Move the debate from Universal Basic Income to Universal Basic Services:

UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab

January 19, 2021

Many arguments have been made for Universal Basic Income (UBI). This article summarizes an alternative case: for Universal Basic Services (UBS). The issue of their relationship is not directly considered here, but the argument is made that UBS is more egalitarian and sustainable than UBI, as befits the rethinking of eco-social policy in the face of dangerous climate change. Furthermore, it is argued that UBS is also politically more incremental and reformist than the case for a true UBI.
UBS advocates a wider range of free public services enabling every citizen to meet their basic needs and achieve certain levels of security, opportunity, and participation. The core principles are:

  • Universal: guaranteed entitlement according to need and not one’s ability to pay.

  • Basic: sufficient rather than minimal, enabling people to meet their basic needs, participate in society, and flourish.

  • Services: collectively generated activities that serve the public interest.


In many countries, public health services and school to higher education are founded on these goals, despite cuts, attacks, and ongoing disputes over principles. UBS poses the question: can we extend these principles to other basic necessities, such as housing, care, transport, information, and nutrition (IGP, 2017)?
Clearly, these necessities are all very different things, so there can be no uniform formula to implement UBS. But entitlements to certain levels of provision can be guaranteed and these can be backed up by a menu of public interventions including regulation, standard setting and monitoring, taxation, and subsidies. This does not necessarily entail direct government provision – a plurality of collective and communal providers will be involved with appropriate support from government. But the unifying principle is to extend collective solutions, as opposed to providing income support and leaving provisioning to market forces.
The case for collective provision to meet such needs can be made on two main grounds: equity and sustainability (though there are also strong arguments for efficiency and solidarity covered elsewhere but not here).

Full article available: here

From efficiency to sufficiency – the path to a just transformation

January 2021


PRIME has from the start intended to rethink economic theory to take on board the ecological crisis and its human impacts. It has played an important role in developing the idea of a Green New Deal, the radical strategy to combine decarbonisation and other practices to ensure the integrity of the natural environment alongside the advancement of human wellbeing and greater equality. Much GND thinking has focused on making production and consumption more eco-efficient by decoupling economic activity from planetary damage. I want to argue here that while this is essential, it cannot be enough. The vast scale of the decoupling required, and the tiny timescale within which it must be achieved, rule this out as the sole means of transition to a sustainable economy. We must move from efficiency to sufficiency, for reasons of both ecological sustainability and social justice.

Thus we in the rich world must also question consumption and the structure of demand. This need not entail embracing a degrowth strategy, though there are many overlaps. Rather, as I argue in Heat, Greed and Human Need, we must recompose consumption away from high carbon luxuries while at the same time ensuring that minimum decent living standards are enhanced.

This means embracing demand-side climate policies alongside the full spectrum of technological supply-side programmes

Full article available: here

Climate breakdown and valuing what matters: a key lesson from Covid-19

December 2020

The Covid crisis is questioning many of the hidden assumptions of contemporary capitalist economies. One of these is the nature of economic value – what activities have value, are essential or critical to survival, prosperity, and justice in some way, and what are wasteful or destructive.


This was brought home to me by a mundane list published by the UK government on March 19th, 2020: Guidance for schools, childcare providers, colleges and local authorities in England on maintaining educational provision. It listed those groups of essential workers whose children would be entitled to continuing educational provision after the shutdown of schools, preschools and colleges. In so doing it set out the sectors of the economy ‘critical to the COVID-19 response’. The sectors extend way beyond health and care or emergency services. They include farmers, supermarket staff, workers in water, electricity, gas and oil, teachers, telecommunication workers, transport staff, workers in law and justice, religious staff, social security staff and retail banking staff. A similar, but wider, list was published by the govern-ment in Ireland.


