Why UBI is the way forward

Universal basic income is a fundamentally liberal idea. It’s time the Lib Dems adopted it as our central economic pledge.

The significance of the economy for liberals cannot be understated. It is the underpinning of everything, and the single biggest determinant of one’s life chances and quality of life. It is essential, then, that the basic structure of the economy be set up correctly. The basic fabric should be fundamentally capitalistic: the capitalist economy at its most fundamental respects and responds to the choices of the individual, and thrives when our basic freedoms are most respected. But capitalism can be warped – without a proper flow of information, and without regulation, the power that capitalism rightfully deprives from the state in terms of economic control can be transferred almost entirely to private entities, where their unwarranted domination is no less problematic. True capitalism – liberal capitalism – must regulate free markets to ensure sufficient information is given to consumers to be able to make informed choices, must ensure no entity grows so large that it gains dominative power, and ensure that capital – capitalism’s basic unit – is accessible by the masses. The problem in recent times has been that companies have been owned by an increasingly elite group of people, and free markets have been pursued as an end in themselves, rather than an instrument for the freeing of individuals.

If our system is to be capitalist, then, money takes on a high value. Those with it can do as they please, unstressed and unburdened by the disenfranchising problems of poverty, while those without it feel exploited by a system that doesn’t work for them, disallowing them the free enjoyment of the fruits of our society and the economy. Most importantly, and most relevantly for liberalism, poverty means they lack the capacity as individuals to participate and engage in society and democracy, and from there stem multiple societal problems – disaffection leads to crime, to lower educational outcomes, and to health problems, particularly mental health problems. Individuals and families teeter permanently on the edge of poverty, where having enough to eat or pay rent is in doubt every month, and where every financial decision is a survival decision. This is economic precarity. It is a burning injustice. And in such a situation, it is clear that a person cannot participate fully in society. From a purely civic point of view, they haven’t the time or capacity to participate in political institutions to the same extent as their richer counterparts. But it is more than this: poorer people cannot take advantage of their fundamental civil liberties as much as rich people. Freedom is its own currency to be spent; important by virtue of what you can do with it. True freedom entails being able to live life according to your own notion of the good life, without undue interference or oppression. And so, what good is autonomy from the state if that autonomy cannot be enjoyed and taken advantage of as a result of economic forces; if every day is spent constantly labouring just to survive?

In this way, the poorest in our society cannot be said to possess equal freedom from domination compared to wealthier citizens, because they are dominated by financial pressures, and not economically free to flourish. Fixing that economic precarity that people find themselves in is crucial, then – it is a source of the highest domination in people’s day-to-day lives, and as liberals, we have to eradicate it.

How? As intimated above, our philosophical priority must be getting the poorest to a point where they can meaningfully participate and flourish in society; where they can make independent choices as to how they live their lives as individuals without being oppressed by economic necessity. And if precarity is the great barrier to that, and therefore the target of our action, there is a very simple answer: unconditionally give everyone a reliable source of income to push them over the threshold. This is a universal basic income (UBI), and has been trialled successfully in a few places around the world.

It is superior to the present welfare system for practical reasons: rather than creating a complicated bureaucracy of dozens of elements requiring form-filling, checks, multiple levels of processing, and everything that accompanies it, it is one single payment that everyone gets. For the rich, who don’t need the money, it gets taxed away, but for the very poorest, it completely removes economic precariousness as a source of domination, by knowing that whatever happens, they will have enough money to live off. Without that looming economic anxiety, they can make decisions about themselves in accordance with their own ideas of what the good life is – the pinnacle of liberalism.

Objections to this policy are obvious: giving money to people who don’t work for it could be criticised as subsidising the lazy. But there are compelling reasons why this is not a persuasive objection. Firstly, even in the present social welfare system, there are free-riders, as there will be in any comparable system. It is a constant section of the population, and giving the payment in one tranche and as one payment won’t affect that. If people will take advantage whatever the system, we should simply have the best system for those who genuinely do need it. And secondly, on a more philosophical level – the money proposed as part of a UBI would be enough to cover the basic costs of living. What compelling moral argument can there possibly be for someone not to receive the bare minimum to survive? All members of society, regardless of what they do or don’t do, deserve that much. To argue otherwise is to say that some people deserve destitution or penury. Such an argument is indefensible.

