The covid-19 pandemic and its devastating effects on the economy have ramped up discussion about a Universal Basic Income (UBI) which would grant an unconditional income to all citizens. In a recently published study, we study variation in support for the UBI amongst political left-leaning individuals.
Being on the political left is a major factor explaining support for the welfare state, both on the level of citizens as well as on the level of policymaking political actors. Nevertheless, UBI is contested within the political Left. On the one hand, much of UBI’s intellectual origins and historical advocates came from the Left. On the other hand, parts of the Left, in particular the union movement, have been sceptical of UBI. Understanding patterns of support within the political Left is pertinent to the political future of a UBI. Without active support by the Left it is unlikely a UBI will ever be implemented.
To disentangle this complex relationship, we theorize and empirically explore the relationship between three strands of Left ideology and support for UBI across European countries. In a nutshell, our study shows that citizens who are concerned with the exploitative nature of capitalism or consider market solutions as inefficient are more supportive of UBI, whereas repression concerns are negatively associated with support for UBI.
The political Left is notoriously divided in ideological terms, yet the different ideological strands unite in their desire to change capitalism. We posit that – within the democratic Left – support for UBI depends on the nature of criticism about capitalism and the subsequent proposed policy solution. Building on political theory, we delineate three strands of Left ideology (see table 1):
- The Labourist Left’s primary criticism of capitalism focuses on its exploitative nature. It wishes to redress this issue primarily through collective action and redistribution.
- The Libertarian Left is most concerned with the repression of labour as well as its “unfreedom” in a capitalist system, and it sees labour’s decommodification as the solution;
- The Social Investment Left emphasizes that laissez-faire capitalism might be inefficient as it is prone to market failures. Intelligently designed welfare institutions can overcome these market failures to the benefit of the individual citizen.
Table 1: Strands of left ideology, main critique on capitalism and proposed solution
We hypothesize the Libertarian Left to be favourable towards UBI because it would decommodify citizens and therefore maximize individual freedom. By contrast, the Labourist Left should be sceptical because UBI changes nothing about the underlying exploitative nature of capitalism. Lastly, we expect those who are favourable to social investment to support UBI.
We test our expectations with data from the 8th wave of the European Social Survey, which is one of the rare cross-national surveys asking about support for UBI. The ESS also captures exploitation, repression and efficiency concerns as the main sources of criticism about capitalism by means of a factor analysis. We then test the extent to which these dimensions are associated with support for UBI.
Our results first confirm that not all left-leaning individuals are similar in their support for UBI and the type of concerns about capitalism matters for this variation. Indeed, both efficiency and exploitation concerns are associated with higher support for UBI among left-wing individuals, whereas repression concerns are associated with lower support as Figure 1 illustrates.
Figure 1. Ideological dimensions and support for UBI among left-wing respondents.
Note: The sample has been restricted to respondents who identify as left. This sample was then used to compute the factor analysis and run the above logistic regressions. Country-fixed effects and standard control variables are included, but not shown. Standard errors are clustered by country. Countries: Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.Around each point estimate, we report 95% confidence intervals. When these confidence intervals overlap with the vertical zero line, the variable under consideration has no statistically significant association with support for UBI.
Our study shows that citizens who care about equality and redistribution are more supportive of UBI, despite Labourist political thinkers’ criticisim of UBI as an inadequate solution to the exploitative nature of capitalism (see for instance the more critical contributions in van Parijs 2018). Rather it seems that many left-wing citizens consider UBI as a desirable mean to fight poverty and inequality.
We also show that adherents of social investment who favour state interventions to address market failures and increase the efficiency of markets also tend to be favourable to UBI. We suggest that both social investment policies and UBI are perceived as modern, innovative ideas which represent an attractive alternative to current welfare state institutions.
By contrast, the results for Libertarian Left do not conform to prior expectations (see van Parijs 2018) calling for further investigation as it suggests those in favour of equality of opportunities, equal rights for LGBT and freedom of action to be opposed to UBI. One possible explanation would be that equality of opportunity may not be understood as necessitating state intervention. Another reason might be that libertarians’ dislike of state interventionism is stronger than their desire for equal opportunities.
Overall, the UBI preferences of individuals with distinct views on the state-market nexus is complex. Our results highlight the need to investigate the ideological sources of UBI support both between and within the political Left in more details.
Apart from theoretical reflection, we call for a data collection effort to develop questions more closely linked to repression, exploitation and efficacy concerns, including variables that control for general welfare state support in a distinct way. We also call for more attention to the specific characteristics of UBI that trigger support or rejection by individuals espousing different ideological dimensions of the Left and the potential coalition dynamics for a larger-scale introduction of UBI.
About the authors
Hanna Schwander is Professor for Political Sociology and Social Policy at the Humboldt-University Berlin.
Tim Vlandas is Associate Professor of Comparative Social Policy at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Antony’s College.