Identifying essential workers in this way has been anathema to conventional neo-classical economic theory, where any activity is deemed valuable or productive if it is remunerated, whatever its social value or disvalue. A carer equates with a hedge fund manager. So the coronavirus has achieved in a few weeks a shift in perspective unequalled in eight dec-ades. It has begun to question the nature of economic value. Yet a much, much greater crisis is now walk-ing towards us – that of climate and ecological breakdown. What are the lessons we can learn from the above?


I have argued in Heat, Greed and Human Need: Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing that a value theory to cope with these times must focus not on market exchange value but on sustainable wellbeing. This includes two fundamental components. First, meeting common human needs as the fundamental ethical goal, and second, prioritising provisioning for these needs in a foundational economy (Gough 2019).


First, to understand sustainable wellbeing requires a rigorous theory of human needs. This was the subject of an earlier book I co-authored with Len Doyal which has gained a renewed following in recent years. Unlike wants or preferences, needs are in theory satiable. The distributive principle entailed by human need theory is sufficiency: to bring all individuals up to a threshold (though this can be defined in different ways).

Second, the idea of non-substitutable need satisfiers entails the concept of a “foundational economy” as a network of ‘systems of provision’ which directly delivers a range of essential need satisfiers in contemporary market economies: utilities, the food system, housing, health, education and care services, emer-gency services, public administration and retail banking and payments systems (Floud et al. 2018).


There is a close match between basic need satisfiers, critical sectors of the foundational economy and government lists of essential occupations. When we need to identify essential or critical occupations we come back to human need satisfaction and the foundational economy.

This has relevance for radical strategies to tackle the worsening crisis of climate and ecological break-down. If we are eventually to transition to a post-growth economy we will need to recompose con-in the rich world: to reduce consumption emissions by switching from high-to low-carbon goods. To make this fair or just would then entail the idea of a ‘consumption corridor’, between minimum consumption standards, allowing every individual to live a good life, and maximum standards, ensuring a limit on every individual’s use of natural and social resources in order to guarantee a good life for others in the present and in the future. This means drawing distinctions between necessities and luxuries; or between necessities, comfort goods, and luxuries. And this takes us back to need theory, and to concepts of universal basic needs and services.

The lessons from Covid-19 about valuing what matters need to be applied to tackling climate break-down. This needs to happen in such a way as to ensure extensive citizen participation, while at the same time with the irreplaceable contribution of experts too, as the Covid-19 experience has brought home. Examples include the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland and citizens’ forums on curbing emissions in Canada, France, and the UK.

The Covid crisis is questioning many of the hidden assumptions of contemporary capitalist economies. Already policy innovations by governments have begun to crack the carapace of business as usual. I suggest that this includes the hegemony of the neo-classical theory of value – that price determines value, and that the notion that distinguishing the social contribution of different sectors, groups of workers and consumption practices is an irrelevance or an impertinence. It is not. It is central to building an environmentally sustainable and just economy

UBI: A False Promise

November 2020

Universal basic income is a policy rather than a fundamental value or goal of collective action, unlike freedom, equality, well-being, or sustainability. It is one very specific route to such values or goals and should be evaluated accordingly. With that in mind, I want to question the coherence of UBI as a policy strategy and to question the values which it purports to pursue.

What Is UBI?

In a way, this is the central question. In his opener, Guy Standing defines BI (no longer UBI) as “providing every legal resident of a country with an equal monthly sum of money, without conditions, as an economic right.” This is usually qualified as a “modest sum,” though the original idea was “a basic amount on which every citizen can survive.” For example, the UK Green Party proposes “a guaranteed, non-means-tested income, sufficient to cover basic needs, payable to every woman, man and child legally resident in the UK.” The reliable Loughborough Minimum Income Standards research finds that a decent participatory income in the UK today would amount to some 80% of the median income, i.e., about £200 per person per week or £10,000 per person per annum.

To my knowledge, no one, anywhere in the world, is seriously proposing a full UBI.

Full article available here

Reviewing the NHS’s net-zero strategy

October 15, 2020

The UK’s National Health Service recently announced an ambitious plan to become net-zero by 2045, the first health system in the world to make such a commitment. Ian Gough reviews the report which sets out how the NHS plans to deliver on this significant goal.

