Universal Basic Income and human dignity

Convinced critics of an Universal Basic Income (UBI) often point to the importance of work for human dignity as a major argument against the UBI. The most recent example gave AI pioneer Andrew Ng in this interview:

“Silicon Valley has a lot of excitement about unconditional basic income. I don’t support that. There’s a lot of dignity to work. For someone that’s unemployed I really support the government giving them a safety net with the expectation that they’ll do something to contribute back, such as study, so they can gain the skills they need to re-enter the workforce and contribute back to the tax base that is hopefully paying for all of this.”

But why is the UBI often presented as a dichotomy to working, and thus in consequence as a way to rob people of their dignity?

To me, the way an UBI would have to be constructed and framed is straightforward and very much in harmony with the critical role of work for people’s mental well-being:

An UBI is NOT meant to discourage people to work. It is meant to offer them more freedom to align how they spend their time with their areas of interest and with other life priorities. It is meant to offer more room for calculated risk-taking, as well as the ability to choose work which is deeply meaningful to them, but badly paid (such as helping people in need). And it is meant to remove the most basic existential fears from everyone’s mind, such as homelessness, not being able to buy food or not being able to pay for a necessary health procedure – while at the same time reducing the stigmatization and bureaucracy associated with traditional social welfare support.

The UBI is not meant to enable or encourage people to have a comfortable life without doing any work. Sure, if an individual who receives an UBI chooses to move to the most affordable place in a country, to only eat instant Ramen and to be content with that, good for him or her. But most humans would not be satisfied with that kind of lifestyle, so they’d still have to look for an occupation. However, unlike today, they could do this with a mind freed from the most pressing existential pressure, and maybe they would only choose a 20-hour- or 30-hour-week-job.

So the point of the UBI, according to my view, should be to give people more freedom in regards to their occupational choices. An UBI done right (according to me) would not rob anyone of their dignity.

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