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Towards a universal basic income for all humanity

Mohammed Sofiane Mesbahi
20 September 2017

A truly universal and unconditional basic income is ultimately feasible within each nation, coordinated under the auspices of the United Nations. Yet this will initially depend on an unparalleled degree of public support for the cause of ending hunger and needless deprivation, based on a fairer sharing of the world’s resources. That is the only path, writes Mohammed Sofiane Mesbahi, for a basic income policy to uphold the fundamental human rights of all. And if pursued with this motivation, it is a pioneering and honourable path that inherently says: ‘above all nations is humanity’. 

Editor’s preface
Introduction: ‘Everyone has the right to live’
Part I: The threat of a dystopian future
Part II: Missing elements for a people’s strategy
Part III: Inner dimensions of world transformation        
Part IV: A definitively universal vision 
Epilogue: Some final words of encouragement

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Editor's preface

The following publication is written as part of an ongoing series of studies released by Share The World’s Resources (STWR) which explore critical global issues from a more holistic outlook than the usual political and economic analyses. This particular book is closely related to two recent works by Mohammed Sofiane Mesbahi that also examine popular intellectual discourses in a similar way, namely the contemporary ideas of ‘the commons’ and ‘the sharing economy’. Yet the growing cause for a universal basic income is perhaps the most tangible demand for economic sharing in the present day, even though few advocates contemplate the definitive vision of a basic income in the truly ‘universal’ or planetary sense—as indeed Mesbahi sets out to do in this unique investigation of the subject. 

While principally aimed at activists within the basic income movements across the world, it is also hoped that anyone interested in this subject can read and benefit from the author’s far-reaching observations. With this in mind, a number of explanatory and contextual notes are included at the end to help clarify where STWR stands on some of the more technical issues, and also to help provide some introductory material for interested newcomers to this important (although somewhat controversial) policy proposal. 

For those who have read any of Mesbahi’s previous publications, it will be clear that identical themes are focused upon and further elaborated here, particularly around the need for continuous worldwide demonstrations that uphold Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is, after all, our founding purpose and essential vision as a campaigning organisation. However, Mesbahi also seeks to elucidate this proposition by focusing on, in his words, the ‘inner side’ or ‘psychological-spiritual’ dimensions of world transformation. Any repetitions of the same themes and observations are therefore entirely intentional on the part of the author, given the fact that we are still far from realising a transformational vision of all people and nations coming together to share the world’s resources. 

If the simple reasoning of this study is contemplated with an open heart and mind, then the sympathetic reader may find that the repetition of certain themes serves to bring greater awareness about the nature of the world problem, as well as a clearer sense of the solution. A solution, as Mesbahi repeatedly asserts throughout his writings, that is ‘forever embedded in the hearts of everyone.’ In this light, the feasibility of the vision set out on these pages is not a matter of intellectual debate. For it is nothing more than a call to action that only we ourselves, both individually and collectively, can ultimately respond to and co-create. 

London, UK, January 2020 


Introduction: ‘Everyone has the right to live’

‘We have tried every other strategy and nothing else will work,
unless nations freely share their surplus wealth with an
awareness of divinity, of the one Humanity, the one Love.
That is the key we are all searching for, which has
forever been embedded in the hearts of everyone.’

Of all the emerging debates on the economic policies that embody the principle of sharing, there is one proposal that stands out for its uniqueness and simplicity: the call for a universal basic income (UBI). A growing literature propounds the ethical and philosophical justifications for this enduring idea, as well as its practical applicability within both the major industrialised and less developed nations. Until now, however, the progressive notion of a basic income has yet to be implemented in its definitively universal form within any world region, notwithstanding the small-scale pilot schemes and limited national systems that are endlessly cited in contemporary debates. Hence the purpose of this enquiry is to examine the prospects for achieving an inspiring vision of ‘freedom from want’ for every person on Earth, all of whom should be entitled to receive a regular, individual and unconditional monetary transfer that is sufficient to ensure an adequate standard of living in perpetuity.[1]

Is it realistic to believe we can ever achieve this apparently utopian dream in all countries, which must also be envisioned alongside the universal provision of public services and other social benefits: free healthcare and essential medicines; free education at every level; free childcare provision for every pre-schooler; ample supplementary benefits for old-age care and people with disabilities; adequate support for everyone to afford decent housing; subsidised public utilities and good quality public transport; and more?[2] We have previously investigated the need for Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be established as a foundational law within each country, supervised by the United Nations with the all-inclusive backing of world public opinion.[3],[4] In this regard, is the prospect of enshrining a basic income as an individual legal right one of the surest means for guaranteeing the comprehensive realisation of Article 25 for every man, woman and child?[5] And can we ultimately envisage the right to a basic income being realised in the truly universal sense, whereby nations cooperate on a multilateral level to ensure that every government can provide their citizens with access to the necessities for a dignified life?  