On 1 October the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) became the world’s first health system to commit to delivering a net-zero service, and by an earlier date than the 2050 target set last year by the UK government for the economy as a whole.

In its new net-zero strategy, Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service, the NHS Public Board has set two targets:  

  • For the emissions controlled directly by the NHS (the ‘NHS carbon footprint’): net-zero by 2040, with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2028–32.

  • For an extended set of emissions including those that they can influence in the supply chain (the ‘NHS carbon footprint plus’): net-zero by 2045, with an ambition to reach an 80% reduction by 2036–39.

This is important because the NHS is the biggest single organisation in the country, with a staff of 1.3 million and accounting for 7.2% of GDP.  

Full article available here

Great Transition Network, Discussion on UBI

October 2020

In my view, Paul Raskin gets this web discussion off on the wrong foot, when he writes: ‘Guy [Standing's] philosophical and political arguments set the right tone by mercifully staying clear of the knotty details of how a UBI might be designed’. But UBI is precisely a policy rather than a fundamental value or goal of collective action, unlike freedom, equality, wellbeing, sustainability, or whatever. It is one specific route to a value goal or goals and should be evaluated as such. I want to question the coherence of UBI as a policy strategy and to question the values which it purports to pursue.


What is UBI?

In a way, this is the central question. Guy Standing defines BI (no longer UBI) as ‘providing every legal resident of a country with an equal monthly sum of money, without conditions, as an economic right’.  This is usually qualified as a ‘modest sum’, though the original idea was ‘a basic amount on which every citizen can survive’. For example, the UK Green Party proposes ‘a guaranteed, non-means-tested income, sufficient to cover basic needs, payable to every woman, man and child legally resident in the UK’. The reliable Loughborough Minimum Income Standards research finds that a decent participatory income in the UK today would amount to some 80% of the median income or about £200 per person per week, or £10,000 per person per annum.


To my knowledge, no one, anywhere in the world, is seriously proposing a full UBI. For instance, the Citizen's Income Trust has ruled out the possibility of a Full Citizen’s Income for everyone as far too expensive. So all extant pilots, experiments and plans in the rich, developed world are for what might be called a minimal BI. This is the case for the UK Royal Society for the Arts scheme, Andy Stern’s US plan, and Philippe Van Parijs’s Euro-dividend of €200 a month.

Full article available: here

Universal Basic Services: Letters to the London Review of Books 

February 2019

Let us accept the need, acknowledged by John Lanchester, for a new economy that will reverse the frightening momentum of neoliberalism and avert climate catastrophe, tax global corporations and the rich, even cut military spending (LRB, 18 July). How is Universal Basic Income any kind of solution to these problems? There are many different versions, as Lanchester says. But there is a core idea: UBI is a programme giving every citizen or resident a regular income for life, with no strings attached, which is enough to live on and provides ‘security’. It is not about handing out cash to rough sleepers. It is not Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programme. It isn’t even Alaska’s Permanent Fund, since $1400 a year is not enough to starve on, let alone enjoy security. Nor is it any of the various plans, from the UK Royal Society for the Arts scheme or Andy Stern’s US plan or Philippe Van Parijs’s start-low-and-see-how-it goes €200 idea.

All extant pilots, experiments and plans are partial. They give money to selected groups of people or they give a little bit of money to everyone and then usually payments cease after a limited period. Insofar as there is evidence that any of these schemes ‘work’, it is only on their own, limited terms. So what is all the fuss about? 

Full article available here: link

Universal Basic Services: A Theoretical and Moral Framework

16 January 2019

The case for Universal Basic Services (UBS) is a recent idea that is attracting much attention. This article provides a theoretical justification for extending the delivery of public services, as an alternative to the longer‐standing argument for Universal Basic Income (UBI). It rests on human need theory and the concept of provisioning systems. Both recognise the irreducible heterogeneity of consumption, the multi‐faceted nature of human needs and the variety of systems on which we all depend. Both recognise the importance of shared systems and mutual benefits. The final part restates the case for social rights or entitlements to the satisfaction of basic needs and for collective responsibilities to meet them to serve the values of equality, efficiency, solidarity and sustainability.


