DEBATE: Is Universal Basic Income a good idea?

Alex Baxter and Max Borders

July 4, 2022

Alex Baxter, PPE student at Edinburgh University, argues YES

One of my favourite quotes on UBI is the Rutger Bregman slogan: “Poverty isn’t a lack of character, it’s a lack of cash”.

Our current benefits system seems to believe the opposite—it blames the poor for their position, forcing them to cut through countless lines of red tape just to get the cash they need to survive.

But this constant state nannying is far from fixing the problem—most sources show relatively constant poverty rates of an insane 20 per cent. Wasting all of your energy proving your poverty to the state is both humiliating and directly counterintuitive to what our benefits system should be aimed at doing: getting people out of poverty.

Enter UBI, a policy that aims to tackle this issue from a practical and an ideological standpoint. As a form of welfare, UBI is the purest form of individualistic libertarianism: rather than micromanaging, compartmentalising and dictating the path out of poverty, it puts the cash in the hands of the people that need it and lets them do it themselves.

The upcoming trials in Wales will speak for themselves, but studies from Scandinavia to the infamous Speenhamland demonstrate that this simplification and liberalisation is far more efficient and effective than standard welfare—some studies have shown that basic income schemes can even save tax money. Suggesting that the poor will waste away this vital stipend rather than investing it in themselves is both deeply derogatory to their character as well as being a plain misunderstanding of the data.

From an ideological standpoint, giving this money to everyone establishes it as a basic right. Yes, many of us are fortunate enough not to need the extra cash, but the fact that we all get it makes UBI a privilege that absolutely does not discriminate; one that we can rely on should we need it, without having to report when and how we use it to a state who has no business knowing. As citizens of our society, then, UBI guarantees everyone a minimum standard of living—no questions asked. Is that not something we should have been aiming for all along?


Max Borders, founder and Executive Director of Social Evolution, argues NO

Where once we helped each other in mutual societies and experiments in civil society, today we have an extensive welfare state that has crowded out too many such experiments.

Consider, therefore, some important reasons to forego a universal basic income (UBI):

1. A UBI risks creating perverse incentives likely to make recipients less productive and less personally responsible.

2. A UBI risks giving a massive lever of power to those we might find dangerous in their exercise of said power.

3. A UBI is not likely to be passed in any pure form, so will likely be a political product that grows the welfare state, but shrinks civil society.

4. A UBI is generally unaffordable, even if a population were able to end major, popular welfare programs.

5. A UBI doesn’t take into account the economy’s heterogeneity along a number of dimensions.

6. UBIs are monolithic. They’ll be difficult to adapt or reverse, when needed, in changing socio-economic circumstances.

7. UBI experiments might show short-term benefits, but ignore costs and downsides–especially longer-term socio-economic effects.

8. UBIs discourage people from participating in other civil society initiatives that allow them to practice compassion, that is, instead of outsourcing it.

9. UBIs continue the trend of centralization, rather than decentralization. Even if an experiment is local, it is designed to be “universal,” so it’s not clear that local experiments can or should scale to the level of whole societies.

10. A UBI risks crowding out the formation of vital communities rooted in mutual aid.

UBI is a social experiment designed to treat human beings as liabilities to be managed, rather than individuals with responsibilities or shortcomings. It incentivizes poverty.

More than anything, UBI says something about its advocates. There is a moral laziness in short-cutting the work of civil society by treating everyone as income statistics.

Offering a critique of a UBI doesn’t mean one is against creating social safety nets. Quite the contrary. We trust institutions we build and use together.


  • Alex Baxter and Max Borders

    Alex Baxter is a PPE student at the University of Edinburgh, who contributes to various publications and Max Borders is the founder and Executive Director of Social Evolution.

Written by Alex Baxter and Max Borders

Alex Baxter is a PPE student at the University of Edinburgh, who contributes to various publications and Max Borders is the founder and Executive Director of Social Evolution.

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