Freedom and the UBI by Gordon Ballingrud

This is the inaugural post for my blog.

I don’t know whom exactly I’m writing this for, since I am fairly certain that no one will visit this page or read these posts—so maybe I am doing this just for myself. Here I plan to sketch out some ideas in preliminary form on my study of politics.

I don’t plan to comment on current events, exactly, nor do I plan to print my paper manuscripts before peer review. Something in between. I plan for this to be sort of a free-form commentary on various issues, and to serve as a way for me to explore thoughts both too inchoate and too narrow in scope to become full paper manuscripts, but more carefully thought out than just a series of hot takes.

So many this is my way to get my own thinking in order on a range of issues from my reactions to material I read for research or for class, and maybe occasionally a thought or two on current events, and how they pertain to my areas of interest.

To that end, and to set the tone for this blog, I will recreate an op-ed that Brad and I wrote but which was never published. It’s on the universal basic income (UBI) as a freedom-enhancing measure which the ostensibly freedom-loving American right rejects even in its less ambitious iterations (like various welfare systems), much to their own ideological inconsistency, and speaking to the poverty of their conceptions of liberty.

So here it is:

The UBI: Freedom in the 21st Century

Gordon Ballingrud & Bradley Hunsinger


            Americans love to talk about freedom.  Our politicians promise to defend it, and cloak themselves in its legitimizing garb.  Most everyone claims to support freedom, but one policy, which would substantially enhance the freedom of most Americans, has recently seen partisan groups draw their familiar entrenched battle lines.  If we are committed to American liberty, then we should take this policy much more seriously: the universal basic income (UBI).

We hope to convince you all that a UBI is both a method to dramatically enhance freedom. Whatever the UBI’s economic merits or demerits are, if the UBI protects basic liberties, it is required by justice.

Money is a prerequisite for freedom.  But we must give such a protean term as freedom term definition.  We will focus on two familiar and intuitively appealing dimensions.  The first is the absence of restraint.  The second is the absence of domination. 

The economic arrangements under which goods are produced, collected, and distributed prevent access by many people, those who have limited funds. This is not to say that any person has a right to something that he cannot afford.  I may have no right to board a train if I have not paid for a ticket, but nonetheless, I lack the freedom to do it.  The concept of freedom is distinct from the concept of rights.  The wider the area of non-interference, the wider is my freedom.  And money lifts barriers that would otherwise interfere.

Money ensures that a person who would otherwise interfere with your behavior will not do so: a store clerk who would stop you from leaving will permit you to leave, if you lay down the requisite funds for the items.  A person without money is less free than the same person with plenty of money.  Basic liberties, those necessary for developing a conception of the good life and pursuing it, are especially affected.  If we take freedom seriously as a political value, then we should be taking the UBI seriously as a national policy.

Consider an unskilled worker.  This person works for minimum wage (perhaps at more than one such job), and has no savings.  Millions of Americans fit this category.  This worker’s employer(s) demand something like following employer guidelines for conduct outside of work.  The prospect of being left with no money on which to subsist means that the worker has no realistic power to deny this order without another lined up beforehand, which would still leave the worker at the mercy of similar demands from the next employer.  This hypothetical laborer is dominated: he or she has no power to resist the demands of the employer because the fearsome prospect of having no job leaves subsistence in question.  This person is subject to an arbitrary power, one which he or she has little power to resist.  Recourse to labor laws may provide some relief, but depends on access to legal counsel, and varies with the willingness of government to support the demands of labor.

The UBI gives the worker has the option to leave a job that imposes unreasonable or invasive demands.  Having an income guaranteed by law affords this worker power to leave a job if he finds the demands unreasonable.  This is power granted by the removal of the coercive prospect of homelessness and destitution.  All the more dramatic for the unemployed and homeless, a guaranteed minimum not only lifts barriers to access for essential resources, but also affords a dignified option in lieu of distasteful means to survival: prostitution, drugs, panhandling, etc.

A free society removes the requirement to work tirelessly just to survive.  Concluding this does not require any special portion of compassion or sympathy on our parts.  It requires that we give to all (especially the vulnerable) the same freedoms we would want for ourselves if we didn’t know our talents or social positions: freedom from the demands of mere survival so that we might choose and pursue a fulfilling life. 

We care to be seen as freedom-loving, and praise our system endlessly for this general commitment. But this is worth little unless it is matched by particular commitments. The arbitrary threat of destitution held over one's head by a private employer is just as much a blow against liberty as a similar threat by the state. We would do well to compel our elected officials redress such threats.