Without doubt, the implications of executing this simple social policy instrument are immense and potentially transformative, especially when we consider the possibility of permanently ending global poverty via some form of international redistributive mechanism.[6] Yet it is not the intention of our enquiry to examine in detail the technical considerations around how a basic income should be constituted within different nations, or the arguments against targeting and conditionality, or indeed the forward-thinking debates regarding options for funding through progressive taxation or more innovative measures. Suffice to say, enough literature already makes a compelling case for a new system of income distribution for the 21st century, in light of the inefficiencies and shortcomings of means-tested welfare systems throughout the world.[7] We shall assume the reader already agrees that new solutions are needed for tackling poverty and inequality, which can no longer be realistically addressed through the established social objective of full employment based on continuous economic growth. The eventual necessity of disassociating everyone’s income from wage labour alone is predictable for many compelling reasons, not least the mounting pressures of technological change and an inequitable model of economic globalisation.[8]

Based on this analysis, the prominent arguments for introducing a basic income in every country—aiming towards the highest possible amount that is sufficient to guarantee an adequate standard of living—should be taken extremely seriously by informed scholars, activists and policymakers.[9] The moral case for realising such an entitlement from birth is central to the founding ideals of our organisation, Share The World’s Resources (STWR): that the Earth is a shared inheritance which equally belongs to everyone, thus conferring upon society a responsibility to fairly distribute and conserve nature’s produce in accordance with egalitarian principles. This rationale is notably reflected in the works of Thomas Paine, Henry George, G.D.H. Cole and many other distinguished writers, who variously conceived of the land and natural resources as part of our collective wealth, which is invariably derived from the combined labour, creativity and achievements of society as a whole and earlier generations.[10] Hence it is reasonable to argue that everyone should be entitled to share in the fruits of our common heritage (including the modern-day benefits of technological progress), which can be directly realised by instituting a policy of ‘social dividends’ payable to all citizens as an economic right.[11]

The underlying principle behind how to achieve this venerable aim could not be simpler: every nation needs to create a common pool of resources that can provide for the essential needs of all, which is facilitated and funded by members of the whole society (according to respective means and ability). We already see that principle in operation in many of our social and economic institutions, however fragile and partial such historical attainments may be. But we have reached a time when the principle of sharing has to be applied as the foundation of economic activity within all nations, all regions and eventually throughout the entire world community, if humanity’s evolutionary progress is to be safeguarded for future generations. It is in this light that we shall investigate the implications of distributing a full basic income to all, and not just in the usual political and academic terms. 

Drawing on a more holistic outlook, we can also view the longstanding efforts to institute a new social settlement as an expression of maturity, responsibility and even love within this painfully divided world. Know that to entertain the very idea of achieving the highest vision of a UBI is, in itself, an expression of intelligence and common sense that arises from one’s inherent maturity, responsibility and love; for what else can such a vision reflect in these grossly unequal times, if not our unsuppressed conscience that says ‘everyone has the right to live’? It appears that many participants within the basic income movement are motivated by an intuitive belief that the world can be such a freer, more creative and joyful place, as there is obviously so much wealth and material produce that is unfairly shared among a relatively small minority of the world population. So the very idea of applying the principle of sharing to our economic problems, as realised through a UBI and manifold other redistributive policies, is to give concrete substance and structure to the aspirations enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When viewed through such a lens, the meaning of a UBI is not merely to ensure ‘the right to live’, for it can also be understood in the following terms: as the art of creating balance in the world’s social and economic affairs, until ‘right human relationship’ is an established reality in our everyday lives.


Part I: The threat of a dystopian future

Let us now examine the prospects for achieving the most comprehensive vision of a UBI worldwide, using the simple logic of our common sense and without resorting to complex intellectual arguments. On the surface, it may appear theoretically possible to implement a full UBI—at least in every highly industrialised country where established tax systems are already able to generate enough revenue to fund a universal social welfare system.[12] But we also have to ask ourselves a pertinent question: can we rely on the government of any country today to voluntarily prioritise the common needs of all their citizens? The history of social protection in the twentieth century may attest to huge improvements in the lives of millions of people, yet we now remain entrenched in a climate of financial austerity, declining public services and growing poverty in the majority of the world’s nations, despite the vast amount of wealth that is continually amassed by billionaires and large corporations. 

Although humanity is producing more wealth and resources than ever before in history, most developed nations remain preoccupied with selling armaments and increasing their international competitiveness through inequitable trade arrangements, rather than striving to guarantee everyone’s basic socioeconomic rights through the universal provision of public goods and unconditional monetary transfers. What will therefore happen to this modest proposal for economic sharing, if there is an escalation of war or another global financial catastrophe? We can be sure that the vulgar words ‘national security’ will soon be invoked to defend our government’s self-interested priorities, as we have already observed with the callous response of European leaders to the record influx of impoverished refugees and migrants. 