The extended crisis of what we can still call the welfare state has provoked proposals for radical, encompassing reform. The gap between the rich and poor is widening, children go to school hungry and dirty, and life expectancy rates are beginning to fall. More people are in work, but work doesn't pay and the so‐called ‘social security’ system provides nothing of the sort. Since the financial crash, alternatives have increasingly encompassed economic restructuring. Following growing awareness of the climate crisis, some also include radical environmental reform. The present predicament can be summarised as fragmented and degraded welfare, plus financialised, short termist and unsustainable capitalism.

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is perhaps the most all‐embracing radical alternative. UBI has become increasingly popular on the left, right and centre as a unitary solution to the social and economic fractures and failures in modern society. According to the Compass group, ‘There is no single silver bullet policy to create a Good Society—but basic income is the closest there is’.1 But it has also attracted growing criticism, both normative and pragmatic.2 I share many of the critiques but I do not rehearse them here. Instead I develop the case for an alternative—Universal Basic Services (UBS).

The idea of UBS was originally developed by the Institute for Global Prosperity in 2017.3 It proposed a wider range of free public services that enable every citizen to live a larger life by ensuring access to certain levels of security, opportunity and participation.

Full article available here: link

The Green New Deal 

The growing campaign for a Green New Deal in the US is interesting. And Philip is right to pose the question whether it provides some purchase for campaigns to recompose consumption and shift towards sustainable lifestyles.


In my book Heat, Greed and Human Need I regard GND as a first-stage green capitalist strategy to enable a Stern-like decoupling of emissions from output. While highly desirable it challenges neither growth nor consumer preferences. This is Thomas Friedman’s position in the NYT. He appeals to ‘Father Greed — a.k.a., the market. I am a green capitalist. I think we will only get the scale we need by shaping the market’. To keep it simple, he proposes as goals “the four zeros.” 1. Zero-net energy buildings: buildings that can produce as much energy as they consume. 2. Zero-waste manufacturing: stimulating manufacturers to design and build products that use fewer raw materials and that are easily disassembled and recycled. 3. A zero-carbon grid. 4. Zero-emissions transportation: a result of combining electric vehicles and electric public transportation with a zero-carbon grid.


The progressive Green New Deal that the new Democrat Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has laid out also aspires to power the U.S. economy with 100 percent renewable energy within 12 years. It refers, in the loosest sense, to a massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, meant to transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy. But it also aims to make the economy fairer and more just via such measures as “a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one,” “basic income programs” and “universal health care,” financed, at least in part, by higher taxes on the wealthy. This what I would call a fair green growth strategy or a ‘just – or at least a more just – transition’.


Nothing wrong with that; indeed it marks a tremendous advance in the US, as would a ‘green jobs in every constituency’ campaign in the UK and similar demands in other countries. But it does not challenge current patterns of consumption and the relentless commercial pressures to consume more. That is why I regard ‘recomposing consumption’ as a distinct second strategy to help achieve the enormous rate of decarbonisation now required. (And beyond that a third stage of moving to a stationary economy).


But these conceptual distinctions are blurred in real political struggle. Pursuing fair green growth via a progressive GND is intended to challenge and reduce current levels of inequality that fuel conspicuous consumption. It will add weight to calls for necessities to be prioritised over luxuries and thus open up discussion on what consumption is for. The call for universal health care puts public services and social consumption on the agenda in the US in a big way; in Europe this could drive support for a wider range of ‘Universal Basic Services’. New green investments would also provide the necessary infrastructure to enable consumers to switch, for example from cars to public transport.


So in these ways I think the growing interest in GND can provide an opportunity to extend the audience for the Scorai agenda.