Universal Basic Income in Science Fiction

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:

Please suggest more in the comments below!

As UBI becomes more common in science fiction, there are plenty of questions for science fiction writers to explore. Science fiction, it has often been noted, isn’t just a form of entertainment, but also an important tool for thinking about the future in ways that are open-minded and imaginative (and occasionally rigorous). Science fiction allows us to stage, repeat, and critique thought experiments, and to think about the potential long term consequences of policy in a lively and multi-disciplinary way.

Which UBI?

So what are some of the big design and implementation questions around UBI? For starters, regardless of whether you call it Universal Basic Income or just Basic Income, there is the question of who should receive it. Every single citizen? Every resident? Some other grouping? Everyone in the world? Every legal person, maybe? Could there be non-human receipients of UBI?

And then: what’s the right level of payment? Are we talking about enough to live on, enough to live on well, just a little pocket money, or what? Some advocates of UBI make the moral argument that, given how much wealth there is in the world, nobody should be forced to work merely to survive. There are plenty of other motives to work. This philosophy might be described as “post-work”: more about that in a moment. If everyone is really provided with a basic standard, might it sharply reveal what we already know, that many jobs are apallingly undervalued? Could a high enough level of UBI help to transform the division of labour so that every socially useful job is attractive to somebody? And/or will many people still find themselves stuck in unrewarding and exploitative work, and even discover their case for better pay and working conditions weakened by the existence of UBI?

Then there are questions about how UBI should interact with other aspects of the legal and economic system. UBI gets spent, so it ends up going to people who have things to rent or to sell: landlords, billionaires, the usual. You can certainly imagine UBI dystopias where your UBI payment hovers in your bank account for about one nanosecond then zips off to pay for various subscriptions which were once supplied by the government, and/or by the private sector at a lower rate. Does this mean we need to create rent controls to prevent landlords hoovering up everybody’s UBI? Do we need to create other laws and institutions to prevent other actors hoovering it up? And/or does UBI need to be complemented with Universal Basic Services?

Then there’s the more intricate, finance-y stuff. Is UBI like normal money? Should it be created in the same way normal money is, i.e. loans made by private banks, or should there be different laws around its creation? Should there be things that you can’t spend UBI on, even though you can spend money earned in other ways on those things? Should there be laws against taking out loans against your future UBI streams, and potentially spending a lifetime of UBI “all at once”? Maybe UBI should be its own special class of financial asset?

Of course, whatever arrangements are settled on, there are still the meta questions around how UBI should be administered, monitored, reviewed, and protected. What checks and balances should be in place? Should whatever organ of government is responsible for UBI be made independent of the executive, in the way almost every central bank now is? Does the administration of UBI perhaps even belong a fourth branch of government, to be added to the legislative, judicial, and executive? Making the laws, interpreting the laws, implementing the laws . . . and financing equality-before-the-law?

Hopefully science fiction can help us to sharpen our thinking on some of these topics. Perhaps it already has. UBI (and things like it) have been simmering a long time within imaginative literature. In Thomas More’s Utopia – before the more famous bit with the weird holiday – there is the proposal “to provide everyone with some means of livelihood.” This could be a kind of UBI, or perhaps something more like a Jobs Guarantee Scheme. Johannes Ludovicus Vives (1492-1540) proposed a UBI-alike not only on ethical grounds, but also as a sound policy to make society safer and happier. Vives argued that resources should be redistributed “before need induces some mad or wicked action, before the face of the needy blushes from shame.” In the late 18th century, figures such as Marquis de Condorcet, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Spence developed versions of UBI which closely resemble the proposals and pilot schemes we’re seeing today.

UBI, technological unemployment, full automation and post-work

A lot of contemporary political theory draws language, concepts, and inspiration from science fiction. For Srnicek and Williams, authors of Demand the Future, UBI is partly a necessary response to the rise of the robots. AI and automation are threatening millions of jobs: should we be demanding the right to work – for instance, a job guarantee programme? No, they argue: what we should demand is UBI and a fully automated post-work society.

Of course, when you look at the details of what Srnicek and Williams actually propose, both “post-work” and “full automation” turn out to be slightly misleading labels. They believe political demands need a “utopian edge” to drive real change, so maybe they’re trying to be edgy?

Whatever the reasoning behind the label, they’re definitely not saying Star Trek is around the corner. Rather, full automation is presented “as an ideal” that is “unlikely to be fully achieved.” Furthermore, they argue automation should be limited by “the moral status we give to certain jobs.”