Another question to ask is whether it is realistic to implement a full UBI policy today, when every society is subsumed by a dark and irrepressible influence that we have previously defined as the forces of commercialisation.[13] The term ‘globalisation’ is insufficient to describe the iniquitous nature of these forces that now dominate our political and economic institutions, forces that are divisive, destructive and violent to the point of being inhuman. Many advocates for a basic income certainly understand the magnitude of this problem, even though we are apt to interpret it in misleading academic terms as the outcome of mass consumerism or so-called neoliberal capitalism. It is as if we have been distracted and deluded by unbridled market forces, which is the underlying factor that has given rise to the pervasive influence of commercialisation in recent decades, poisoning our politics, our societies, our values and collective behaviours. Indeed at the root of the world problem is not only a political ideology or certain modes of economic organisation, but our self-centred attitudes and intentions that make us all susceptible to commercialisation in its myriad of forms. Thus from the most basic psychological assessment, we can observe that one of the biggest hurdles to realising a UBI in any nation today, however rich or poor, is the pursuit of profit and wealth that dominates our social structures and our everyday lives.[14]

How then shall we introduce a full basic income policy that ensures no-one lives in poverty, when everyone is somewhat conditioned by these profit-driven forces that compel us towards materialistic, competitive and atomising behaviours? There is a symptomatic element in our societies that results from this prevalent mentality, which we call indifference—an indifference that is given physical expression in the complex administration of means-tested welfare schemes, with all their associated consequences of stigmatisation and punishment by government-appointed bureaucrats. We cannot just blame a lack of ‘political will’ for preventing a UBI from succeeding, when we all play a part in prolonging the systemic impasse by inadvertently conforming with this status quo. 

What do we think will happen if every citizen is given an obligation-free cash benefit each month, when our governments are privatising public assets and selling armaments to authoritarian regimes, and constantly manoeuvring to control the resources of weaker or dependent nations overseas? Through causing death and destruction with their covert foreign policies, many nations are in fact sustaining the idea of the ‘right to kill’, not the ‘right to live’. And through our collective indifference and conformity, a vast proportion of the public continues to vote for these same types of politician, thus lending their energy to the established thinking and attitudes that perpetuate the whole state of affairs. 

Is it therefore sufficient to give every adult a sum equivalent to say $1,000 per month, as if we can expect the wider problems of the world to subsequently resolve by themselves? The more UBI money I demand from my government in this existing social order, the more I must expect the trends of commercialisation, global warfare and competition over resources to worsen by a corresponding measure. For the more money I may duly receive as a statutory entitlement, the more stress and imbalance will inevitably be created by my government, who continues to pursue the same ruthlessly competitive and profit-driven approach to policymaking. And the more stress I experience in this increasingly dysfunctional society, the more I shall seek financial security and demonstrate a complacent response to the world’s problems. 

Such is the nature of the vicious circle, even in hypothetical terms. But in reality, will any level of a basic income be high enough while these pernicious trends are concurrently worsening? For the more governments persist with their commercialising and militaristic strategies, the more expensive life will become in the ever-shrinking public sphere. Until in the end, no-one can meet their basic rights to adequate food, healthcare, housing and education with $1,000 a month or even more, regardless of how frugally they try to live. And do we really believe that any government today is likely to redistribute equitable payments of such an amount to all citizens, rather than increasing its military budget in a time of nuclear weapons proliferation, climate upheaval and resurging nationalistic attitudes? 

We might see how simple it could be to implement a national-level UBI, if only the government and public could reach a consensus on what should be done. Achieving a more equal and inclusive society has always come down to very simple ideas of sharing resources through collective means, however impossible it may become in a complex society driven by the opposite principles of individualistic competition and self-interest. 

Just imagine that a husband and wife are fiercely arguing in the street, and it requires an outside observer to intervene and remind them who they are. Thus the bonds of love between that couple may be restored, which by a wider analogy might apply to the relationship between politicians and the public at large, if only both expressed the same values of goodwill and mutual support. Perhaps then we would see the principle of sharing expressed throughout the entire body politic, based on the common sense understanding that there is enough food and resources for everyone, and no-one need live in penury or starve. But sadly we must account for the reality of governments who avidly thirst for power, and a disparate citizenry that largely fails to support those few politicians who stand for economic sharing as the fundamental basis of our social contract. 

