The basic income and human rights
To speak of economic justice today is to speak of the basic income. A basic income can be defined as an unconditional cash payment to all persons who form part of a political community. As automation increases, there is fear that labor will be replaced by “robots”. The basic income seems to be a solution to the resultant unemployment.
The basic income promises to create “real equality for all”, to leave no one behind and to free people to do whatever they want with their lives without fear of economic exclusion.
Today, all sorts of celebrities defend the basic income. Centuries ago, all sorts of philosophers have defended the basic income. Basic income experiments have taken place in Namibia, Finland and Alaska. The basic income has been proposed at Switzerland and at the EU. The basic income has defenders in the far right and the far left and everywhere in between. It is an idea whose time has come.
Surprisingly, human rights lawyers and academics have not paid too much attention to the basic income. This is a significant oversight. The basic income has a potential game changing nature. Should basic income arrive on scene, some human rights would be empowered, and some human rights could potentially become obsolete.
Civil and political rights would be empowered. The freedom these rights offer would become “real freedom”. For example, the right to be free speech is often suffocated by the socio-economic consequences of free speech. Should I say what I really think, would I still have a job tomorrow? The same might be said for privacy. Courts have come to define privacy as autonomy. Private life is the life I choose to live. Clearly, should I want to leave my office and be an artist that is open to me under the law, but how meaningful is that option if that way of life is bound to leave me indigent? Basic income can help put these fears aside.
Socio economic rights such as food, housing, water, by contrast, might turn out to become obsolete. For those who have been studying this side of the human rights edifice, this is easy to see. Socio-economic rights operate through a complex mechanism that ensures that they are realistic, legitimate. Enough space must be left for the rights of others and spontaneous and planned economic activity. As a consequence, getting social rights adjudicated is legitimately difficult. Judges must exercise caution not to step on the toes of other branches of government and of economic activity.
Consider the problem of homelessness. Should judges grant a house to every homeless person, they may without knowing unbalance the budget and create problems for other people who also depend on the state: pensioners, the sick, dependent children, etc. Judges simply do not have the information to know the consequences of their interventions in the economic sphere, nor the infrastructure to monitor and react to them. Consequently, faced with homelessness, judges have tended to act at the margins only. They will ask the government to make better housing plans, but they will not directly assign houses.
The basic income would sweep this baroque system away. It would be easier to simply grant individuals the basic income and then leave it to them to provide for food, housing, water and other basic commodities. The advantages from a perspective of judicial implementation are vast. Should the basic income be institutionalized, all that a potential right holder would need to show is a beating pulse, and then the judge could order a basic income payment. At most, social rights could take up a subsidiary role, and be seen together as the principle of social welfare, that justifies the creation of the basic income. This is roughly how courts in Germany have come to see things. (As a side note, it should also be considered that if basic income is well defined, the reasonable fears of Trevor Burrus would be taken care of. Basic income is unconditional, and scalable and compatible with other rights; at least under normal conditions).
Should this change be beneficial, human rights lawyers involved in social rights should not obstruct it. That the academic field I have devoted five years to, and some have devoted lives to, should fade away is not a valid reason to stand in the way of change. Yet before fully embracing the basic income, we should consider its negative aspects from a human rights perspective. The social rights experience has lessons that should not be forgotten in a movement towards basic income. Some ideas on that next week.
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