An idiot’s guide to Universal Basic Income

An idiot’s guide to Universal Basic Income

Free money for everyone? — From ending poverty to unleashing creativity, there’s more to Universal Basic Income than meets the eye. We give you the lowdown.

Imagine never having to worry about money again. Do you feel a huge weight lifting off your shoulders? How would your life change if you never had to chase the rent again? What’s that strange sensation coming over you? Is it… freedom?

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a radical idea that would give all citizens a guaranteed income, irrespective of whether they work or not.

UBI is designed to eliminate poverty but also liberate people to concentrate on socially constructive activities that under our current system often don’t pay the bills – like caring for others, educating yourself, creating art or volunteering.

If it all sounds like a utopian dream, it has already been trialled across the globe, from Utrecht in the Netherlands to 20 villages in Madhya Pradesh, India – and the early results are promising.

To find out more about UBI, we reached out to Professor Karl Widerquist at Georgetown University, who specialises in distributive justice — the ethics of who has what.

Briefly, what is Universal Basic Income?
UBI is a way of putting a floor under everyone’s income so that no one is destitute, but the more they make privately, the better off they are. It is a lifetime income, in cash, on an individual basis, without means-testing or a work requirement. A full basic income is enough to meet people’s basic needs.

What are the biggest potential benefits that could arise from adopting UBI?
The main benefits are the elimination of poverty and severe uncertainty in our economy. With a basic income, you might not always have all you want, but no matter what, you will never lack for what you need. That frees everyone from day-to-day worries about meeting their basic needs, and allows them to plan their working life so that they can make a greater and more meaningful contribution to others.

A promo image from Swiss basic income campaigners Grundeinkommen

A promo image from Swiss basic income campaigners Grundeinkommen

The idea sounds pretty utopian. How practical is implementing UBI?
It’s extremely practical. All it means is that income doesn’t have to start at zero. Instead of entering the market in utter destitution, as so many people do, we enter at a basic, but secure level.

It is not terribly expensive. Some estimates show that a flat income tax rate of less than 40% could finance everything the United States government is currently doing plus a basic income. And we could get that tax rate a lot lower if we got rid of some of the things the government is doing, such as enormous corporate giveaways.

In addition, basic income would have a lot of positive side effects such as improving health, eliminating the costs associated with homelessness, reducing infant mortality, improving the wages of low-wage workers – all of these things are very expensive.

Could you sketch out the biggest criticisms and perceived flaws to UBI? To what extent do these hold weight?
The biggest criticism of basic income is that the poor need the better off to tell them what to do. We like to believe that the poor are poor because they’re lazy or they don’t know any better. We have to overcome that of course. Capitalism is not and never will be a meritocracy. The belief that the poor are bad people is just something people tell themselves to feel better about allowing such terrible inequality to continue to exist.

Who has tested UBI? How have the trials gone? What have been the big successes? Have any flaws come to light?
Yes, there have been five experiments in the Untied States and Canada and pilot projects in Namibia and India. More are planned in Finland, Canada, the United States, Uganda and other places. Alaska has a policy that is like a small, variable basic income. And many countries have moved in the direction of UBI by reducing the conditions they attach to redistributional programs.

Experience has shown that it reduces infant mortality; reduces incidents of low-birth-weight babies; increases school attendance, performance, and attainment; improves health; and will give individuals the power to refuse bad working conditions and jobs that pay poverty wages. But the experiments have shown that if truly good jobs are available, people will take them. At a national level it will in time increase wages among all workers.


In the West our economies are incredibly built around the idea of promoting competition. How radically could UBI change how our societies function?
Basic Income is compatible with a capitalist economy, with healthy market competition. It’s just capitalism where we don’t use the threat of homelessness to force the poor to take low wage jobs. We have lots of luxuries to use as incentives once people have enough money to meet their basic needs.

Then, when people get involved, they can do it in a much better way. Our current economic system is like a flying trapeze; basic income capitalism is like a flying trapeze with a net. In which one will more people dare to jump?

What sparked your own personal interest in UBI and what convinces you that it’s such a powerful idea?
It’s wrong for one person to come between another and the resources they need to survive.

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