The Right to a Sufficient Income

too essential to be left to the vagaries and uncertainties of life

Photo by Andrea De Santis on Unsplash

[Anyone thinking that this article is concerned with justifying a tax-based UBI — much less some form of socialism — is way off.]

First, let me make clear that I reject the existence of a priori Rights, such as ‘Natural Rights’. Those are Rights that supposedly were discovered to exist, not conceived by human beings. Such Rights have been taken to include life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

I cannot endorse too strongly, however, the concept of societal rights, rights that are recognized as arising in the context of people living together in formally organized groups. Heretofore, those have generally been taken to include political rights, such as voting and running for office, and legal rights, such as habeas corpus and a right against self-incrimination. (I take ‘civil rights’ to be a term of convenience to refer to all societal rights at once.)

Various people have argued for adding other rights to the list of societal rights: a right to (‘decent’) housing, a right to (a ‘certain standard of’) healthcare, etc. It is worth noting that the U.S. Constitution acknowledges in its Bill of Rights (the Ninth Amendment) that rights other than those enumerated in it do exist.

I submit that people living separate lives together in any society have a right to a sufficient amount of money, in the form of a regular income. That it has not been recognized as a right before today does not impact whether it should be recognized as a right. No right has been recognized as a right forever.

What are rights? They are, whatever else they might be, the recognition of power. Political rights are the recognition of the power of the citizenry to choose the people who would hold the legislative and highest executive offices (and in some cases, judicial offices) of government, to hold those offices, to petition the holders of those offices, and to peaceably assemble as a means of influencing the holders of those offices; without the right of free political speech none of those other political rights have any meaning. Legal rights are a kind of negative power; they are the recognition of the power of the individual to stand against the power vested in the criminal justice system of a society.

Money is a form of power. As I cannot say too often, Warren J. Samuels is the author of one of the greatest insights any human being ever had: “social power,” as he termed it, is the power to effect choices (i.e., choose among perceived alternatives and take action to bring that choice to fruition). Political rights are the recognition of forms of power that are inherently a part of participating in the political process (which is the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole). Money is the form of power that is inherently a part of participating in the economy: producing/acquiring goods/services. (The production and acquisition of goods and services is what the economy is: it is nothing but choices being effected.)

In a nation with a legal tender (which is every nation on the planet), money in that form is legally necessary to be able to pay taxes. Beyond that, money is necessary to be able to participate in any meaningful way in the economy of any nation on the planet, to include acquiring the goods and services necessary to sustain life — much less obtain any further material wants.

The economic system of any nation on the planet being what it is, the problem is that people cannot simply ‘have’ money, in the way that people can have rights. By the nature of political and legal rights, which refer to actions of people, either the right of people to undertake such an action is recognized or it is not. Also, any number of people can share either of those kinds of rights without having to engage in any kind of redistribution. Money, on the other hand, is a material thing. As such, a person can have more or less of it. As things stand, for some people’s share of it to be increased some must be taken from others. More of it can always be created, but as a practical matter, a sufficient amount of money cannot currently be available to an unlimited number of people in the way any right can be.

Achieving a sufficient amount of money for all citizens via taxation would be a huge undertaking. Still, some nations have a sufficient total income to make that possible— but not all nations. A right that is dependent on variable material conditions cannot truly be a right.

The problem that must be overcome to effect a right to a sufficient amount of money is not the material nature of money, but only its creation in the economic system. If money can be created in such a way that a sufficient income can be available for an unlimited number of people in the way political and legal rights can be, without involving any redistribution of anything, a sufficient income can be recognized as a right.

That could be achieved today in every nation on the planet. It can be accomplished with a kind of permanent ‘quantitative easing’. There are technical issues to be decided by society, such as what counts as a “sufficient” income and matters pertaining to the actual creation and disbursement of the money, but those are mere technicalities. The practical problem attendant to recognizing a sufficient income as a right has been solved.

As it happens, the changes within the existing economic system that are necessary to make the right to a sufficient income a reality are worth doing for their benefits to society, regardless of any philosophical position regarding money as a right. Those changes can be implemented in any nation with a single legislative Act.