The transformative potential of a universal basic income



I first started reading about universal basic income (UBI) more than ten years ago, and my interest was based in concerns of equality, fairness and wealth redistribution. UBI wasn’t well-known at the time, but there was a literature about it, and a group of keen advocates out in the world making the case.

A robot, an engineer and a community artist working on a bridge (Illustration by Chris Johnston)

Around 2013, UBI went from the margins into the mainstream of debate, and the key impetus was increasing concern about the displacement of human workers by various forms of automation, a concern largely prompted by a report from the Oxford Martin School.

Unfortunately, the debate about the future of work, and therefore UBI, was hijacked by a reductive media narrative around ‘the robot question’ — will a robot take my job? — and this has made it hard to recognise the complex nature of the changes underway. So let’s try to clarify.

Left to itself, automation will destroy jobs, entire industries in fact, but it will also generate new forms of work, as has happened in the past. The concern was that this new work would be poorly paid, insecure and deeply unsatisfying, and that it would concentrate wealth in the hands of a few as the labour share of national income (wages) dropped or stagnated.

Experts like John Falzon have noted this is more or less what has happened, and the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated matters further.

The issue is not automation and technology per se, but how we respond to it. Instead of just letting business maximise their bottom line, we, as a democratic nation, should use all the tools at our disposal to manage the deployment of technology and the social changes that arise. UBI can be one of those tools.


'So the key point for me is that UBI isn’t simply reactive, a response to technological unemployment. It is transformative, opening up possibilities.'


The detailed arguments about work and automation are beyond the scope of this article, but the crux of it is that the nature of work itself is fundamentally changing and we need to recognise that. Automation, artificial intelligence, and various platform technologies are radically transforming what work is, and this means we have to think differently about how it is defined and compensated.

I think it is fair to say earlier advocates of UBI presented an overly simplistic version of the scheme that took little account of the politics of implementation. This left them vulnerable to cooptation by right wing proponents of what was called UBI, but was actually more like a negative income taxUBI critics on the left were wise to be wary of this form of basic income, to see it as a Trojan Horse for the destruction of service provision more generally, as the way of paying for UBI. 

But there is no reason UBI can’t be designed and instigated as an adjunct to traditional welfare, not as a replacement for it.

Rather than being a rightwing Trojan horse, then, UBI can be a way of decentring market understandings of work and replacing them with a broader and more accurate idea of what it means to be a worker in contemporary society. It allows us to refocus our attention on people themselves, rather than on jobs per se.

In a paper now published by the Crawford School at the ANU, my co-authors and I provide a way of rethinking of what it means to work in society, and we set out what we call a Liveable Income Guarantee.

'We propose…(work) contributions are reframed according to ability. Productive contributions would therefore include child-raising, study, volunteering, artistic and creative activity, community and ecological care. Disability payments should continue at age pension rates, recognising people’s contribution to society, while the age pension would continue as a recognition of past contributions.

We define a Liveable Income Guarantee as an income:

i) sufficient to sustain a decent standard of living over time

ii) available without punitive conditionality

iii) paid to everyone without an adequate market income who is willing and able to contribute to Australian society.'

Services are not enough. There has to be a cash element to welfare so that individuals can make their own decisions about how they balance paid work and the other aspects of their lives, the contributions they make outside the parameters of the traditional labour market.

There are risks with rethinking work in this way, and Per Capita Senior Fellow, John Falzon, told Eureka Street, ‘I do think we need to reconfigure social security to address the precarity of paid work, but not as a means of accepting this precarity.’

He remains sceptical of UBI saying, ‘I am concerned that the UBI model could mean a further atomisation of the working class and a weakening of its bargaining power, not only industrially but socially.’

These are valid concerns, but I don’t think they are fatal to the idea of UBI.

Our recent experience with lockdown and various JobKeeper type payments has shown unequivocally how valuable it is to provide people with an ongoing cash payment. In fact, research at the Crawford School showed JobKeeper/Seeker virtually eliminated poverty in Australia for key groups. Why would we only do that during a pandemic and not make it an ongoing feature of our society?

Most of us want to participate meaningfully in society and be able to support ourselves in the process, but at least some of that participation can and must happen outside conventional notions of the job market. Unless we can pursue non-market forms of participation absent the fear of poverty, we are not truly free.

So the key point for me is that UBI isn’t simply reactive, a response to technological unemployment. It is transformative, opening up possibilities. Being able to access it unconditionally at any time in your working life frees people to make other decisions about the way they participate in society.

UBI doesn’t presume we are put on the earth merely to have a job, that our existence is dependent on someone paying us a wage. It doesn’t discourage anyone who wants that sort of work from doing it (as trial after trial shows), but it does allow for the fact that having a job is not a defining human characteristic. Work may be, but having a market-based job, especially a poorly paid, insecure one under someone else’s control, isn’t, and our welfare system needs to recognise that fact.

UBI allows us to differentiate between work and participation, helping free us from the tyranny of market expectations.