Another objection is that it would encourage people not to work. But it seems to me that this lacks force as well: very few people are satisfied with earning the bare minimum to live anyway. Indeed, empirical evidence shows this to be true. A UBI pilot in Canada in the 1970s found that there was no change in employment rates, but people did stay in education longer, there were fewer hospitalisations, and mental health admissions sharply declined.

A final objection is that while the basic idea is good, giving money to the rich as well is counterintuitive. Such objectors tend to propose alternatives like a negative income tax (NIT) as an alternative, whereby people earning below a threshold amount are paid by the state, in proportion to how far below that threshold they are. It is argued that this pays those who need it, while not giving payments to those who don’t. Bluntly, I am intensely relaxed about the difference between the two policies, and would be delighted if either UBI or NIT were implemented. However, NIT has one serious downside: if someone goes from earning above the threshold amount to below it (eg by losing their job), it would require a reassessment of their income, and a delay in receiving the updated NIT payment. This requires bureaucracy, and undermines the principle that everyone will be able to rely on having a basic income stream. It is merely an approximation of the current welfare system. Consider the current lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic: if UBI were in place, everyone would still be getting paid, and no additional applications would be necessary. If it were NIT in place, those who had been earning over the threshold amount but were now jobless and penniless would have to wait for reassessment – clearly not good enough. It seems to me that UBI is a superior system, then.

In any case, poverty and economic uncertainty are two of the greatest causes of social and public health problems. Welfare systems are overcomplicated and enormously bureaucratic, leading to eye-watering costs, and also to people falling through the cracks and being left in dire need but with no money whatsoever for periods of weeks or months, while checks and assessments are carried out. A universal basic income identifies this source of economic domination, and eradicates it immediately. It is a happy coincidence that it also respects the dignity of the individual, giving them money and trusting them what to do with it. For the philosophically minded, this in particular will satisfy liberal luck egalitarians – people are given money to enable them not to be dominated. But if they choose to squander it (which studies show does not really happen at all), that is the consequence of their choice. It therefore corrects the brute bad luck of being born into a poor family, but not the bad option luck of using the money badly.

Liberals should be deeply alarmed by the great injustice of poverty, and its distorting effect on society. Rather than tinkering around with minor tweaks to tax rates, personal allowances and other things which fail to attack the core of the issue, we should be unafraid to be bold in our ambition to eradicate economic precariousness for every citizen of our country. A universal basic income does precisely that, and, I would argue, is a liberal thing indeed.

This is an edited and revised version of a post I wrote two years ago as part of a broader philosophical interrogation of what liberalism means. Those essays can be found here.

Thinking Locally

Hold more than a cursory conversation with a Liberal Democrat, particularly one who has been involved in the party since before the Coalition, and you’ll almost certainly hear them extol the virtues of “community politics” as the party’s salvation and bedrock. The principle of embedding deeply into our communities and becoming supremely concerned with potholes, bin collections and community petitions has won us thousands of council seats over the years, and is frequently seen as crucial to our capacity to come back from national defeats. If we retain a strong local base through community activism, the logic says, we can hold on until the next election and convert that into national success.

This logic is not necessarily wrong. Clearly, being a party with a wealth of activists, active local volunteers, and a less overbearing federal party has its advantages, and has helped our survival since wipe-out in 2015. But increasingly, I fear it is not sufficient for our success, and is in fact becoming an obstacle to it. The survival tactic has been internalised as a catechism of liberal ideology, harmful because the tactic is itself so bereft of any real liberalism at all. And lately, the logic has been reversed. In our most recently won national seats, it is not because of strong local council bases that we were victorious, but rather, we won strong local council bases after taking back those seats (think Oxford West and Abingdon, where we stormed to victory last year two years after Layla Moran’s initial victory; or Bath, where we sensationally seized control from the Conservatives two years after Wera Hobhouse’s win).

