The Limits of a Universal Basic Income as Progressive Social Policy

by Benjamin Ferschli, DPhil researcher, University of Oxford

3 min read

The transformation of work has been central in the political debates in Europe over recent years. While the cost of living crisis has revealed ever growing disparities in wage and wealth among working populations, the increasing automation of different industries has also signalled the growing risk of precarisation, in-work poverty and social exclusion.

Several social policies measures to address ‘the crisis of work’ have correspondingly been in discussion among academia, political actors and trade union representatives. Along with the discussions on the working time reduction or job-guarantees, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has arguably been the most widely debated proposition. 

Unlike other social policies, the idea of a UBI has been welcomed by different actors across the political spectrum. Where a liberal view sees it at as a more efficient transfer mechanism than the welfare state, progressive takes stress the independence it would mean for all members of society to separate the relationship between work and income. However, in order for this to be the case, and to consider a UBI as progressive social policy, four dimensions of limits must be considered:

Ambiguity: since a UBI lacks a definitive form (ranging from an existential minimum to a substantial payment in addition to other services) other social policies might simply be preferable. Why should a UBI be argued for, if history is full of other successful and less ambiguous examples of social policy measures?

Asymmetry of Power: for a UBI to be realized in a progressive form, this would require a corresponding strength of supporting political forces. Given present political conditions, a reduction rather than extension of the welfare state seems likely if a UBI were introduced right now.

Production and Investment: A UBI is only a mechanism of distribution. This means that production and investment are left untouched by it. This is problematic because it neglects an entire arena of political engagement, especially because many aspects of the polycrisis depend on problematic production and investment decisions

Control: Since a UBI would be rendered in the form of direct cash payments to individual citizens, it can more easily than other social policy be used as a political weapon or ironically an instrument of exclusion. A UBI could quite easily therefore be used for welfare-chauvinism by only deeming “true citizens” deserving of it, leaving others with less than nothing. Rather than providing answers to the multiple-crises it may thus aggravate them.

This means that in designing and debating future policy measures, it is important to consider not only the intuitive allure but also the potentially exclusionary and polarizing effects a UBI may have. It remains to be seen what concrete form and effects UBI measures as its trials unfold. But as with all other social policy and its current transformations, it is crucial to be conscious and critical of its unfolding ambiguities as the future of work takes shape.

About the Author

Benjamin Ferschli, DPhil researcher at the University of Oxford and Research Fellow “Working with AI” research group at the Weizenbaum Institute, Berlin. His dissertation focuses on the impact of automation on industrial labor and the structural transformation of the Central and Eastern European automotive industry, with a special focus on Austria. Benjamin previously contributed to the FES project - Marktmacht, Finanzialisierung, Ungleichheit.

Technology, Employment and Wellbeing is a new FES blog that offers original insights on the ways new technologies impact the world of work. The blog focuses on bringing different views from tech practitioners, academic researchers, trade union representatives and policy makers.

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