Four concerns on the basic income (from a human rights perspective)
In this entry I want to mention four considerations that suggest that human rights lawyers should be cautious in embracing basic income as a replacement for human rights. These reflections should be seen as merely exploratory. The basic income in full has never been put in practice, and consequently, it is hard to know exactly what it will entail.
In a previous entry about basic income, I mentioned the potential of basic income to make “economic, social and cultural” rights obsolete. Seemingly, basic income can do everything that social rights do, but better. If this were the case, I argued, human rights lawyers working in the field of “economic, social and cultural” should embrace change. They should deemphasize economic, social and cultural” rights and make the basic income the focus of their efforts of research and advocacy.
However, in this entry I want to mention four considerations that suggest that human rights lawyers should be cautious in embracing basic income as a replacement for human rights. These reflections should be seen as merely exploratory. The basic income in full has never been put in practice, and consequently, it is hard to know exactly what it will entail.
First, the basic income is insensitive to needs. The basic income grant is universal. Everyone gets the same amount. However, this ignores the fact that people with special needs deserve more help. For example, consider the case of a paraplegic individual. The basic income will hardly be enough to address his basic needs. By contrast, the human rights perspective generally leaves room for addressing difference through equity.
Second, the basic income is relatively insensitive to structural barriers that can prevent a basic income grant from translating into real benefits for individuals and groups. Some of these factors, like discrimination on the basis of gender or race, can be targeted through “civil and political rights”, but some of them cannot. For example, consider the case of an isolated village without roads, hospitals or schools. Granting a basic income to its inhabitants can by no means enable the villagers to fund a road, hospital or school. The human rights perspective can be used to insist that those individuals deserve access to these basic services, even if reaching them is difficult and not very cost-effective.
Third, human rights has become strongly concerned with processes and not just outcomes. For example, human rights require that development projects and state policies be made paying attention to concerns of accountability, inclusiveness, transparency, participation and equity. While the assignment of a social minimum at the level of results can provide a safety net to make people resistant to the worse effects of bad policy-making, this is not enough to abandon human right as a tool to improve policy-making. For example, consider the case of city where the low-income housing is built in zones that are prone to natural disasters. Granting the basic income to citizens might help them move to another city, but it is to be expected that many will not move, and that it would have been better, all things considered, to have a more equitable housing policy.
Finally, the basic income has a potential of de-politization. Whereas human rights empower individuals to see themselves as right holders and encourage their organization into groups under a shared identity and their mobilization into political action, the basic income is a “technology of justice” that once implemented works without any need for association and mobilization. While this sounds as an improvement on paper, from a certain perspective it is also a problem. There is a long tradition of political thought that maintains that the only response to power is the organization of counterpowers. Laws, even good laws, are not enough to secure human dignity in absence of an active civil society. In relation to this, it should be added that there is some empirical evidence that suggest that cash grants can dilute or break down communities causing a significant loss of social capital.
Given that fact that the basic income only exists on paper, none of these criticisms can be made categorically. If basic income manages to co-exist with the traditional welfare state (if it is only “partial” basic income), that can address the first and second critiques. It might be possible to enrich the concept of good governance in such a way as to make processes of policymaking more just. And depoltiization need not happen. Citizens living under the basic income might even find more time to associate and to organize politically.
We should not fall into the soundbite culture of being “for” or “against” the basic income. As with most things in life, whether it is good or bad depends on how it is implemented. While human rights lawyers should not oppose change and cling religiously to a system that already shows signs of age, in embracing the new, they should ensure that no aspect of human dignity is left behind.
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