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Universal Basic Income: Reimagining Social Security (Part I)

A just society is a society that if you knew everything about it, you’d be willing to enter it in a random place.
-John Rawls

It has been beautifully suggested after deep deliberation that, “People don’t just have needs, rather they have ideas about their needs”, ideas which evolved over considerable period of time with cultural embodiment. The conception of social rights spreading through 20th century has brought around sea change in jurisprudence of rights associated with humans in general. The proclamation of UDHR under the aegis of UN General Assembly in 1948 has given the world a new segment of human rights, euphemistically called social rights. They provides for various rights like those covering social security, rest and leisure, work, education, decent standard of living and cultural participation.

Amongst a plethora of such rights, the coverage in this article will largely be restricted to socio-economic rights. Democratically nurtured constitutions across the globe unmistakably, are impregnated with provisions bearing fulfillment and protection of socio-economic rights. To put in perspective, Indian constitution provides for such rights in preamble itself, even before venturing into chapters of the opus. It has been argued by Cecile Fabre that , such rights protect the vital interests individuals have in autonomy and well-being.

Further, it has been emphasized that respect for socio-economic rights shall be at equal pedestal to that of civil and political rights in order to aspire for equality and decent polity. The fundamental tenet of implementing socio-economic rights is aimed at satisfying the most basic interests, those are inevitable for living a decent life.

Interestingly, socio-economic rights give rise to both negative as well as positive obligations. Henry Shue has also argued for recognizing and appreciating both positive and negative obligations emanating out of socio-economic rights. Under negative obligation, state is bound to protect the property, other assets of an individual form improper invasion. On the other hand positive obligations come into play, when an individual is completely unable to fend for their own needs. The need for positive obligations towards the state become more pronounced during crisis. Since, it is during crisis that an individual turns more vulnerable, as happened during 2008 financial crisis.

In order to absorb such thundering shocks during crisis period, a minimum core approached embraced in international human rights law as well as in some domestic jurisdictions provides with necessary cushion. This doctrine is targeted at securing basic fundamental amenities those are indispensable for dignified survival. In the landmark case of Grootboom v. Govt. of Republic of South Africa, it was duly recognized that the crisis need not restrict itself to physical needs of an individual, rather emotional and psychological dimension may be also be shocked.

Moreover, the impact of impaired protection of socio-economic rights on developing countries could be more shattering, since in such countries at a given point of time considerable population lives in state of impending crisis. In light of emerging uncertainties, a relatively new idea in realm of social security is being tested across various jurisdictions globally. This potential reimaging of social security is given a cloak of universality, thus colloquially called Universal Basic Income.


The specific terminology of Universal Basic Income is typically, employed when such universalization is based on citizenship. Though, the idea of basic income has enamored humanists for too long, a more recent of such usage could be associated with American revolutionary Thomas Paine. However, the idea underlying Paine’s imagination was that of Guaranteed Minimum Income, particularly covering those whose land was taken by the government.

Further, Philippe Van Parijs in his seminal work with Bruce Ackerman, perhaps the best-known academic advocate of basic income, puts basic income as “an income paid by a political community to all its members on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.” Thus, receiving basic income does not require satisfying a means or income test, it is also not conditioned on any work requirement.

It is to be noted that Basic Income is paid to each person on an individual basis and is completely independent of household size. Thus, there is no downward adjustment in the size of the transfer if, for instance, members are part of a larger household, in recognition of the fact that the per capita cost of living is smaller in larger households. Guaranteed minimum income falls short of this universal coverage, otherwise it is closely aligned with principle of UBI.

In fact, basic income is insulated from any intention or willingness to work nor, the fulfilment of any sort of broad notion of social contribution, such as employment, job search, education, training, , or home care for children or elderly.

It is being looked upon as a harbinger of just society. A society that promises every individual minimum level of basic living standard. It is an idea that could unite left, right and centre across political spectrum. It is an idea that could bestow dignity and should have been accomplished long ago in rich and wealthy country.

Universality + Unconditionality + Agency = Universal Basic Income

Universal: that the disbursal of such income will be aimed at achieving universalization in income parity at minimum threshold.

Unconditional: no strings attached payment being made to all citizens.

Agency: it is based on the principle that people are masters of their own fate. As it got written in The Economist, “The most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them”.

Political philosopher John Rawls wrote, “once a suitable minimum is provided by transfers, it may be perfectly fair that the rest of total income be settled by the price system.”

Similarly, highly revered legal economists Louis Kaplow and Steven Shavell have made an deliberative argument that the tax system, rather than the legal system, should be the sole method for redistributing income.


Economic Survey 2016-17 has described the concept of UBI as a radical and compelling paradigm shift, encompassing both social justice and economic productivity. It could create similar wonders to 21st century, what the civil and political rights did in 20th century.
Basic income might enables individuals to choose much more freely what’s appropriate for their situation. Basic income could raise the status of unpaid work, making care-work more appreciated.

The concept of UBI could make disruptive impact on following themes:

Social Justice

Primarily, UBI is a ground breaking test of a just and non-exploitive society. It ascertains the key agenda mentioned right at the beginning of constitution of ensuring justice to citizenry at large. Universal Basic Income augurs well with most basic norms of society, by guaranteeing equal respect to all citizens. Also, it is proposed to be anti-paternalistic granting choice of income utilization.

It has been widely circulated that, “the society that fails to guarantee a decent minimum income to all citizens will fail the test of justice”.

Economic Equality

UBI could play crucial role in rectifying the persistent imbalance of social spending spreading across districts in India. It has been analysed that the share of social spending of most poor districts is not coterminous to their percentage of poverty. Hence, there is a mismatch. Thus, in order to resolve this mismatch UBI can double up as magical wand.

Freedom of spending as well as that amount makes it a unique tool of social entitlement. As famously said by Milton Friedman, “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both”.

Poverty Alleviation

It has been contended that if implemented wisely, UBI could be most effective and fastest way in reducing poverty. It could be seen as the civilized way to combat poverty.

UBI counteracts against the inequalities generated by labor markets and immovable assets ownership by ensuring everyone a guaranteed flow of subsistence. It provides a sustained level of decent living standard for children extinguishing the pathologies of poverty traps and work disincentives characteristic of means-tested antipoverty programs.

It is soul-stirring to imagine abject poverty conditions prevalent mostly in global south, mostly imperial colonies. As is rightly said that, “Poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being”.

If we talk about India, it gives no satisfaction rather a state of dire shame, that one-fifth of population still managing their lives in poverty, due to which the goals prominently set in Preamble of social justice and that of individual dignity, remains unrealized.


One of the main arguments in favor of basic income is that it enhances individual liberty. Van Parijs is perhaps the most articulate representative of this perspective. He argues that “a defensible liberal conception of social justice . . . must maximin . . . people’s real freedom, that is, the means they require for the pursuit of their conception of the good life, whatever that is.”

Different economies have romanticized with the idea of UBI with varied extent of enthusiasm and dissimilar sense of success or failure. A pithy account is being presented in next part of this article.

……. Continued


Kartikay Yadav

Kartikay is pursuing LLM from National Law University, Delhi. An Engineer by training he has completed his LLB from University of Delhi.

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