Should a basic income be unconditional?

An unconditional basic income would see every citizen receive a monthly ‘salary’, irrespective of all other factors. Benefit schemes, thereafter redundant, would hence be abolished. Although suggestions regarding the income level vary greatly (a pilot study [1] in Finland has begun with €560 a month, while a referendum last year [2] in Switzerland attempted to introduce a basic income of around €2250 a month), this idea has superseded the traditional division of ‘left’ and ‘right’ policies; indeed, it has triggered enthusiasm from representatives across the political spectrum.

First and foremost, proponents of an unconditional basic income emphasise the underlying change it seeks to achieve: allowing the fulfilment of return responsibilities for society not as an absolute requirement, but rather as a choice; an opportunity which will likely be seized by most individuals, from an outgoing state of personal freedom. This highlights the idea’s intrinsically optimistic nature. Further, by dissociating work from rudimentary financial stability, a basic income is considered a solution to a growing number of social problems: ageing populations; increasing levels of unemployment; the growing threat of extinction for certain professions due to the technological advance, to name just three. For these and many more, it is argued that a basic income would constitute a dignifying, sustainable solution.

At this point it would be easy to eschew further discussion and rally for the implementation of such an unconditional basic income. But let me highlight a problem, the importance of which is frequently disregarded. To be sure, a basic income would be superior to current benefit schemes in ensuring social welfare. However, the nature of this potential basic income being unconditional is, in my opinion, problematic — for it negates a key element of any just society: the symbiosis of rights and responsibilities. Notwithstanding certain exceptions, every person who wishes to partake in society should contribute to its prosperity. Commonly known as a ‘fairness-based work ethic’, this principle prohibits inequity in society, where some members would otherwise be condemned to work whilst others reap the fruits of their labour. As it is imperative for governments to demand the internalisation of rights and responsibilities in coexistence, a law which allows some to undermine it from the outset cannot be desired. Consequentially, let us instead strive for the introduction of a conditional basic income. A civilian service scheme (of the form in place in Germany until 2012 [3]) could serve as an initial, expandable framework for suitable jobs.

Critics will now be outraged: they will cite the injustices of a coercive state, in particular in the context of a prior imbalance in the distribution of assets and opportunities; the inanity of simply off-loading unemployed individuals (p. 70) [4] into any form of ‘employment’ — often unpopular, so-called ‘litter-picking’ roles — which are demeaning and violate their freedom; or, that any creative energy would be suffocated in the endless hours spent fulfilling the conditions for a basic income (note the similarity in arguments presented here with the conventional opposition to ‘Workfare’ — various forms of return responsibilities). But such opposition is unreasonable.

First, would it not be a greater negation of dignity if we were to not expect the fulfilment of certain responsibilities, in return for the vast array of rights enabled through a functioning society? If we were to simply allow an individual to remain completely idle and dependant on the state, and thus reliant on other people? There is an element of arrogance in such refusal to believe in the potential of our fellow human beings, as well as a dangerous neglect of the well-established link between unemployment and mental health problems (p. 2) [5] — a state which would, essentially, be replicated by an unconditional basic income. Of course, not everyone is suited to work in certain environments, yet with substantial effort and given sufficient support, a useful occupation can be found for most individuals.

Second, it need not be ‘endless hours’ which are required to fulfil the conditions of a basic income; the exact amount will need to be decided, but it is easy to envisage a situation where a few hours each week would suffice — to both contribute to social welfare and ensure a minimum of responsibilities fulfilled by each individual. In this hypothetical situation, the argument of smothered creativity simply no longer holds as there remains ample time to dedicate to other interests.

Third, the objection to the conditionality clause on the basis of contextual injustices must be considered. As Stuart White highlights (pp. 278-281) [6]: although a fairness-based work ethic, of the sort which a conditional basic income seeks to establish, is legitimate in principal, ‘the unfairness associated with [unconditional] basic income seems less important than that potentially associated with workfare in a society with significant background inequalities in initial assets and opportunities.’ In other words: ‘the permissive welfare system [including an unconditional basic income] functions as a kind of compensation for the background injustice.’ Hence, the argument goes, until a time where society is fully just, an unconditional basic income is to be supported as ‘the fairest-policy-in-the circumstances’. When judged in thematic isolation, this contextual objection to the conditionality clause is enlightening. However, the implementation of a conditional basic income for which I am arguing cannot be considered in isolation; it must be just one of a variety of measures (higher rates of tax; clamping down on tax avoidance etc. [7]), to be implemented in an integrated fashion, which collectively seek to reverse the background conditions on the basis of which the conditionality clause is understandably rejected. Thus a conditional basic income, perhaps in contrast to the rationale offered by some, is not merely an egalitarian pursuit of income equality. Rather, as one part of a bigger picture, it’s about creating a greater sense of community where everyone contributes towards social welfare, thereby internalising the symbiosis of rights and responsibilities. In this sense, and above all, a conditional basic income is about justice.


[4] Jonas and I discuss this and many of the following ideas in Chapter 6 of our ‘Thoughts for a New Social Contract’ — FINAL 2. auflage.pdf?dl=0
[6] Stuart White — ‘What’s Wrong With Workfare?’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 21, No. 3, 2004
[7] Jonas and I discuss this in Chapter 1 of our ‘Thoughts for a New Social Contract’ (see link above)