Basic Income and Human Rights
10th November 2017


Earlier this week I had a piece published on openDemocracy. It’s the first journalistic piece I’ve got published, so I’m proud of that. It came about because I was interested in basic income as a concept, and know a lot about human rights, and realised that there is a good intersection of the two.

I think that using a human rights approach is quite useful for discussing basic income, and that nobody else had really written about this. As someone pointed out to me, there is a lot in discussions of basic income that is about human rights. This tends to be beneath the surface though, and I wanted to make this more explicit and link it into existing human rights.

Basic income has been discussed by human rights advocates:

  • The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights published a report about it <http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/35/26>. He is really pushing new ideas in the human rights arena, with previous reports on the marginalisation of social and economic rights, and about economic inequality and human rights. Both of these are interesting as part of political criticisms of human rights approaches and there is a lot to say about them.
  • It has also been described as a human right itself, with discussions and arguments that basic income should be a human right. There are many such articles out there, with a particular push in 2013 and the ‘Universal Declaration of Emerging Human Rights (UDEHR)’, which is not a UN or international law thing but an idea from civil society actors.

What I did in my piece was discuss how basic income fits existing human rights frameworks, and how this can be useful for the discussion of it:

“The human rights framework can be used for discussing the impacts that basic income policies might have. Instead of simply looking at GDP growth and inflation, we can look at whether it gives more people an adequate standard of living, access to housing and education, and to work of their free choice or acceptance. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, human rights values can help overcome cultural resistance to money which is not ‘earned’ as such.”


The most important thing about basic income, I think, is that it is an idea, not a policy. This is why it gets interest from across the political spectrum. This means:

  1. it depends on how it is implemented and what other policies it comes with.
  2. it depends on the political culture and narrative it comes with.

For neoliberalism, basic income is a dream because instead of the state providing services for people, it means that people are individual businesses who get given resources to spend as they wish. The NHS can be dismantled, because people can pay for insurance. All schools can be privatised, and the ‘free market’ will work because people can afford it. It doesn’t matter that corporations are owned by a small capitalist class or that housing is treated as a commodity to profit from, because people can pay for it, and basic income can make it easier.

An alternative, the one I agree with, would be that basic income would be part of a community-driven politics. It would see everyone as a valued member of society, giving them money to survive without the need for work. It sees people as part of this community, and encourage their participation in political and cultural activities. For example, we could say that Wednesday is a community day where instead of working, people take part in cultural groups, sport activities, political organising, etc.

Basic income would be part of a state-run healthcare system, education system, and various other civic services (rubbish collection, parks, emergency services, etc). This approach is also called Universal Basic Services, for example this article: <https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/oct/11/uk-universal-basic-services-jonathan-portes?CMP=share_btn_fb>.

My take is that it isn’t a competition between Basic Income and Basic Services, but that these can be complementary policies.We can think in terms out outcomes, ie what do we want people to have as an outcome, which I think human rights is a pretty good way to measure/be a goal. For some things, providing people with the money is best, for others services via the state is best.

Of course they conflict in some ways, when we think of a particular issue: eg should we give people money for rent or provide them with housing. But as a broader idea I think they fit together pretty well.