Skip to content

Someday we will look back and interpret the Constitution as having called for unconditional basic income all along

Scott Santens
Scott Santens
7 min read
Someday we will look back and interpret the Constitution as having called for unconditional basic income all along

A blog post by Grant Cordone was brought to my attention recently to which I replied on LinkedIn. To summarize what he wrote, it was an argument that basic income is not in the Constitution of the United States, and is thus anti-freedom and a terrible idea because people should be pulling on their bootstraps like he did instead of being enslaved by government-provided income. My reply was promptly removed by Grant, and so I post it now here in its entirety as originally posted.

First of all, the US Constitution doesn't talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence does. The fact you got even that wrong says to me a quite a lot about just how much thought and research you've put into forming your opinion about the idea of basic income - virtually none.

Let me ask you this one question, and this one is actually from the Constitution. Why did we form the United States?

The answer is in the Preamble:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Now imagine Grant Cordone was a country of one person. Would he be free? Or would Grant Cordone be at the whims of those with the power to tell Grant Cordone what to do?

Here's the thing. Liberty requires nondomination. Escaping domination is possible only to the extent that we are able to occupy a protected position and are empowered against such control on the part of others. Our freedom exists in that protected and empowered status. Our founding fathers recognized this, and so they got together to provide for the common defense and promote the general Welfare (with a capital W), so as to secure liberty. They knew that liberty doesn't just happen. We have to MAKE IT HAPPEN. That's also why the 2nd Amendment exists by the way, to make sure individual citizens are able to maintain a protected position to be empowered against the control of others.

This is exactly how you need to understand unconditional basic income. UBI is required so as to provide all citizens a protected position of nondomination, in the same way our military exists to protect us from foreign domination.

I recommend reading Philip Pettit's entire paper, " A Republican Right to Basic Income", but if you choose not to, here's just one excerpt of great importance.

"The argument is straightforward. Others will control me, if only in the merely invigilatory fashion, only to the extent that the division of powers between us means that they can interfere with me at will – that is, without prevention – and at tolerable cost, i.e. with a degree of impunity. If I am not assured a basic income, there will be many areas where the wealthier could interfere with me at tolerable cost, without their being confronted by legal prevention of that interference.


Suppose there are just a few employers and many available employees, and that times are hard. In those conditions I and those who like me will not be able to command a decent wage: a wage that will enable us to function properly in society. And in those conditions it will be equally true that we would be defenseless against our employers’ petty abuse or their power to arbitrarily dismiss us. Other protections, such as those that strong trade unions might provide, are possible against such alien control. But the most effective of all protections, and one that should complement other measures available, would be one’s ability to leave employment and fall back on a basic wage available unconditionally from the state.


Next suppose that you live in conditions where you, and perhaps your children, depend financially on your husband. In such conditions he is likely to control you, even though he never resorts to violence or other abuse. He may let you act as you please within certain limits, while being disposed to stop you – at the limit, by leaving you – if you breach those limits. You would live under your husband’s control, almost certainly straining to keep within his restrictions, unless there is an effective, financially viable alternative such as that which a basic income would provide. Other protections may be available here as in the first case – for example, he may be legally required to provide maintenance should you separate – but these are unlikely to be equally effective and in any case they will be powerfully supplemented by a basic income.


Such examples show it to be entirely plausible that promoting the resilient, republican possession of basic liberties argues for establishing a legal right to a basic income. Such a right would mean that people had adequate income for functioning properly in society. And that income would mean that people would not have to beg the favor of the powerful, or even of the counter-clerk."

So you see, those without access to sufficient money are at the whims of others. They must accept anything because they do not have the power to refuse the domination of others. If your choice is starvation or being someone's slave, you'll be their slave. This is also why minimum wage exists by the way. People are willing to work for poverty wages because it's better than nothing. People underbid each other in a race to the bottom. The government then has to come in and manipulate the labor market through an enforced wage floor. Now imagine we just simply make sure everyone has the power to refuse insufficient wages by providing them a wage independent of work sufficient for their basic needs, aka basic income? Well, now we don't need minimum wages anymore, because people have individual bargaining power. In other words, UBI creates a truly free market for labor, where all employment is purely voluntary thanks to everyone having the freedom to refuse the domination of others.

Alaska has provided every resident of Alaska a cash dividend since 1982. Are they less free? Are they somehow dominated by the state of Alaska because unlike other states that provide no cash independent of work, they are more dependent on the state? Of course not. That's not how it works at all. Ask any resident of Alaska if they feel their dividend makes them more free or less free. I doubt you would find a single person who would say their dividend decreases their liberty. Instead, it better enables them to save for emergencies, avoid debt, start businesses, be a customer at businesses, and be a bit less stressed thanks to a bit more economic security.

Look at Social Security. Are all seniors less free thanks to receiving a monthly check from the government than they would be if they received nothing and were instead forced to work until they died? Of course not. In fact seniors are the segment of the population that votes in higher numbers and government seems to cater to more than others. Seniors aren't afraid of the government. The government is afraid of seniors.

Now look at our welfare system built on conditions, where people must jump through bureaucratic hoops like good little circus animals, and where instead of cash they are given housing, and instead of cash they are given vouchers that can only be spent on certain types of food that have been approved by the government, not hot food mind you, or fancy foods like fish, etc. Meanwhile, welfare punishes work by being withdrawn with earned income. This creates a trap where people are better off unemployed, and where their decisions are being made for them by the state. That's not freedom.

Unconditional basic income is never withdrawn. Therefore, earned income is rewarded. With welfare it's possible for those not working to be better off not working, and better off than those working, but with UBI, everyone working is ALWAYS BETTER OFF than not working and those not working. Welfare is a ceiling. UBI is a floor, a foundation, a launchpad. Welfare is controlling. UBI is not controlling. It's cash that can be spent on anything. It's about agency, and yes, it's about freedom.

Actual freedom... REAL freedom... TRUE FREEDOM requires the power to say "NO" to those who would control us based on control of the resources we need to live. Just as We the People got together to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity", thereby creating entities like the military to protect us from the domination of others, and the right to bear arms to protect us from the domination of others, we must recognize the need for an unconditional basic income to further protect us from the domination of others.

One of our Founding Fathers specifically recognized this by the way. His name was Thomas Paine. And he said:

"It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race… it is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is in individual property. Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue."

The fact the Earth is owned through a system of private property we created that creates the non-natural condition where those born on the Earth must pay to live on it, and therefore must work for those who own the Earth in exchange for money to live on it, that rent must be paid by those who own the Earth, and that rent must be paid to everyone.

If freedom and liberty are important to us, then we must ensure it to each other, and if we are to ensure it to each other in a world where existence has a price, that price must be guaranteed to all as a starting point on which to build our lives as free men and women. That price is unconditional basic income.

Just as we reinterpreted the Constitution to mean all people are created equally, not just white land-owning men, decades from now we will look back and interpret the Constitution as having called for basic income all along, so as to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

Silvrback blog image sb_float

Did you enjoy reading this? Please click the subscribe button and also consider making a monthly pledge in support of my daily advocacy of basic income for all.

Silvrback blog image sb_float_center

Scott Santens Twitter

Unconditional basic income (UBI) advocate with a crowdfunded basic income; Author of Let There Be Money; Senior Advisor to Humanity Forward; editor; Fund for Humanity board member