Can progressives support universal basic income?

Photo of construction worker miniature figurines arranged to be performing roadwork on a pile of peanuts.

Francine Mestrum, founder of Global Social Justice, is an advocate for human flourishing, the extension of welfare, and the bolstering of collective rights. She is not an advocate of UBI.

In the number of articles she’s written about the subject, Mestrum offers thoughtful comments concerning the theory behind and potential effects of implementing a system of unconditional cash transfers. While her dissenting opinions are echoed elsewhere, one particular view is worth an examination.

Within the realm of political thinking, she says, liberalism is often equated with individual freedoms. It is UBI’s emphasis on freeing the individual – from toil – that makes it fundamentally a liberal proposal. Whereas, “progressives… point to the collective, social dimensions of all our needs and to the interdependence of all people. … Individual rights cannot exist or lose their meaning without collective rights.”

For Mestrum, the universality of UBI is a misnomer. While everyone would receive cash assistance from the state, it is far from equitable. By definition, these transfers would be untethered and unconditional towards people’s individual needs, and thus seek to reaffirm the inequalities already present today. Thus, a system that endeavors to change society must first begin with the groups that comprise society, not the individual.

She establishes a binary opposition between liberals and progressives: one promotes equal access for all, the other an exit. The attraction UBI presents, in finally furnishing the pursuit of individual liberty, can only be seen through a liberal perspective. This exit isn’t only from bullshit jobs, as David Graeber might say, but from the needs of others. What’s just about that?