All across the world, there is a rapidly growing movement calling for the establishment of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI advocates argue that giving all citizens a basic unconditional income above the poverty level would help solve the growing global inequality crisis, protect against the effects of loss of jobs to automation, increase creativity and entrepreneurship, reduce crime and other social ills, and increase people’s psychological and physical health.
Twentieth-century economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, both key builders of modern neoliberal capitalism, thought that some form of guaranteed income was the best way for governments to alleviate poverty. In recent years, UBI experiments have been conducted in places such as Namibia, India, and Brazil; Finland, the Netherlands, and Canada are carrying out government-funded experiments, and organizations like Y Combinator and GiveDirectly have launched privately funded experiments in the United States and East Africa. Politicians across Europe, including Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK’s Labour Party, have spoken up in favor of the idea. A recent survey found that 68 percent of people in Europe would vote for basic income given the chance.
I know what you’re probably not thinking: would the Buddha have backed a proposal to give all citizens a universal basic income? But you should be. In fact, we don’t have to speculate about the Buddha’s opinion, because the Buddha told us what he thought about it in two suttas of the Pali Canon.
While the innumerable suttas that advise laypeople to be generous are common knowledge, it is not as well-known that there are at least two suttas about how a dhammic government will prevent poverty among its citizens. The Sutta on The Wrong Sacrifice and The Right (Digha Nikaya 5) tells the story of a king who asks his wise brahmin advisor how to perform a “great sacrifice.” The brahmin points out that the country is afflicted with theft and violence, and if the king were to assure that everyone had the resources they needed for their work, these social ills would end. The king does so, and the problems disappear. The argument recognizably follows a logical pattern that permeates the earlier Buddhist discourses known as dependent origination. “When this is, that is; with the cessation of this, comes the cessation of that.”
It may be somewhat startling to see this logic applied to social problems, but it is not the only example. In the Sakka’s Questions Sutta (DN 21), for instance, this analytical method is also applied to the causes of warfare. Although in the Sutta On The Wrong Sacrifice and The Right the advice is in the mouth of a brahmin, the framing story is actually told by the Buddha when himself speaking to a brahmin, cleverly putting the advice in the lineage of the man’s own tradition. This sutta advises that those working should be guaranteed the resources they need to work, which stops short of the idea of an unconditional basic income (whether one works or not) but another sutta goes further.
In the Wheel-Turning King Sutta (DN 26), the Buddha talks about the king who rules by dhamma. This kind of king is said to give “protection, shelter, and safety for all members of society as well as the birds and the beasts.” The Buddha says that such a king should provide “wealth to the needy,” ensuring there is no poverty. If he does so, the Buddha says, the people will not violate the five precepts (killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and taking intoxicants) and their lifespan and beauty (i.e., health) will also increase. If the king does not, then immorality will increase and people’s lifespan and beauty will decrease, and this will be passed on to their children.
This jibes well with today’s evidence. UBI trials indicate that a universal income does not encourage people to stop working, depress people’s creativity, or stagnate the economy—just the opposite. Some examples: in 2013 and 2014, several basic income experiments were conducted in India. Villages receiving basic income payments saw increased economic activity and work rates and more people starting new businesses. A UBI trial in Uganda helped to spark economic growth in a 2008 experiment, and in a 2011 experiment in Kenya, villages where residents received direct cash transfers had increased rates of economic consumption. Many Americans might be surprised to know that a partial form of UBI already exists in Alaska, in the form of the Alaska Permanent Fund, a $60.1 billion state fund established in 1976. It collects revenue from Alaska’s oil and mineral leases, which is dispersed in an annual stipend of up to $2,072 per person in one of the most “red” states in the Union.
Such evidence notwithstanding, critics of UBI often accuse it of being socialism and charge that it would encourage people not to work while depressing creativity. As the above evidence shows, however, the opposite seems to be true. People receiving a basic income not only keep on working but also feel free to invest in themselves and in new ventures, and recent scientific studies (here, and here) show that when people are freed from extrinsic rewards for creative work, their performance actually improves. Similarly, fear of poverty has been shown to actually lower IQ and depress abilities to problem solve and learn.
Aside from the immediate personal and social benefits this brings, UBI would also reduces inequalities both in financial and cultural resources. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, cofounders of The Equality Trust and authors of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, point out that numerous studies have shown that societies with greater inequality have lower degrees of interpersonal trust and greater amounts of crime, mental illness, teen pregnancy, obesity, substance abuse, and homicide. As the Wheel-Turning King Sutta predicts, they also have reduced lifespans, and these effects are passed on to their children.
“Societies in which there is much greater equity of income correlate to other factors which measure the wellbeing of a society,” says Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of the leading scholar-monks of Theravada Buddhism and the founder of Buddhist Global Relief, an organization dedicated to alleviating severe poverty and hunger. Unsurprisingly, Ven. Bodhi agrees “entirely” with the idea of implementing UBI in the US, where he is based.
“Perhaps it could be funded with a reduction in the $850 billion dollars the United States spends on the military,” he comments with dry humor, “or with a small tax on financial speculation like Sen. Bernie Sanders suggested.”
In the 1970s, the US actually ran a trial of UBI, under the leadership of President Nixon. For Nixon, UBI was an efficient way to reform social welfare. In 1968 five well respected economists—John Kenneth Galbraith, Harold Watts, James Tobin, Paul Samuelson, and Robert Lampman—wrote that “[t]he country will not have met its responsibility until everyone in the nation is assured an income no less than the officially recognized definition of poverty.” The New York Times published their letter, signed by 1,200 fellow economists, on the front page. Three years later their recommendation became a trial. BBC Future, in an article on UBI, quotes Dutch historian Rutget Bregman, an advocate of basic income and author of the book Utopia for Realists, as saying the trial had a significant positive impact. “One mother earned a degree in psychology and got a job as a researcher; another woman took acting classes while her husband began composing music.” Nixon’s experiment also found that young people tended to spend more time in education when they were not working. The rollout of the policy was stopped, however, after a backlash from conservatives led by Martin Anderson, a Nixon advisor who was a fan of the libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand.
Canada ran a similar trial to the US in the 1970s, giving 30 percent of the people in the small town of Dauphin, Manitoba, $15,000 each. A 2011 analysis of the trial by Evelyn Forget, an economist at the University of Manitoba, found that high school completion rates increased, physician visits to treat mental illness decreased, and hospitalization rates dropped by 8.5 percent. Importantly, employment rates amongst adults did not change.
UBI advocates claim benefits that go beyond those mentioned in the suttas as well. Providing everyone with a basic income would streamline government bureaucracy, because it’s easier to pay one benefit to all than the myriad differentiated types of social welfare that we engage in now.
Despite the fear of socialism often provoked by the discussion of UBI, it is in fact not necessarily a move away from capitalism, something no doubt welcomed by some and disappointing to others. Whether profit can legitimately act as the supreme value of human society or not is a separate issue. As UBI advocate Scott Santens writes, “Entrepreneurship thrives in markets with basic income operating as both startup capital and consumer spending. F. A. Hayek himself knew this. Milton Friedman knew this. Both advocated free markets. Both advocated basic income. Why? Because markets require everyone has at least some money in order to participate in them. A market full of customers without cash is like a democracy full of citizens without the right to vote.”
UBI is not a panacea. Giving people enough money to live with dignity and security will not heal the wounds of poverty overnight—the legacies of abuse, addiction, and lack of education. But 2600 years ago the Buddha argued that it was a step in the right direction, and societies with the courage to implement it may find he was right.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.