Why is the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) embraced by elements of both the right and the left? I think the answer lies in the predominant conception of individual freedom in modern liberal societies: i.e. the freedom to choose how one wants to live, without having to justify one’s choices according to the demands of tradition, custom or hierarchy, and such that one’s actions are constrained only by the legal framework necessary to ensure everyone else is able to exercise the same freedom. The economic market is seen as fundamental to the realization of individual freedom, because it provides a mechanism by which the actions of self-interested individuals can be efficiently coordinated through the “invisible hand” of market forces. Ideally, a free market for labour means that people are not forced to do work they do not wish to do; while a free market for goods and services means that people are able to develop their own tastes and lifestyles by purchasing from a wide variety of goods and services that cater to every personality.
UBI may be appealing, then, because it is seen to enhance individual freedom within the market. From the perspective of the left, it increases the likelihood that individual workers will actually (and not just in theory) be able to choose not to accept a wage contract if the conditions and/or wages do not appeal to them. From the perspective of business, it means that even when people are not able or willing to work, they are still able to spend money on goods and services. Of course, there are still all sorts of practical reasons why one might reject a UBI from either the right or the left; but insofar as its attraction is based on more than simply getting cash for nothing, it is because of its relationship to individual freedom.
As soon as one adopts a broader conception of freedom, however, UBI becomes more problematic. The German philosopher Axel Honneth, in his book Freedom’s Right, argues that understanding the role of the market purely in terms of individual freedom is too narrow. The market is also, he argues, an institution grounded in social freedom. By social freedom he means the kind of freedom for self-realization that only becomes possible when one’s aims and actions are complemented by the aims and actions of others. It differs from the individual freedom discussed above because it is not a kind of negative freedom, that is, a freedom from all constraints (such as the moral expectations of others). Despite this, Honneth argues that social freedom is more real than negative freedom, because in social freedom one’s aims (which cannot be egotistically formulated but demand that you take into account the expectations and aims of others) are in harmony with a social reality in which those aims will be reciprocally recognized and supported. By contrast, in the case of negative freedom, one’s aims are determined at a distance from the everyday world of cooperation and solidarity. One relates to others only as “legal persons” whom one seeks to influence strategically in order to achieve one’s own ends. There is no guarantee that such egotistically formulated goals will actually meet with the moral approval or cooperation of others. Thus, one’s “freedom” is limited to individual self-interest, and as an experience of freedom it lacks the potential for self-realization which emerges through genuine relationships.
While in policy circles, business and academia, market processes are almost exclusively conceived in terms of the actions of self-interested individuals, it is also true that there is a widespread popular understanding that the market’s legitimacy depends on social freedom. This can be seen in the fact that in recent surveys, a surprisingly large number of young people are beginning to doubt the legitimacy of capitalism. This crisis of legitimacy, I venture, has its roots in the feelings of injustice which arise from the persistence of stagnant wages, degrading working conditions, unfulfilling employment, and excessive disparities of wealth and income. It is also noticeable in the way in which consumers do not simply expect goods and services at minimal cost to themselves, but also demand that production is environmentally sustainable, that the food industry takes into account animal welfare and the health of consumers, and that industries should not be involved in the exploitation of workers or tolerate the sexual harassment of women.
Thus the market is actually conceived by many people as a social institution infused with moral obligations and ethical demands. This includes an expectation that the relationship between employees and employers be a cooperative one, in which workers are given a say in their conditions of employment and not simply treated as self-interested parties to a contract, whose only recourse to unreasonable demands is to quit and find another job. And this is where the UBI becomes problematic, because rather than contribute to this sense of the market economy as a sphere of social freedom, it seems to “desocialise” individuals by encouraging them (with a little extra cash) to pursue their own individual self-interest. While of course it is necessary to ensure that people are able to live with dignity during periods of unemployment, perhaps a UBI could be better spent on initiatives that facilitate communication and cooperation among market participants, such as between workers and employers regarding wages and working conditions, or between consumers and producers regarding health, sustainability and fairness. If UBI is a response to a crisis of the legitimacy of capitalism, it appears to be based on a conception of the market that is itself part of the problem. And for that reason it ought to be rejected.