Louise Haagh, The Case for Universal Basic Income

Louise Haagh, The Case for Universal Basic Income, Polity Press, 2019, x + 217 pp, 1 5095 2296 5, pbk, £9.99

Louise Haagh has been a prolific writer about Universal Basic Income (UBI) in the past few years, and has conducted important research (on the punitive and divisive nature of present tax-benefit regimes) which informs her publications. In ‘The Case for Universal Basic Income’ she draws these studies together, to produce a powerful and comprehensive analysis of the current situation.

She starts with an account of the way in which post-war welfare states have been undermined by low pay and precarious employment, enforced by coercive authorities. To counter this, UBI is needed as the centrepiece of a drive for ‘democratic reconstruction’, building ‘individual capabilities … and co-operative capabilities’ (p.3). This will allow other forms of institution-building, on a foundation of democratic equality, based on equal interests in existential security.

So the originality of her case for UBI is that, in overcoming the perils of a fractured labour market in terms of individual security, it also enables the ‘democratisation of the economy as a whole’ (p.15). Here she transcends the case from basic security made by Guy Standing (2017), and that for freedom to choose diverse life styles by Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vandeborght (2017), to argue a case for human development and social equality, and ‘a more robust stance on governing the economy developmentally’, giving ‘a more independence-respecting’ security for all (p.17).

This implies that Basic Income ‘is not a form of justice in itself’, but is defended in terms of a ‘human development ethics rather than distributive ethics’ (p.37). In this respect, UBI is different from capital grants, which do not necessarily confer security or alter the dynamic of the whole economy (p.38).

Her humanist perspective on democracy emphasises individuals’ dependence on social conditions over time and in relation to others, giving the concepts of autonomy and choice developmental and social components. In this way, UBI contributes to potential for development regulation and planning (pp. 41-2), as parts of measures to support outcomes such as good health and occupational careers.

These arguments are strongly underpinned by her research on the punitive use of sanctions against claimants of means-tested social assistance and tax credits who are deemed to have failed to take opportunities for employment or increased earnings. The use of these has rapidly risen in many Western states since the financial crash of 2008; in the USA, Italy and Ireland they can lead to permanent disqualification. They have been applied especially savagely in the UK, where there is some evidence that they may have contributed to claimants’ deaths, as well as homelessness (pp. 25-7).

All these aspects of the case for UBI are developed throughout the book. In her conclusion chapter, she warns against positioning UBI as ‘a singular answer to the insecurities inherent in globalisation’; it is more appropriately ‘a contribution to establishing human development justice’ (p.148).

This book is a very valuable, carefully-argued contribution to the newly-invigorated debate about UBI, and should be read by everyone interested in the subject.


Bill Jordan is Honorary Professor of Social Policy and Social Work, University of Plymouth



Standing, G. (2017), Basic Income, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Van Parijs, P. and Vanderborght, Y. (2017), Basic Income, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.