Universal Basic Income or Universal Basic Services: which is better for a post-growth society?
The concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has gained traction recently, with books such as Rutgar Bregman’s “Utopia for Realists” (2017) and a UK petition gaining over 100,000 signatures advocating for the policy, likening it to a silver bullet of solution to today’s injustices. UBI is the provision of a regular, set amount of money to every adult, provided by the government. However, critics have recognised the need for, and benefits of, Universal Basic Services (UBS), the universal free provision of public services such as housing, transport, information, care and energy.
These two opposed policies have been increasingly brought into conversation discussing how a post-growth society (that which has little or no economic growth for environmental and social benefit) can be achieved. With the embedded assumption in Western Society that economic growth equals prosperity for all via ‘trickle down’ politics, the provision of sustainable welfare is essential to deliver a just transition.
The main arguments for and against UBI vs UBS are derived from the long-standing debate between public vs private sector welfare support. UBI offers social security and freedom by alleviating people from relying on employers and breadwinners for income. However, UBI risks relying on markets for social services such as housing that are subject to market failure. UBS offers social security by taking the price mark off social services and delivering these services through the state. However, the implementation of UBS is dependent on political decision-making, and thus adequate democratic processes and involvement from the public.
Ecological Economist Milena Buchs (2021) explores this debate within their ability to meet sustainable welfare criteria – needs satisfaction, planetary boundaries, fairness, and democracy. I have drawn out Buchs (2021) key arguments for and against UBI and UBS. It is revealed through this assessment that, like most politics today, UBI and UBS have been polarised as opposing policies, when what is required is to use both to complement each other and contribute to sustainable welfare (Figure 1).
Removes stigmatised and bureaucratic means-testing
Supporting livelihoods through low or no economic growth
Funded by progressive taxes
Greater freedom and capacity for democratic participation
Vehicle of freedom and autonomy versus employers and abusive relationships
Reduced labour supply and consumption.
Low-pay wages increase from financial security and high-pay wages decrease through taxation
Associated with lower anxiety/stress, greater sense of social security, reduced individual risk, and feeling connected to state.
Reduced consumption that boosts social status.
Compensate for unpaid care work
More likely for support of green politics.
Less incentive for carbon intensive job uptake and investments
Concerns of market failures e.g., inflated housing markets
Labour supply and consumption could increase to meet higher taxes
Removal of existing cash benefits impacting low-middle income groups
Workplace democracy remains unimproved
Crowding out public services
No disincentive for environmentally damaging products
Decreased wages in knowledge basic living cost needs are met
Funding through environmental taxes not sustainable in the long run
Increase in product prices due to taxation
Governments provide high quality goods and services
Wealth redistribution environmentally beneficial
Funded by progressive taxes = redistribution
Increased social security, connection to state
Higher demand for public sector workers that are in stable jobs
Government designed environmentally friendly energy and housing
Basic goods and services shielded from price increase
More support of radical green politics
Opportunity for user-led, co-produced, and democratically accountable public services
The prescription of people’s needs rather than public choice
Green policies not inherent to governments
Chance it will be managed by top-down large state bureaucracies without much user participation.
UBI and UBS can work in tandem to produce redistribution via progressive taxation in a way that is just and protects labour, particularly low-income workers from increases in prices for basic goods and services. An exciting opportunity to note here is that with adequate social security and democratic systems of decision-making, both UBI and UBS can open doors of increased and more open-minded political participation that can create a knock-on effect of further green and fair policy.
To design sustainable welfare and environmental protection in a post-growth society, UBI and UBS must be complemented by other policies such as work-time reduction, carbon budgets, and citizen juries. Policies like this will ensure the transition to a post-growth society does not leave those in the lower-middle income sectors behind. Neither UBI nor UBS are silver bullets in the desire for a sustainable economic system. However, the uptake of these policies is a step in the right direction to walk towards a utopia we have been running away from for far too long.
Bregman, R. (2017). Utopia for realists and how we can get there. De Correspondent.
Buchs, M. (2021). Sustainable welfare: How do universal basic income and universal basic services compare? Ecological Economics, 189. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S092180092100210X [Accessed 15/02/2022]
Howard, M. Pinto, J. Schachtschneider, U. (2019). Ecological Effects of Basic Income. The Palgrave Internation Handbook of Basic Income, p111-132. Available from: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-23614-4_7 [Accessed 15/02/2022]
Malmaeus, M. Alfredsson, E. Birnbaum, S. (2020). Basic Income and Social Sustainability in Post-Growth Economies. Basic Income Studies, 15, 1. Available from: https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/bis-2019-0029/html [Accessed 15/02/2022]
Redfield & Wilton Strategies (2021) Universal Basic Income Supported by a Majority of British Public. Available from:
UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab. (2021). Move the debate from Universal Basic Income to Universal Basic Services. Available from: https://en.unesco.org/inclusivepolicylab/analytics/move-debate-universal-basic-income-universal-basic-services [Accessed 15/02/22]