In the same way, “post-work” doesn’t literally mean no more work. Post-work usually means, first of all, Universal Basic Income.

But it also means putting UBI in the context of other social and cultural changes. So it means, secondly, changing contemporary attitudes to work, so gainful employment isn’t seen as a moral duty. As David Graeber writes:

We have become a civilization based on work – not even ‘productive work’ but work as an end and meaning in itself. We have come to believe that men and women who do not work harder than they wish at jobs they do not particularly enjoy are bad people unworthy of love, care, or assistance from their communities.

And post-work also usually means gradually normalising a shorter working week – say, a three-day weekend – to give us more free time for leisure, creativity, or work that we ourselves decide is valuable. This aspiration was in the last Labour manifesto, although it didn’t go down with a lot of the British public, who evidently either hate long weekends, and/or didn’t believe it was possible and thought it not worth the risk of trying.

Unintended consequences

Ian Goldin, writing for the Financial Times, suggests five reasons UBI might be a bad idea: 1. UBI could be used to justify further cutting investment in areas such as health and education. 2. It is a waste to give money to people who are already rich. Goldin suggests that, even with the cheaper administrative costs of UBI, those who need assistance the most would be better served by targeted transfers like unemployment, disability or housing benefits. 3. UBI could undermine social cohesion. Goldin imagines the emergence of an unemployed underclass who would lack the “meaning, status, skills, networks and friendships” that can be gained through work. 4. This division will be made more intractable by dismantling the current system which discourages dependency, and creates incentives for work and civic participation. Here Goldin seems to be hinting at the immorality of UBI. 5. UBI will be a short-term fix, which will prevent economic reforms such as payment for caring responsibilities, more flexible working arrangements, more funding for the creative industries, and a discussion of the future of international development.

Actually, many supporters of UBI might agree with some of Goldin’s points … and even think he doesn’t go far enough! Srnicek and Williams readily admit that UBI could be a vital plank of a post-work society, or of a “dystopia.” To guard against the dangers, Srnicek and Williams suggest that UBI “must provide a sufficient amount of income to live on; it must be universal, provided to everyone unconditionally; and it must be a supplement to the welfare state rather than a replacement of it.”

Furthermore, they claim that achieving UBI doesn’t mean the fight is won: it just shifts that battle to a new ground, since there will doubtless be constant efforts to corrupt UBI into a tool of social control, and to exclude certain classes of people from it. In fact, such exclusions can already be seen in many supposedly progressive UBI proposals. One prominent UBI proponent, Philippe Van Parijs, assumes it is “obvious that prison inmates should lose the benefit of their basic income for the duration of their imprisonment.” Likewise, Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, who propose a “stakeholding” variant of UBI, breezily mention that to be eligible you must “stay clear of crime” and then drop the subject, as if this were no big deal.

Recent SF often explores UBI critically, especially its promises of greater individual and collective freedom. Matthew Binder’s The Absolved rehashes the old saw (explored by H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Star Trek, etc. etc.) that somehow life will become more depressing, boring and pointless unless huge chunks of the population are forced to find work, no matter how degrading and soul-destroying it is. E. Lily Yu’s ‘The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi’ (2019) is a much subtler and more probing treatment of the real theme, of what it means to find meaning and purpose in life when we are given the space and support to do so en masse. William Squirrel’s short story ‘They Built the New Jerusalem on the Ruins of the Old’ (2018) imagines a world with UBI that is nevertheless still riven by economic injustice. Likewise Tim Maughan’s ‘Flyover Country’ places UBI alongside carceral labour and the subjugation of migrants. Efe Okogu’s ‘Proposition 23’ (2012) imagines the government providing all the basic necessities of life through the “neuro,” a technology which also ensures surveillance, conformity, and the perpetual threat of having your support withdrawn. Okogu posits that the only way a government can afford to pay UBI is by constantly shrinking the pool of those it deems eligible, thus the slightest infraction or an expression of dissent leads to instant marginalisation.

Here’s one final thought. If UBI is one puzzle piece of a future economy, perhaps another is the democratization of money itself? Groups such as Positive Money want to reform the way money is created in the first place. Maybe if we stopped seeing money as an intrinsically valuable substance, produced in limited quantities by hardworking citizens, and started seeing it as it really is – a technology, and one among many imperfect measures of what is truly valuable – then we wouldn’t get so readily incensed about the undeserving getting their hands on it.

By Jo Lindsay Walton and Polina Levontin.

5 thoughts on “Universal Basic Income in Science Fiction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s