Will the Universal Basic Income make us lonely?

A policy that parcels out money to people may maintain, or even exacerbate, levels of loneliness and individualism.

Max Harris
25 May 2016
 Flickr/Waheed Akhtar.

Credit: Flickr/Waheed Akhtar.

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the Big Progressive Idea on the tip of lots of people’s tongues at the moment.  

It’s hardly a new concept.  There are fragmentary references to basic incomes from the sixteenth century (in the work of Thomas More), and probably earlier. Since then, many philosophers, campaigners, and activists have taken up the cause – including recently, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.

What’s changed is that governments, politicians, and the private sector are more willing than ever before to take the idea seriously. The Finnish government has expressed an intention to run a pilot Universal Basic Income scheme. Local pilots have been announced in Utrecht in the Netherlands and Ontario, Canada. The Labour Parties in New Zealand and the United Kingdom have indicated they are considering Universal Basic Income policies.

Private backers of the idea have shown a commitment to funding further research, too. Y Combinator, the American seedfunder, has stumped up money to run a study on the effects of a basic income. GiveDirectly, the well-regarded not-for-profit, says it will provide USD $10 million to run a rigorous, long-term trial.  

At a time of precarious work, the Universal Basic Income holds promise as a way to give people security in uncertain times. This security could, supporters say, encourage more people to be entrepreneurial or pursue valuable projects – for example, in the arts – that they might not take up without stable funding. It is one policy response to the process of automation that is threatening low-skilled jobs.  And it may be a way to recognise the value of unpaid work, including domestic labour in the home.

Despite these attractions, some politicians have been quick to dismiss the idea as unaffordable: paying every person in a country a basic grant sufficient to avoid destitution seems to require a major outlay by governments, or an increase in tax levels. Others have queried the universality of the policy: should millionaires, as well as the very under-privileged, receive the same basic income?

These arguments for and against a Universal Basic Income continue to be raised. But one concern about the Universal Basic Income deserves greater consideration by policy-makers, writers, and those in charge of delivering pilots: could a Universal Basic Income, if delivered in societies that are already highly atomised, make people lonelier, and perhaps more individualistic?

We know that many relatively wealthy countries are individualistic: that is, they have developed an ethic where individuals tend to focus on their own interests and ambitions, at the expense of the interests of others. Research by Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede has found that the United Kingdom, for example, is one of the most individualistic countries in the world.

Levels of loneliness are also becoming a matter of concern in the same societies.  George Monbiot recently described our time as “an age of loneliness”. Olivia Laing’s book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, has linked contemporary loneliness to the rise of social media. Charlie Kaufman’s 2016 stop-motion film Anomolisa explored how isolation from other people can distort expressions of intimacy. British musician Damon Albarn has long been focused on loneliness, in his 2014 solo album (“If you’re lonely, press play”, he sang there) and in Blur’s 2015 record (the first track of which is titled ‘Lonesome Street’).

Research by Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede has found that the United Kingdom, for example, is one of the most individualistic countries in the world.

The worry with the Universal Basic Income is that, against this backdrop, a policy that parcels out money to individuals may maintain – or exacerbate – these levels of loneliness and individualism.

There are two ways this could work.  

First, though the Universal Basic Income claims to give people the ‘freedom’ to spend the income however they want, that freedom is conditioned by dominant thinking in contemporary society. In a society where individuals may be more reluctant than ever to initiate face-to-face contact (we email people who sit in the same office as us, for example, and often text people over talking to them in person), it is plausible that the payment of a basic income will lead to people curling up in individualistic cocoons rather than reaching out to initiate communal interaction.  Put another way: a Universal Basic Income removes the social interaction that some people gain from employment, and could merely replace it with more time for people on their own.  While some individuals might enjoy this time on their own, others might feel isolated by this lack of social contact.  And the lack of interpersonal human contact could result in lower levels of empathy and understanding, and heightened selfishness.

Secondly, the Universal Basic Income is a public investment without accompanying public infrastructure to underscore the value of community. Most public investments, such as in healthcare and education and transport, involve two elements: an individual benefit (in the form of free healthcare, education, or transport) and a public space that individuals share with other members of the community (on a subway, or in a school, or in a hospital). The public space gives people a chance to rub shoulders, and interact with, other people within the political community.  A Universal Basic Income contains the first element – an individual benefit – without the second: it creates no public space for community interaction.

I am not the first to raise this concern. In a 2013 paper, Professor James Ferguson of Stanford University argues that “The ‘social’ in the social welfare state is largely discarded in [basic income programmes]”.* Ferguson goes on to explain, with reference to pilot programmes in southern Africa: “In a world where social position has for so long depended on a kind of exchange of labor for membership, an unconditional ‘transfer’ of cash may seem dangerously empty – a way of preventing the worst, in material terms, but without the granting of any sort of meaningful personhood or social belonging.” Ferguson notes that a basic income “offers only a notional national membership, and a cold and impersonal relationship with a technocratic state”.

The loneliness problem isn’t necessarily a slam-dunk objection to a Universal Basic Income. When I spoke to Scott Santens, one of the world’s leading proponents of the UBI (who has crowdfunded a UBI for himself), he suggested that it is more likely that individuals will pursue communal projects if given the security that a UBI provides. Currently, in office work, we can’t spend time with community, Scott told me - with a basic income, we might all have more time to invest in community. “We’re social creatures,” after all, Scott said.  The Royal Society of the Arts’s excellent report on a UBI has a similar argument. It claims that a UBI “focuses people on their relationships directly rather than the impacts of the welfare state on their relationships”.

It could be argued, in response to the point that a UBI involves no new public infrastructure or public space, that this is not essential to public services.  After all, the welfare system in most countries operates without much of a shared public space.

It could be said in defence of a UBI that if there are anxieties about how a UBI might enhance loneliness or individualism, perhaps all that is needed is for a UBI to be accompanied by a resurgent emphasis on the value of community. If politicians return to the significance of solidarity – to something like ‘a politics of love’, a concept I have written about elsewhere – then this might reduce the possibility of a UBI making us lonelier or more individualistic.

The RSA Basic Income proposal adopts this logic, and suggests that a UBI is introduced alongside a ‘public contribution contract’, which would “commit the recipient to contribute to the extent they are able through earning, learning, caring or setting up a business”. The contract would not be monitored but would serve a significant symbolic purpose. This would “bring people together”, “establish norms, provide social support and underpin the contribution ethos”.

We do not need to endorse the RSA’s specific idea of a ‘public contribution contract’ in order to agree that accompanying measures might ensure that solidarity is not undermined through the introduction of a UBI.

In the end, whether a UBI could undermine social connectedness is (at least in part) an empirical matter – something that can be tested as pilots are developed in Finland, Utrecht, Ontario, and elsewhere. Policy-makers, and organisations such as GiveDirectly, should bear this in mind as they design pilots.

Supporters of the UBI have trumpeted its possible benefits for liberty and equality.  But there has been less discussion of the third value championed at the time of the French Revolution – namely, fraternity or solidarity – and how this value might be affected by the introduction of a UBI.

If a UBI is going to be more than a passing fad, we need to make sure that it does not entrench individualism and loneliness.  If we can avoid this danger, it may well be a Big Progressive Idea that fulfils its promise – and drives a new vision of progressive politics for our time.

* My thanks to Paolo Singer for drawing this paper to my attention.

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