Basic income: a human rights approach

Image: Andres Musta, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The basic income movement is growing in the UK, with Labour, the SNP and Green Party all showing significant interest. It has received a lot of discussion, but to date there has been little attention paid to the human rights aspects of it.

Though human rights are not unproblematic, examining basic income through the lens of human rights moves us into discussions about the type of society and economy we want to have, instead of hiding these real questions behind broad economic approaches and traditional cultural values.

The human rights framework can be used for discussing the impacts that basic income policies might have. Instead of simply looking at GDP growth and inflation, we can look at whether it gives more people an adequate standard of living, access to housing and education, and to work of their free choice or acceptance. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, human rights values can help overcome cultural resistance to money which is not ‘earned’ as such.

Basic income is an idea that is both radical and simple: everyone in a society receives an income sufficient to provide for their basic needs. It is given unconditionally, with no need to qualify for it. This is unlike other welfare payments: Jobseeker’s Allowance requires someone to search for a job, and a pension recipient must be a certain age and have contributed enough over their lifetime. Most basic income proposals are also ‘universal’: for everyone in the society, including those who do not need the money, much like Child Benefit is.

Interestingly, basic income finds support (and opposition) across the breadth of the political spectrum, from communists to free market capitalists to centrist liberals. We can see the increasing popularity of basic income as a response to current circumstances, such as increasing automation and jobs being moved abroad, worsening working conditions, stagnant wage levels, precarious work, and the amount of environmental destruction we require for our current way of living.

Yet it is more than about just economics: it goes to the heart of cultural and political values about how society should be, challenging deeply held cultural notions that money must be earned and the traditional ‘work ethic’ – that hard work is morally valuable. Basic income proposals differ, but they almost all include a positive vision for how society could be. It could be part of a more just economy, enable more people to engage in politics, and give each individual a stable foundation so they need not fear falling into poverty and are better empowered to make choices about what to do with their lives and what work they do take on.

What are human rights?

Human rights are the array of rights which humans should have simply for being human, covering the breadth of our experience such as housing, education and cultural involvement. They are moral claims for things which ought to be achieved, or ‘realised’. Individual humans have these rights, and other actors – typically states – have obligations to help realise them.

They are listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), though there are also separate conventions for particularly disadvantaged groups. Despite the initial attempt to make them indivisible, international politics divided human rights into two different sets and two different international conventions. Civil and political rights, such as fair trials, free expression and privacy, have been heavily favoured by liberal democracies. Social and economic rights, such as housing, education, healthcare and food, have been favoured by socialist and communist governments.

The European Convention on Human Rights – incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998 – only contains civil and political rights, and this reflects our cultural and political understanding. Though the UK has signed up to the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it does not do much more than submit reports to the international committee. So, although we have laws and provide education, housing and healthcare, these are not protected or seen in the framework of human rights.

How a human rights approach can advance the basic income debate

There are three ways in which a human rights approach helps us to discuss basic income proposals and policies.

The first is that we can see it as realising particular human rights and fulfilling obligations that states have. One is the right to social security (Article 22 UDHR), which a basic income provides. Another is the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 25 UDHR), which a basic income seeks to ensure, though a basic income would not necessarily be adequate. The right to work (Article 23 UDHR), which includes ‘free choice of employment’ and ‘just and favourable conditions’, is also very useful and will be returned to shortly.

However, although a basic income would realise these rights, it is not the only way of doing so. The traditional human rights approach is that people earn money by working. The role of the state is to support and ensure this, by providing a floor of social security and ensuring that working conditions, such as pay and unemployment levels, allow individuals to afford healthcare, education and so on. If work does not provide people with an adequate standard of living, the state must do something about this. So, although basic income is not the only way to realise these rights, it can be part of the argument as to whether states are meeting their obligations and how they ought do so.

The second way in which a human rights approach helps is in framing the discussion about the effects of basic income proposals. Instead of using crude economic measures such as GDP, unemployment and inflation, we can use international human rights standards to measure positive or negative impacts of policies.

Of course, it is not clear what the impacts would be, or whether they would be positive. Basic income is not a magic solution, nor does it exist in the abstract: outcomes also depend on what other policies there are. For example, though it may help people afford rent, basic income alone will not create a fair housing market without challenging free market approaches to housing. The same is true with healthcare, education and other public services, which is why some discussions are more focused on Universal Basic Services instead of income, though the two are not incompatible.

As most human rights are linked to resources, basic income is likely to have generally positive impacts. It could help people spend more time in education, such as working less to do part-time courses. As for the right to health, it may help people to afford healthy food. Less directly, if people choose to do less paid work, they can use this time to exercise, relax more, and partake in cultural activities, or with their children, which would benefit their development and education. Although the most obvious impacts are on social and economic rights which need money (and time), there would also be benefits for civil and political rights. It is difficult for people to engage in broader political issues when they are struggling to earn enough money to survive.

Lastly, human rights are also useful for discussing cultural values, such as the notion of work, the ‘work ethic’ and that people ought not receive money for nothing.

The Right to Work (Article 23 UDHR) is useful for reframing cultural notions of work, which focus on whether workers are working and how much they are contributing to GDP in a capitalist economy. The Right to Work is clear that what is important is not their contribution to the economy via their labour, but what work they do, and whether someone has ‘freely chosen or accepted’ the work. It could be that basic income empowers people to negotiate for better working conditions and supports people to be more creative and retrain, as they are no longer forced to work at risk of becoming homeless or starving. As an example of this, the union Unite passed a motion at its 2016 Policy Conference supporting basic income. It could also be that it subsidises corporate profits and results in lower wages. Either way, the Right to Work is useful for helping frame this discussion.

What counts as work can also be challenged: it is far more than what someone else can derive a profit from. A basic income would help support people to do work which is not economically recognised, such as caring for someone or volunteering, and which contributes to society in a different way. It would also support people to do creative work, which is often quite poorly paid, or to try out new careers or start their own business.

As well as challenging notions of work, a human rights approach can also support arguments about whether a basic income is deserved. It strives towards a society in which the inherent moral worth of all humans is recognised and realised, aiming for every individual to have a life worthy of human dignity. Human rights do not value people by their economic contribution to society via wage labour, instead recognising their existence itself as valuable. Basic income matches these values, giving people more freedom to lead their own lives and supporting people who contribute in ways beyond wage labour, such as caring for others, political engagement, artistic and creative endeavours.

openDemocracyUK presents a debate about how to build a just, sustainable, and resilient economy. Find out more about the project & submit your ideas.

  • All
  • Civil Society
  • Constitution
  • Education
  • Elections
  • Infrastructure
  • Local Government
  • Measurement
  • Money
  • Ownership
  • Procurement
  • Regulation
  • Research and Development
  • Spending
  • Tax
  • Trade policy
  • openDemocracy is an independent, non-profit global media outlet, covering world affairs, ideas and culture, which seeks to challenge power and encourage democratic debate across the world. We publish high-quality investigative reporting and analysis; we train and mentor journalists and wider civil society; we publish in Russian, Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese and English.