My central argument here is that while survival is good, thriving is even better – and in order to thrive, we need to regain a sense of liberal vision, which, I argue, we have lost over the past few decades. With the flatness of our efforts over the past few years, and with our potentially necromancing issue (Brexit) now settled, we need an ideological revival. Local councils seem the best place to start this for two reasons: first, we actually control several of them outright, and so we can practise what we preach; and second, there are local elections coming up, so we can implement this more quickly.


The problems

At present, there is a litany of problems with our approach to local politics. Some of them are external, and beyond our control – for instance, local authority powers are limited, and in many cases reliant on funding from central government which is particularly unforthcoming at present. And the public often has a particular set of expectations as to what the function of a local authority is, and acting outside that set of expectations may be controversial. But many of our problems are internally created: a lack of imagination about what to do with the powers we have, and a general confusion as to what liberalism means and how we can practically implement it.

Local authority powers (table from Wikipedia)


This latter problem is particularly acute. I may largely disagree with the conclusions that were drawn from it and implemented under the Coalition government, but the Orange Book era was the last time a coherent philosophy was motivating the party. Since 2015, it has seemed at times that we have had nothing to say, no broader vision for what the country would look like under a Liberal Democrat government. Our over-reliance on principles of common sense and ‘evidence’ (which, while comforting, can only ever provide half of the picture: once we collect evidence, our response to it must be governed by our political philosophies, ie our ideology) along with tightly-managed and focus-grouped national campaign messages have replaced values-based campaigning and the policy we derive from those values. Buzzwords drawn from the preamble to the Constitution are not enough – we need to have a discussion as a party about what we mean when we say we are liberal.

For my money, the core of liberalism is that it must be transformative. If it is not transformative, it has lost its essential essence – that radical opposition to conglomerations of arbitrary and unchecked power which transformed the world in centuries past. Liberalism which rests on its laurels or believes that it has ‘won’ or that the status quo is largely acceptable not only fails to recognise how broken our society and our economy are, but is in danger of sliding into privileged conservatism.

In my experience, much confusion lies in an essential misconception about what liberal politics means: it is the difference between personal liberalism and political liberalism. Personal liberalism is an attitudinal thing – it is personal tolerance and acceptance and permissiveness of things that we might ourselves disagree with. Political liberalism, however – the subject matter of politics and the end goal of us as a liberal party – is a matter of statecraft, and is concerned with ensuring that the government observes neutrality – that the rule of law is strong, that no group is preferred or discriminated against by the state, and that freedom is advanced on a societal basis. It is political liberalism that we should concern ourselves with – essentially, the question of what government should do to further freedom and non-discrimination.

Within political liberalism, we can distinguish further. Political liberalism is concerned with both means and ends. That is, political liberalism requires that politics be both procedurally liberal (means) and substantively liberal (ends). To put it in the simplest terms possible, we have to be liberal in style and liberal in substance.


Bringing it back to localism

Over the past day, I’ve asked different groups of people if they can identify a unique policy or principle of local governance which every Lib Dem council, no matter where it is, implements and adopts. Almost universally, the answer I have received is “nothing specific, but we are more open and consultative”. To be absolutely clear, I think being open and transparent is a fantastic thing – it is clearly of central importance to any democracy. But you will be able to see where I’m going with this – consultation and transparency are matters of style and procedure. They don’t tell us what the decisions themselves are which we’re consulting on or being transparent about. We are thus still left without an account of what liberals substantively believe in.

Why is this a problem? Very simply because exclusively procedural accounts of liberalism render us vulnerable to objections that we in fact don’t have any substance, or that we are ambivalent about the actual substantive decisions so long as liberal process has been observed. Liberalism cannot be as hollow as merely carrying out what local residents want, no matter how illiberal. It would render our ideology empty – we wouldn’t be standing for anything ourselves. That cannot be right.

And it isn’t right. Clearly, liberals do not have merely procedural goals. We are liberals because we have shared beliefs about what government should and should not do, and those beliefs are motivated by our political ideologies. For instance, liberals almost universally object to police overreach, to the use of indiscriminate facial recognition technology, to fining the homeless by abusing public space protection orders. These examples illustrate that we can and do have shared beliefs, motivated by liberal ideology, about what local government should substantively do. We just need to be more imaginative and unique, and be louder about these beliefs when we campaign.