Tim DunlopTim Dunlop is an author who has written extensively on Universal Basic Income and the future of work. His books, Workless (2016) and The Future of Everything (2019) deal with both topics, and he has been a keynote speaker at national and international events on these subjects, including the 2019 Decent Work Forum in Seoul.

Main image credit: Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Tim Dunlop, UBI, universal basic income, John Falzon, employment, automation



submit a comment

Existing comments

I looked pretty hard for the headlined "transformative potential" of a UBI but was disappointed that it just seemed to be an article about robots taking jobs and wealth redistribution; passe Marxism. Tax robots based on the horsepower/productivity and the UBI is easy to fund; imagine that, robots financing consumers so they can buy more products... technological Nirvana. Where this futuristic shock article lacks grit is a pandering to displaced "workers" (needs hammer and sickle flag) and some base assumption they actually have skills that equate with robotics, machines or equivalent technologies, its easy to appeal to readers who lost their jobs to innovative productivity - there's a lot of them. To realize the potential of a UBI it is necessary to think outside just the worker and encompass all persons, children included, receiving this UBI and the caring parent being paid by the child(ren) for services more of this eternal "unpaid work" argument in the wage case; user pays even stay at home more free-loading infants! Of course, when both parents have lost their jobs to those evil robots the kids have to pay both parents equally for care services, just because...
ray | 04 May 2021

The entire point about a Universal Living Wage is that it should be available to everyone, at any time, working or not working, so that no-one’s income ever drops, at any point in their life, below that require to sustain a modestly comfortable life.. and we need to separate “work”, which everyone does anyway (eg domestic work) and “jobs”which are something else altogether. No-one need ever have a job in a decently organised society, except by choice.
Doug Pollard | 05 May 2021

There is no economy in Heaven because there is no scarcity. Any desired good can be had for free. Or, conceptually, every individual in heaven has an infinite ‘universal basic’ income and able to ‘pay’ for any good that is desired. In reality, everything in Heaven is free but the concept of an infinite universal income that can pay for anything is relevant to Earth where: 1. there are economies, local, national and international, because there is scarcity; 2. scarcity means that goods are not free unless they are rationed by State compulsion (which, in practice, means that the desire to pay nothing is met but the desire to get the quantity or quality of your choice is not); and 3. a UBI is unlikely to stretch to the extent of the traditional full-time income which pays for the moats of freedom, principally the big-ticket scarcity item of your own castle, and a bank account which enables you to pay for the choices you feel you need to make for reasons which are idiosyncratic to you and which your neighbours may not understand, should you even feel it proper that they should be privy to your thinking.
roy chen yee | 05 May 2021

In Genesis, God says that a result of the Fall is that man will eat by the sweat of his brow. A UBI which relies on the individual’s voluntary assumption of brow sweat as a quid pro quo is an evasion of the divine ordinance. A UBI which mandates an individual’s compulsory assumption of brow sweat is the Leviathan’s oppression of the individual. The Market per se is not a Leviathan but an agglomeration of the free associations made through social contracts between individuals but, being man-made and, by definition, fallible, can be infiltrated and hijacked by leviathans other than the State. The answer would seem to point towards racking your creative minds to expand the Market in which food and sweat are related and regulated by free association.
roy chen yee | 05 May 2021

A very useful article that places a UBI in a historical context. Society's wealth created in the past by human labour is now being replaced by a technology that is transforming society. The war being waged against a pandemic is the catalyst. The binary culture of capitalism is replaced to deal with it. Key aspects are in the economy with job/keeper setting an example of reducing poverty . And how wealth will be produced in the future society by a UBI.
Reg Wilding | 05 May 2021

My concern is that a UBI will undermine jobs. Rather, I would be happier if if the UBI were linked to jobs, such as, for example, caring for the elderly. Or, valuing childcare within families, rather than merely subsidising external childcare so the caring parent can work. If there is work to be done, a job can be created and funded by the Government, and someone, who would otherwise be unemployed, found to do it.
Peter Horan | 05 May 2021

We would need to rethink schooling then. Schools teach children to work! Yes they teach other things but the attitude, really, comes down to 'learn in order to get a job'. I see having a UBI as an opportunity for people to open their minds and venture into creativity and exploring, whether that be the outside world or themselves which, in my view, would start the healing process of the world and humanity. Changing the school system and approach could feed into the UBI strategy by giving youth hope instead of facing drudgery along with the strength to follow their own ideas instead of bending to parental underlying fears of ability to put a roof over their heads! Our world could be a wonderful place to live if we took away the "bottom line" :)
Angie | 08 May 2021

The scriptures that suggest that work is a necessary prerequisite to eating also prohibit the muzzling of the working ox. The price demanded for goods and services might reflect relative scarcity (sometimes genuine, but just as often manufactured) but the price offered for labour usually reflects superfluity (again sometimes genuine, but most often created). Twentieth-century technology, focused as it was on manufacturing, enhanced worker productivity but it also facilitated the combination of workers and enhanced their joint bargaining power. Twenty-first-century technology, focused as it is on services may be enhancing capital productivity but it does so at the expense of atomising the workforce, hence the ever-spreading gig economy.
Ginger Meggs | 10 May 2021


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up