Hence the conditions have long been set for commercialisation to reign in world affairs, as enabled by the fight between conflicting political ‘isms’ and the complacency of the general populace. So complex has society become with all the laws that facilitate commercialisation and institutionalised greed, that even the most visionary politician with the right intentions is powerless to push a genuine UBI policy through any congress or parliament. Without the people of the world standing firmly behind them, the pioneers for a basic income guarantee are left begging for their idea before non-interested governments who remain ever servile to multinational corporations. And what chance do we have of persuading these governmental administrations amidst the divisions sustained by age-old vested interests, polarised ideologies and a widespread public indifference? There may be enough resources in the world for everyone to enjoy at least a minimal standard of living, but it is impossible to share that wealth more equitably within the governing paradigm of commercialisation. We might say that it is a compelling possibility that will remain a utopian impossibility, unless there is a significant change of thinking among our political leadership, coupled with a marked expansion of awareness throughout society as a whole.  

This sums up our paradoxical situation, when the need for a UBI has never been greater or more important in this age of automation, with new technologies rapidly usurping millions of jobs. As long as present trends continue, then major corporations are liable to benefit from the onset of mass technological unemployment, for then they will no longer need to be concerned with paying decent wages or complying with hard-fought workers’ rights. Take these as prophetic words, as we can be sure that large market-driven enterprises have no interest in the vagaries of the jobless poor, or the gradual establishment of right human relationship through implementing an economic model based on a just redistribution of co-owned wealth. From within the confines of this exploitative system, obviously we cannot count on any government to implement a basic income on our behalf, when they are more concerned with slashing benefits and employment regulations than protecting the established rights of insecure workers. 

All these self-destructive tendencies are set to rapidly worsen, until the continuing growth of the world population becomes the greatest barrier to achieving a robust UBI. This is a case of straightforward economics, for what government can guarantee a liveable income stream to an amount of legal residents that may increase by many millions each year? Unquestionably, the predicted rise of the population to over 11 billion this century will forestall many visions for a balanced and sustainable world.[15] There is little hope of fairly sharing each nation’s wealth among its whole population, for example, if the citizens of that nation cannot share the roads anymore due to the sheer amount of traffic congestion. Or are we willing to accept a global one-child policy as an overriding condition for implementing a UBI in every country? At the same time, are we willing to accept the continued rise of billionaires who seek to amass ever-increasing wealth, in order to sustain the ever-increasing need of government revenue to fund a maximal social state? Surely it won’t be long until the world itself cannot sustain this continued assault on its resources, rendering the prospect of a UBI into a mathematical and physical impossibility, regardless of its current political infeasibility. 

If we concur with the above reasoning we have to conclude that this simple policy proposal can only plausibly succeed in a limited measure that inevitably corrupts over time. Just as the universal social services in developed countries are widely being corrupted from their originating principles and ideals, so will the introduction of a basic income be corrupted and diverted from its transformative potential–presuming it holds any chance at all within this corruptive paradigm of rampant commercialisation, militarisation and unmitigated population growth. Bearing in mind that leading multinational corporations are wealthier and more powerful than many governments, any basic income scheme that establishment politicians invent is likely to be set as low as possible, perhaps in line with the libertarian views of free market ideologues like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. If left unchecked, perhaps the trends we have outlined will reach such a peak that nations will be forced to implement a meagre basic income in response to social unrest and even violent uprisings, which may inevitably result from soaring levels of joblessness and economic insecurity alongside the flagrant luxury of the few. 

Then we must also contemplate a dystopian vision of the future, where societies become like an open prison that is run on the basis of maintaining law and order among a subordinate population. Indeed, when an inmate arrives in prison to serve a long custodial sentence, they may have no happiness or hope for the future, but at least they have the certainty of being provided with the basic necessities needed to survive. Already for many people in the world, especially those who live in the most impoverished villages and shantytowns throughout the global South, there is no hope whatsoever for what tomorrow has in store. Many do not even have the same rights as prisoners, in a certain sense, if they do not have a roof over their heads or know where their next meal is coming from. Such a destitute person may agree theoretically that the world’s resources should belong to everyone, but what hope do they have of receiving their fair and due entitlement, when those resources are being accumulated and controlled by a fast decreasing percentage of the planet’s inhabitants? 

Clearly the numbers of the marginalised and dispossessed will continue to surge under these prevailing conditions, leading to a loss of hope and further misery for a growing swathe of humanity, in the richest as well as the poorest societies. If the only response of governments is a minimum-level UBI within national borders, combined with a progressively shrunken and privatised system of social services, then the outlook for what lies ahead in the 21st century is appallingly bleak and foreboding. We may look back in 80 years’ time and consider it a miracle that welfare states ever existed. For then we shall be living in a world that is exclusively dedicated to protecting the wealth of a privileged elite, who exist in a reality disconnected from the generalised privation of the subjugated majority.  


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Mohammed Sofiane Mesbahi is the founder of Share The World’s Resources (STWR), a civil society organisation based in London, UK, with consultative status at the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. STWR is a not-for-profit organisation registered in England, no. 4854864.

Editorial assistance: Adam Parsons.

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