Bringing it all together

“Harry, you’re mouthing off about political philosophy again,” I hear you say. So let me put this all into practical terms.

We should retain the good local stuff we’re doing already. Lib Dem councillors will always be best at making sure potholes get filled, bins get collected, and that communities are empowered. We will always ensure that consultations are carried out, that the public are engaged with (even if we disagree with some of them) and that information is circulated.

But let’s also be bold in having a local, liberal agenda to transform the lives of people living in the authorities we control, and make sure society works for them.

We should be the pre-eminent party of affordable housing and liveable towns and cities. This means insisting on affordable and social housing being present at volume in all housing developments. This means putting environmental considerations at the heart of all developments. This means discouraging car use through cycle and pedestrian friendly design, and expanding and cheapening public transport.

We should be the party of eradicating homelessness. This means taking the lead of Oxford and Manchester and constantly, loudly opposing Labour’s fines on the homeless and the use of hostile architecture. This means expanding shelters, and setting up task forces and special services designed to tackle underlying mental health problems and break the cycle of homelessness. We’re already taking a housing-first approach to campaigning on this issue in London with Siobhan Benita: let’s make it a big ticket thing we put emphasis on in all our local campaigning.

We should use 2011 Act powers to set up radical anti-poverty measures. This could include direct payments to those who apply for benefits to ensure they can survive while they wait for their applications to be processed. This could include topping up their benefits. Funding from central government is low and local authorities are cash-strapped, so this is difficult. But where there is a will, there is a way. Poverty is the number one obstacle to economic freedom in this country, and local authorities can take innovative approaches to tackling it.

We should take the initiative and be the party of adult social care. Adult social care in this country is an unmitigated disaster. One of the scariest things for families and care recipients is the prospect of paying for it, often including paying for family homes. We should reduce the minimum contribution by the care recipient to make Lib Dem councils the lowest-charging authorities to be cared for in, and look at alternatives to avoid the outright sale of family properties to fund care under local authorities’ discretionary disregard powers.

We should oppose the use of facial recognition technology. This applies wherever we have councils, and should also form a central part of any police and crime commissioner campaign (which matter and we should take them more seriously).

We should champion the arts. This last one is indulgent of me, but arts programmes often help disadvantaged kids find their niche in the world, and enriched lives are better and freer lives. We should enter into partnerships with the private sector to save cultural amenities threatened with closure like theatres, leisure centres and libraries (which have a huge role to play in providing services for those in poverty), and expand provision of them by building new ones. We can then use our stake in them to ensure cultural activities are cheap and accessible for all.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are more things that can be included. And I’ve not tried to stitch the above into an electoral narrative. But the point is that we should be punchier and more ambitious about our exercise of local power, and make sure that Liberal Democrat councillors and councils stand for something distinctive. It’s not going to happen overnight, or even over the course of one or two electoral cycles, but if over the next decade we can embed in people’s minds that a Liberal Democrat council means a greener, freer, more vibrant local community, with affordable places to live and radical support for those in need, then what is there to lose? Let’s keep the liberalism of style, but be bold and add the liberalism of substance.

Above all, though, let’s reignite a discussion about what liberalism really means when we talk about it. I for one am fed up of the policy soup we have which at election time gets vaguely meshed into a milquetoast document with no punch or overarching vision. There are flashes of brilliance in our manifesto, particularly on criminal justice, the environment, and political reform. Our whole platform can be like that. We need to each ask ourselves why we are liberals, why that matters, and why that makes us different from Labour and the Conservatives (NB not equidistant, but different). We then need to ask ourselves what the roots of our country’s problems are, and how we tear up those roots. We cannot be a bland party broadly fine with the status quo, who tweak a couple of things through extremely specific and technocratic policy. We have to recapture the transformative, revolutionary nature of liberalism, and articulate why it’s not just some weak, highbrow, unambitious thing. Only through conversations such as these will we come up with a consistent and substantive vision, based on our values, that people can really believe in.