the universal basic income (UBI) is a valuable tool for people of all political ideologies to consider as we explore options for developing and maintaining national stability.

Despite the 2020 news cycle swinging back and forth with the emotional consideration of a carnival ride, there is still reason to talk about political philosophy and economic policy. Take the universal basic income. The city of Stockton, Calif., began experimenting with a civic UBI last year, and the program has been extended into 2021 in response to the financial chaos caused by the coronavirus. Andrew Yang, a Democratic party presidential nominee who ended up at seven of the eight debates, practically ran his campaign on the platform of UBI.

Clearly a UBI—a government issued guaranteed income—is still an issue worth talking about, and it’s good to talk about it now. A UBI would appear to be against the philosophy of civil libertarians or anyone with an individualistic ideology, but it’s a subject that’s becoming harder to wave off for all political persuasions. Rising costs, more people living on credit, and fears of automation have guaranteed some have increasingly seen UBI as a solution, if not a necessity.

With the pandemic, financial collapse, and a desire for national stability, a concept like the UBI is a valuable tool for people of all political ideologies to consider as we explore options for developing and maintaining national stability. Besides, with the new presidential term on the horizon, it’s better to get intellectual issues out of the way now so the talking heads can get back to just hurling insults.

Civil libertarians and individualist philosophers of all sorts have reason to be suspicious of a guaranteed income, since proposals for a UBI suggest increased bureaucracy and government overreach. But there are always other options. For example, a UBI could theoretically replace, not augment, existing government welfare programs. Current bureaucratic structures would shift from managing food stamps to managing UBI. Also, by converting existing bureaucracy to manage UBI instead of programs like that tie income to particular commodities or services, like food stamp or apartment voucher programs, the use of that income would be left up to the individual. Income could go toward food or housing, paying down credit or investing in new business ventures.

Perhaps the greatest philosophical argument against a UBI is that it would devalue work. It’s a compelling intellectual argument—that a UBI would unleash income from work, undermining responsibility and work ethic, and resulting in a society where everyone expects something for nothing. It’s also an argument that has existed for the most part in the abstract. However, armchair philosophers and speculative thinkers don’t have to rely exclusively on thought experiments to inform it now.

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A year before Stockton began its UBI experiment, a two-year trial of a guaranteed income in Finland concluded it had no particular impact on employment—those who were working continued to work; those who were looking for work continued to look; and those who were not working continued to do whatever it is Finns do with their free time. A guaranteed income didn’t convince people to work or to stop working. In the end, people were still people.

However, there are ways to ensure work is not devalued, and they could be done while encouraging both community engagement and individual freedoms. Volunteering at a nonprofit, enough hours to offset the ideological worth of the income but not enough to stop anyone from looking for work, could be made mandatory for anyone enrolled in a UBI program.

This could also be achieved without extra government overreach while giving UBI recipients the freedom to choose where they volunteer. Recipients could always volunteer for a government agency, or they could volunteer for any nonprofit that is a 501(c)(3) organization. Since all 501(c)(3) organizations are already recognized by the IRS, there wouldn’t be a need to create any additional bureaucracy to vet them. Additionally, participants could volunteer anywhere that fits their own views, values, or goals.

Also, nonprofits could come with a built-in system of accountability. A process similar to verifying participation in court ordered 12-step meetings could be used by the nonprofits themselves to keep tabs on UBI volunteers. That might actually expand the nonprofit sector, as organizations would add people to oversee UBI volunteers.

Since the choice of the nonprofit would be up to the individuals, communities would see more service in a variety of places. Whether individuals chose to pick up trash in a city park, volunteer at a local church’s soup kitchen, coach after school, or help out at a library, communities would see more involvement and individuals would keep control over how they get their income.

None of this is a rallying cry for a UBI (it doesn’t even get into the big issue—funding). It’s just some philosophical musing. Think of it as considering a contemporary issue from another point of view, hopefully to inform future level-headed debate. Of course, level-headed debate these days might be as hard to guarantee as the guaranteed income itself.


Colin Newton is a writer from Los Angeles. His work has been published in The Ignatian Literary Magazine, Westwind, Maudlin House and Red Planet Magazine. In 2018 he was an artist-in-residence at Oregon State University’s Shotpouch Cabin. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and religious studies from California State University, Northridge. He blogs about monsters, media and metaphysics at IdolsAndRealities.wordpress.com.

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