Universal Basic Income could be a powerful way to recognize and enable civic engagement

Anna Grant, UBI Lab

“We’re seeing voter turnout decline across developed nations, in some of them really quite rapidly, says Daniel Park, who is writing his thesis on the impact of UBI on democratic participation. “If UBI could help to stem this flow of apathy by granting people more resources, more time and a greater feeling of respect from the political system, then that can only be a good thing. I certainly think it’s something worth looking at.”

Universal basic income (UBI) is often referred to as ‘money for nothing’, emphasising the unconditional nature of the payment. But in reality, a UBI could be a powerful way to recognise and even enable civic engagement. Citizens contribute to society in important ways other than through paid work: by volunteering, supporting others and through democratic participation. Therefore UBI being ‘no strings attached’ doesn’t have to mean it’s ‘for nothing’.

A 2018 House of Lords select committee found that civic engagement should be “a primary objective of a successful democratic nation.” The report quickly establishes the disastrous impact inequality is having on civic engagement, yet focuses its efforts elsewhere, sticking to making recommendations that can “be implemented without major shifts in the distribution of resources.” But a major shift in the distribution of resources may be precisely what’s needed and this could come in the form of a UBI, a payment in exchange for the diverse ways that all citizens contribute to society.

In fact, some have proposed that citizens should prove their contribution to society in order to receive a UBI. This could mean a required amount of voluntary work or, perhaps more controversially, compulsory voting. The link between participation and the payment would then be made explicit, but it isn’t a perfect solution, not least because a conditional UBI would be as intrusive and inefficient to administer as the current welfare system.

Civic engagement also has different meanings to different people, so any proposed way of ‘proving’ it would be arbitrary. For instance, some people may choose not to vote as a political statement, but this would make them ineligible to receive UBI. Park emphasises that forcing people to vote could also cause ‘donkey voting’, where voters “turn up and just close their eyes and put a tick in a box”. Introducing conditionality may bring its own problems, but a basic income would not have to make civic engagement mandatory in order to promote it.

An unconditional UBI could have a strong positive effect on democratic participation and this is particularly evident in the case of voter turnout. It’s often observed that being on a higher income makes an individual more likely to vote. A paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US, entitled ‘Family Income and the Intergenerational Transmission of Voting Behavior’, describes a study that successfully used cash transfers to demonstrate this effect. Children from the bottom half of the income distribution scale who received the cash transfers voted 10 to 20 percent more as adults. A basic income may be a powerful tool to combat low voter turnout when it is linked to low income.

But democratic participation covers many activities that go beyond turning up to vote. In a successful democracy, individuals must be able to promote their own political interests in the way they choose, so general participation would hopefully increase with a UBI alongside voter turnout.

Daniel Park outlines three reasons why he believes a UBI would have a positive impact on democratic participation. Firstly, “it will give people more time”, which could be dedicated to political action. Secondly, “it will give a greater level of social trust,” an effect which has been found in a UBI study in Finland. Finally, “social interactions and social capital increase, which is generally good because most people get their political information not from going out and reading manifestos, but from talking to each other.”

Some may disagree with the idea of giving a payment in exchange for democratic participation, insisting that it should be a fundamental right. This is rooted in the idea that participation is of most benefit to the individual as they can use it to promote their own interests. But individual participation has a collective benefit too, as it promotes the system that serves everyone’s interests. Ultimately, a successful democracy relies on everybody participating, so when people can engage more in democratic processes, the quality of democracy improves for everyone.

Volunteering is a fulfilling method of civic engagement that allows citizens to give their time to a cause they value. But many people are excluded from this process by the demands of their work life. By removing the threat of poverty, a basic income would open up voluntary work to everyone and it seems lots of people would take this opportunity. A survey conducted by UBI Taiwan found that 10% of people in Taiwan said they’d volunteer more if they received a UBI.

So a basic income would be a successful way to reward and encourage civic engagement. It would also address the limits that poverty places on participation. If civic engagement is “a primary objective of a successful democratic nation”, then changing resource distribution to enable it should be a top priority.

“We could have other methods of engaging people, but I also feel that UBI [is good] because it does so much more than this,” says Park. “This is such a small aspect of the idea of UBI, and it seems for everybody before now, not even really the point at all. This is mostly just to add weight to the argument and go, ‘Here is another way in which it is beneficial.’”

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