There are many ways to think of human needs. One of the more popular frameworks—though by no means the only framework—is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Visualized as a pyramid, the base of that pyramid consists of physiological needs: food, water, shelter, etc. Without that base of physiological needs, Maslow argues that a person cannot satisfy higher-level needs. The next level consists of safety needs, which include personal safety, health, and emotional security. Higher-level needs include a sense of belonging, self-esteem, and self-fulfillment.
It is amazing that with all of our technological advancement, we still cannot guarantee food, shelter, healthcare, transport, education, etc., to all members of our society. Many of these needs can only be met by purchasing them on the market. That is, without money, you cannot satisfy these needs.
What about Universal Basic Income?
There have been many proposals to address our societal inability to provide these basic human needs. You have likely heard of the universal basic income (UBI). The UBI is often proposed as an income guaranteed to everyone to help offset job losses (such as those incurred by automation or offshoring) and reduce inequality. Many UBI proposals propose funding by higher taxes on the wealthy or taxes on accumulated wealth. While noble in intent, UBIs do not necessarily address the fundamental structure and incentives of the economy. They still depend on growth and continued consumption.
Can’t the national government just provide for us?
Other proposals call for government to provide services directly. Universal health care is a good example, and there are many advantages to universal health care. However, we should keep in mind that many of these proposals may themselves be subject to the growth imperative. Similar to UBI, governments provide these services through higher taxes. The government could also take out debt to pay for these programs, but that debt would ultimately have to be repaid—again, through taxes. Without growth, recessions occur, which lower tax revenues.
To be clear, taxes themselves are not inherently bad. There are government services that should be paid for by users and beneficiaries of those services. However, when basic services are dependent on tax revenues, there are at least two risks. First, economic downturns will result in the curtailing of those basic services as tax revenues decline. Second, expansion of those services would likely require higher tax revenues, which would impel governments to encourage continued economic growth.
Universal Basic Services
One approach, which is gaining ground in the United Kingdom, is that of universal basic services (UBS). Rather than income being provided universally, UBS proponents propose that the services themselves be provided to all. Some of those services include universal healthcare, education, access to legal services, shelter, food, transport, and information. Here are some examples of potential UBS policies in the UK:
- Shelter: funding the building of 1.5 million new housing units.
- Food: funding one-third of the meals for 2.2 million households deemed food insecure each year.
- Transport: expanding access to free bus passes to the entire population.
However, UBS can be critiqued on the basis that it depends on the taxation associated with economic growth. UBS still fundamentally depends on markets and market incentives.
Can we think of Universal Basic Services differently?
Is it possible to separate the provision of universal basic services from the market and taxation? Markets are only one part of society; they are one way of distributing goods and services. Potluck parties, home-cooked meals, food pantries, community fridges are some examples of food distribution that do not require—or are at least less dependent—on money. Collective action also exists in allocating rights to various goods and services. Many farms invite people to volunteer on them in exchange for food and shelter.
Several organizations exist that allow households a decent opportunity to have shelter. Those families provide ‘sweat equity’ in helping to literally build their homes alongside community members. Many churches have helped families devastated by natural disasters.
Community organizations in the US are already providing many basic services. It has been observed that voluntarism is declining in the country. But we know it has worked before. How can we revive and strengthen our community organizations so that they could provide basic services to all community members? Can these organizations operate without—or with as little need for—markets and governments? Can the work of community members minimize the need for markets to provide services?
If communities could provide these basic services, how might our lives be different? Would we still work the jobs we do, buy the things we think we need? If communities led the provision of basic services, could our societies consume less and start to live within our planetary boundaries?