Basic Income Basics: Why Basic Income is Good for Freedom

By Catarina Neves and Roberto Merrill

‘In the daily lives of most men and women, fear plays a greater part than hope: they are more filled with the thought of the possessions that others may take from them, than of the joy that they might create in their own lives and in the lives with which they come in contact. It is not so that life should be lived.’ – Bertrand Russell, Roads to Freedom, 1919

As Bertrand Russell puts it, most of us live in fear – of not being able to pay our rent, to find a steady job or quit our existing one. Fear constrains our choices, hence our possibilities. This insight is central to one of the main arguments for a universal basic income (UBI): a periodic, uniform (except by age), unconditional cash payment, delivered to all on an individual basis. By lifting or diminishing the pressure to make ends meet, it will reduce this state of fear and make us more free.

To develop this insight in this article we examine three types of freedom: positive, negative, and republican freedom. We show how UBI can promote each type of freedom – which also partly explains how it can attract support from both left and right.

Three conceptions of freedom

Western political philosophy has been shaped by three main conceptions of freedom – positive, negative, and republican. The first two were popularized by Isaiah Berlin, in his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. In Berlin’s words, liberty in the negative sense is ‘simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others’ (Berlin 1969, 16). Negative freedom is therefore about acting as one wishes or might wish without interference by others. Positive freedom, on the other hand, is about autonomy,
the individual’s own direction of themselves: ‘I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside’ (Berlin 1969, 23).

Both views of liberty have important limitations. Positive freedom expresses the importance of self-mastery. Grounding our policies on positive freedom, we see the relevance of endowing people with the resources, opportunities, or, in Amartya Sen’s terms, capabilities, that allow them to flourish (Sen 1999). However, the notion of positive freedom can also be linked to the idea that the individual ought to free himself from whims and passions, looking to find and follow a ‘higher self’ as opposed to a ‘lower’ one (Berlin 1969, 24). But positing higher conceptions of the self, and of a morally superior life, can be dangerous, overlooking the pluralism of reasonable views of the good life. It is potentially authoritarian and oppressive.

Negative freedom is often associated with classical liberalism. As mentioned before, it is about being free from interference: from other individuals, from the state, from the majority. But there are also limitations to this view of freedom. Philip Pettit asks us to consider the example of slavery, the paradigm case of unfreedom (Pettit 1997).

What makes a slave unfree? Imagine a ‘benevolent’ slave-owner who allows the slave to do what they wish. Although, under this very rosy assumption, the slave would not encounter much interference by the slave-owner, we would not consider the slave to be free. According to Pettit, this is because the slave, while not experiencing interference, is nevertheless subject to domination. The only reason the slave is able to act as they wish is because the slave-owner is ‘benevolent’. At any point, the slave-owner might choose, for whatever reason, to restrict the slave’s actions. This condition of being dependent on the arbitrary will of someone else means that the slave is the subject of domination. And domination makes them unfree.

This brings us to the third, republican view of freedom: freedom as non-domination, of not living subject to another’s power of arbitrary interference. Pettit places the republican notion between the positive and the negative views: ‘This conception is negative to the extent that it requires the absence of domination by others, not necessarily the presence of self-mastery, whatever that is thought to involve. The conception is positive to the extent that, at least in one respect, it needs something more than the absence of interference; it requires security against interference, in particular against interference on an arbitrary basis’ (Pettit 1997, 51).

UBI and the three types of freedom

How does UBI affect each type of freedom – positive, negative, and republican? In the case of positive freedom, payment to the individual of an unconditional cash transfer can give them crucial resources they need to better achieve the status of control over their lives and to realise their ‘higher self’. It can do this by acting as security against economic turmoil, helping them to get training or to take up a job, or to exit an abusive relationship. One sees perhaps the clearest echo of this positive liberty approach in those arguing for a UBI as the necessary platform for enabling people to live more creative and fulfilling lives, with more choice over the kind of work they do.

UBI can also be defended from the negative freedom perspective, however. As G.A. Cohen and Jeremy Waldron point out, in an economy based on private property, one’s ability to act as one might wish without experiencing interference by others depends on the property and income one has (Waldron 1993, Cohen 2011). If, say, one tries to take the train from London to Edinburgh and you can’t afford a ticket, then the train company will not allow you on the train or will make you get off. Your lack of money translates into an inability to act as one might like without experiencing interference.

A UBI ensures everyone some income and, thereby, some negative freedom. It has the advantage also over many other forms of ‘welfare’ because it avoids the behavioural conditions and restrictions they come with, e.g., requirements to actively seek a job. This helps explain, perhaps, why some classical liberals, such as Milton Friedman, have been sympathetic to UBI or (as in Friedman’s case) to similar ideas such as a Negative Income Tax. Support from this quarter also comes from seeing UBI as a means of ensuring an economic floor so that it becomes more justifiable to remove regulations in the market (e.g., minimum wage laws) – a move that classical liberals would see as increasing negative liberty.

Finally, and crucially, UBI can also serve republican freedom, freedom as non-domination. According to Pettit, ‘promoting the resilient, republican possession of basic liberties argues for establishing a legal right to a Basic Income….And that income would mean that people would not have to beg the favour of the powerful, or even of the counter-clerk’ (Widerquist, Noguera, Vanderborght, and Wispelaere 2013, 29).

The key insight here is about having the power to exit relationships that otherwise risk domination. If I need a job urgently to meet my needs, and have limited job options, then an employer is in a position to insist on all kinds of requirements as a condition of employment. I may have to agree to work on terms that give the employer sweeping power to interfere at will in my actions. Writing in the US, Elizabeth Anderson argues that many contemporary employers assert this power (Anderson 2017). But a basic income can make it less urgent that I scramble into a job. It gives people more of what Karl Widerquist calls freedom as the power to say ‘No’ (Widerquist 2016; see also this video published at openDemocracy). This extra power makes it harder for employers to dominate their workers. If the employer tries to dominate me, I have more power to walk away (which can discourage the effort to dominate).

UBI as a mechanism for expanding freedom

So we have three conceptions of freedom, and UBI serves freedom in all three senses. Rather than choosing between these conceptions, we can see them as complementary, each contributing to the overall argument for UBI as a means of expanding individual freedom. Some feminist arguments for UBI show how they can combine. One argument focuses firstly on the way women’s financial dependency on male ‘breadwinners’ in the household can make them vulnerable to exploitation and domination (Okin 1989). As in the labour market, UBI gives a degree of financial independence and, thereby, exit power. It gives women more power to exit a
relationship and this weakens the power of men to exploit and dominate (Pateman 2004). But UBI can also be seen as increasing women’s negative freedom and offering a platform for more autonomous and creative approaches to life, a gain in terms of positive liberty.

Coming back to Bertrand Russell’s quote at the beginning, it is important to acknowledge how many of us are not free to do what we think is best for our own lives. Hence the appeal of UBI. Set at a sustainably high level, it can promote individual emancipation. By lifting, at least somewhat, the fear of failing to get a subsistence, it can help lift us out of the risk of domination, increase the scope of choice, and empower us to pursue fulfilling activities that contribute both to our self-realization and freer communities.

Catarina Neves is a teaching assistant in the Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon and is completing a PhD in political and social philosophy in the Centre for Ethics, Politics and Society at the University of Minho, where Roberto Merrill is assistant professor of philosophy. They are both involved in the scientific project Universal Basic Income Experiments, funded by the Portuguese scientific agency Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia, which he co-ordinates.


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Okin, Susan Moller, Justice, Gender, and the Family (New York, Basic Books, 1989).

Pateman, Carole, Democratizing Citizenship: Some Advantages of a Basic Income, Politics & Society 32 (1), 2004, 89-105.

Pettit, Philip, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997).

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Widerquist, Karl, Noguera, José A., Vanderborght, Yannick, and De Wispelaere, Jürgen, Basic Income: an anthology of contemporary research (Oxford, Blackwell, 2013).