A Buddhist Perspective: Is Universal Basic Income Genuinely Caring, Compassionate, and Wise?

By: Ernest C. H. Ng

September 2, 2020

Economic Justice and Universal Basic Income: Ethical and Religious Perspectives

Universal basic income (UBI), as a universal and unconditional periodic cash payment directly to individuals, has recently become a topic of interest among politicians, scholars, and religious leaders. It aims to serve as a neatly designed policy tool to address widening income disparities. Even though further studies are required, some existing evidence supports that UBI-style programs alleviate poverty, improve health and education outcomes, and do not hinder labor market participation. These programs have drawn more interest and debate during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they are temporarily accepted to serve as band-aid and short-term responses to the unprecedented economic dislocation. The pandemic may push the circumstances to extremes: Even some self-righteous defenders of the free market are willing to concede that if rescue packages are required to bail out failing corporations, many others may need help too! When people are restricted from working to protect public health, not because they are not motivated, previous concerns over moral hazards may also seem unwarranted.

The pandemic may also force us to rethink what humans really “need” instead of “want” to be happy. Necessary medicine to maintain good health, proper food and nutrition, safe shelter, and sufficient protective clothing are the four basic human needs in Buddhist teachings. In one instance, the Buddha waited for a poor peasant to be properly rested and fed before commencing his teachings. Those without these four basic needs would be considered to be in poverty. Nonetheless, Buddhist notions of wealth are not only material. The Buddha does not deny material wealth like silver and gold, but these forms of wealth can be taken away (by fire, water, kings, thieves, and displeasing heirs). They are also unreliable because they can deepen our greed, hatred, and delusion. Instead, the Buddha taught about the cultivations of wealth in terms of moral virtues, namely (1) faith; (2) virtuous behavior; (3) learning; (4) generosity; (5) wisdom; (6) moral shame; and (7) moral dread (Anguttara Nikaya [AN] 7.6 and AN 7.7). These seven kinds of wealth are truly worthy because they cannot be taken away, and they lead to the cessation of suffering. The Buddha taught that those without moral temperaments are truly indebted and poor (AN 6.45). 

Accordingly, a significant insight from Buddhist teachings to UBI is to properly align its objectives. UBI should aim at supporting human basic needs but not greed, hatred, or delusion. It is supposed to provide the foundation to develop human capacity and moral cultivation. The cash distribution should not be a panacea, and definitely not a band-aid, but perhaps a sustainable and flexible way to kick-start human potential and inspiration without taking away the incentive to work, save, invest, and learn. 

Another distinctive Buddhist perspective on UBI is that work should be meaningful by itself. According to Buddhist teachings, work should not be considered merely as a means to satisfy our endless desires. It is an integral part of life, and a skill- and character-building process. Work, if conducted in accordance with the Buddhist concept of right livelihood, is a real life practice of sustainable happiness. As Michael Sandel argues, market power could corrupt and coerce people to make involuntary or immoral choices. UBI should empower people with the basic necessity to freely choose morally sound and inspiring work. The Buddha taught that “whatever occupation he makes his living—whether by farming or trading or cattle tending or archery or as a king's man or by any other craft,” he is accomplished in initiative when he is skillful and diligent (AN 8.54). The Buddha guides a layperson to acquire wealth worthy of praise and enjoyment by “energetic striving, strength of his arms, sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained…” (AN 4.61). 

According to the “Kutadanta Sutta” (Digha Nikaya [DN] 5) and “Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta” (DN 26), the Buddha further explains not only that material and moral developments are intertwined, but that individual and societal well-being are also inseparable. He advises leaders to conserve resources and allocate them to society in the form of tangible support such as capital, seeds, and equipment to engage in economic activities conducive to well-being (DN 5). The society could only be prosperous and harmonious when individuals afford to excel in their own businesses. While contemporary society focuses on transfers through taxes and government programs, Buddhist teachings would encourage those with wealth and privilege to generously offer opportunities and support for people to earn what they need diligently and intelligently with respect. 

Genuine care and generosity in Buddhist teachings demand a deep understanding of the interdependent relationship between the givers and the takers, the haves and have-nots—the wealth, fame, and well-being of the billionaires are not possible without the contributions of their customers, shareholders, employees, and everyone in the community. Contributions to UBI can therefore be considered as contributions from those who benefited most from the socioeconomic system to re-invest more in the common goods. In Buddhist teachings, wealth is only of benefit if it is put to good use. That means that as much as billionaires deserve their great successes, they should also be grateful of common goods, such as social stability, skilled employees, infrastructure, and so forth. Buddhist teachings would encourage a more primary level of income distribution by allowing all stakeholders of a corporation and a community to share the fruits of success. These teachings invite us to think deeply about income disparity and the dualism of wealth and poverty. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains, “the affluent society and the deprived society inter-are. The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other.” 

Buddhist teachings would inspire a UBI which is not a demeaning subsidy program but a genuinely caring, compassionate, and wise contribution to the common good. Like other common goods such as infrastructure, education, public hygiene, and law and order, UBI could be funded by the fruits of the social capital itself. Just like the clean air and fresh water we should all fairly enjoy, UBI could serve as an important common good which we could all prudently utilize as necessary. Everyone in the community could draw into the social capital with no questions asked and without any stigma. With the right intention, UBI should contribute to human flourishing leading to sustainable happiness. It may allow people to be truly free to explore their full potential both materially and spiritually.

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