LONDON MAYORAL CANDIDATE Shaun Bailey recently said that if people were given a Universal Basic Income (UBI) they would spend it on ‘lots of drugs’. This was widely reported. Less widely reported was the response of Dr Simon Duffy, speaking in the same meeting, where he helped to persuade the Economic Committee of the London Assembly to vote in favour of a pilot of UBI in the capital.
Dr Duffy said: “What the UK has become is an increasingly mean-spirited society. What we’ve seen is a decline in respect for people on low incomes, and a concomitant decline in the value of basic benefits. So now, the poorest 10 per cent of people in the UK receive, after tax, about £40 to £50 per person [per week]. There’s a reason why they get less and less – it’s to do with the political choices that we make, it’s to do with the way the political system has been able to stigmatise those people as somehow unworthy. And that’s why we increasingly move away from cash and economic security and move to increased sanctions and conditionality, and even talk of vouchers. It’s all interconnected. And what we really need to do – and this is about politics, not economics – we need to move towards a universal approach that says every citizen is entitled to economic security, every citizen is worthy of respect. And that’s where the love is, Shaun.”
The idea that an economic or political policy could be an expression of love, and a recognition of the innate dignity and worth of every human being may sound unusual to our ears, but it really shouldn’t. As the Archbishop of York said recently, “Loving your neighbour is a profoundly political statement.”
This connection, between truly loving our neighbour and its and implications for politics is explored in a profound way in Catholic Social Teaching, and there we find a single phrase which fundamentally challenges the way our society and our economy are organised. That phrase is “the universal destination of goods”.
The universal destination of goods means, quite simply, that as the world was created for all of us, and as we are all equal in human dignity and worth, then we are all entitled to a share of what the world has to offer. And this right does not have to be earned – it is the automatic right of every human being, by virtue of being human.
The phrase first appeared in the foundational document of CST, Rerum Novarum, written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. The principle has largely remained in the realm of the abstract, underpinning a belief in social justice, but with no specific policy application endorsed by the church. Recently however, Pope Francis has been quite vocal in his insistence that the time has come to put such beliefs into practice, in order to protect the planet and human dignity.
In his new book Let Us Dream: The path to a better future, Pope Francis suggests that the way this principle could be put into practice is through a Universal Basic Income. He says the restoration of people’s dignity should be a central objective after the pandemic, and writes, “Recognising the value to society of the work of nonearners is a vital part of our rethinking in the post-Covid world. That’s why I believe it is time to explore concepts like the universal basic income (UBI)…The UBI could reshape relations in the labour market, guaranteeing people the dignity of refusing employment terms that trap them in poverty. It would give people the basic security they need, remove the stigma of welfarism, and make it easier to move between jobs…”
UBI is an idea which is the logical outcome of looking at the world through a lens of love and justice. To be implemented properly it will, as Dr Duffy acknowledges, involve some redistribution of wealth. This will no doubt meet resistance, particularly from those who have most, and therefore have most to lose. But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The right to private property is secondary to the right of everyone, without exception, to their share in the goods of creation. The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise” (Catechism 2403).
A Universal Basic Income may be considered radical, but it is no more radical than Catholic Social Teaching.
* Read about Basic Income Plus, proposed by Dr Simon Duffy and Caroline Richardson, here.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden