This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in Vector 288.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is appearing more and more in near-future (and far-future) science fiction. It’s even becoming a kind of mark of futurity. Not in a “starships and androids” way, exactly: more like something incidental to the plot, a box that SF writers tick, to ensure their stories won’t date too rapidly.
In other words: science fiction writers think it’s happening.
This isn’t surprising: UBI is also prevalent in political discourse. It’s not just campaigners who are talking about it any more, but policymakers and politicians too. Smaller pilots and trials are everywhere. Major economies such as Spain are now rolling out UBI at scale on a temporary basis (presumably) to help cope with the Coronavirus crisis. There is increasing pressure for other countries to do the same. In the UK, one recent policy briefing argues:
Universal Basic Income (UBI) could provide faster and more effective income support during the COVID-19 crisis than that offered under existing UK Government schemes.
Although it also cautions:
More interventionist and state-entrepreneurial approaches – including investments in Universal Basic Services (UBS), place-based industrial strategy, technological innovation and skills training – could deliver much more effectively many of the benefits often claimed for UBI for a similarly significant level of public expenditure.
So what does UBI mean? UBI means that everybody gets some kind regular, guaranteed payment to support basic living expenses. That’s a key thing about Universal Basic Income: it should really go to everybody, not just to “those in need.” This part is controversial, so sometimes other terms like ‘Basic Income’ get used instead. Here we’ll stick with term ‘UBI.’
At first glance, UBI may seem a pretty naturally left-wing idea, and indeed UBI has lots of supporters on the left. But look closer, and things aren’t quite so simple …
Beyond left and right?
The thing is, UBI also has plenty of support on the right. For example, UBI appeals to right libertarians who despise ‘Big Government,’ and want innovative ways of rolling back the state: why not just ensure everybody has cash to spend, and let the market figure out the rest? UBI could even be a step toward a right libertarian utopia / dystopia: first abolish the welfare state in favor of UBI, then abolish UBI. UBI also appeals to some conservatives, who see it as something deserved by all the decent, upright citizens of this proud nation, as a way of tidying up and reinforcing hierarchies, rather than disturbing them.
All in all, UBI has attracted fans as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr. and Milton Friedman. Tech celebs such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk like it, as do social democrats and progressives like AOC and Ilhan Omar (at least during plague times), as do lefty political theorists like Kathi Weeks, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams.
The truth is, there are a huge range of very different possible policies (very different possible societies, even) that get lumped together under the umbrella term “UBI.” Science fiction has a role to play in exploring the variousness of UBI, the many ways it could be implemented, and the many possible second- and third-order ramifications.
By and large, science fiction treats UBI as something whose social and moral significance is yet to be determined. There is good UBI and bad UBI. UBI is witches. Some works of science fiction (or adjacent) that feature UBI (or adjacent) include:
- Elizabeth Bear, ‘Deriving Life’
- Adeline Knapp, 1000 Dollars a Day
- Robert Heinlein’s For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs
- Zoë Fairbairns, Benefits
- Mack Reynolds, Police Patrol: 2000 AD
- Philip José Farmer, Riders of the Purple Wage
- Robert Anton Wilson and L. Wayne Benner’s RICH economy
- Carl Hoffman, 2037 NZ: One Hell of a Paradise
- Adam Roberts, By Light Alone
- Efe Okogu, ‘Proposition 23’
- Tim Maugan, ‘Flyover Country’
- William Squirrel, ‘They Built the New Jerusalem on the Ruins of the Old‘
- Tade Thompson, ‘Elegba’s Valley’
- Lee Konstantinou, ‘Burned Over Territory’
- Matthew Binder, The Absolved
- E. Lily Yu, ‘The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi’
- Marshall Brain, Manna
- ‘Basic’ in The Expanse
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