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What We Need to Truly Thrive: Democracy and Unconditional Basic Income (UBI)

Scott Santens
Scott Santens
19 min read
What We Need to Truly Thrive: Democracy and Unconditional Basic Income (UBI)
Photo by Element5 Digital / Unsplash

The text below is a speech I wrote for a keynote in Ireland for DemCon 2018. The PowerPoint I created for it is also available here.

“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.” — Frank Herbert, Dune

Fear… About a century ago, the world witnessed what happens when fear takes hold of the minds of the citizenry of nations. Fear of poverty, fear of the other, fear of change… these fears led to the rise of leaders who promised total control because fear often emerges from the lack of control. From that seed fascism was born, and from fascism came a level of devastation that was unprecedented in human history. War engulfed the planet.

When FDR declared there’s nothing to fear but fear itself, he was expressing another response to fear, which is to not be afraid. Fascism feeds on fear. It requires it. It makes a false promise to solve it by exerting control over everything, but control does not end fear. Control uses fear parasitically. Totalitarian control is a Faustian Bargain, where the Devil makes the unknown less scary by collapsing an infinity of options down to one — the one you’re told.

The year is now 2018, and I am afraid. As an American who has studied history, I am afraid that fascism is on the rise again, and this time, it’s even in my own country, which happens to be the most powerful country on Earth, fully capable of single-handedly destroying it.

How did we get here once again, and what can we do about it to stop it and to also prevent it from ever happening again? I believe the answer lies in two ideas which need each other and reinforce each other: democracy, and unconditional basic income.

Democracy is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. I firmly believe that. I consider myself among the luckiest of humans to have ever existed, to have been born after the divine right of kings had perished from this earth. That my forefathers had something to do with a nation born in independence from royalty, and who believed in the right and the ability of self-rule by the people, fills me with great pride.

But democracy is not something that is created, and just continues existing forever. Democracy is not a physical object. It has no inertia. Every day we must wake up and together create democracy. I can’t help but feel that in the US, we’ve been letting it fade, partly because of the simple fact that like vaccination against disease, it works. When something’s working, it’s easier to take it for granted.

We also haven’t sufficiently scaled our representative democracy to account for a vastly larger population than we had in the 18th century, nor have we sufficiently protected our democracy from the overpowering influence of money. But most of all I think democracy has been fading because of our original sin as a nation.

That original sin was slavery.

Contrary to popular belief, we never truly ended slavery. We didn’t fully abolish it as an institution. We simply went from one form of slavery (chattel slavery), to another form of slavery (wage slavery). Instead of forcing people to work for nothing, we instead let people work for money to live, without which they risk death for not obtaining.

Read about Garrison Frazier

In the words of a former slave in 1865 when asked how he would define slavery, “Slavery is receiving by irresistible power the work of another human being, and not by their consent.” How can one consent — to anything at all — if saying “No” is not a real option?

A lack of chains is not enough to end slavery. What is needed to truly end slavery is to make domination resistible through sufficient access to resources to live by one’s own hand. Liberty requires non-domination. No action is truly voluntary without the power to refuse that action. Full consent requires the power to say “No” without fatal consequences for saying it.

What does this have to do with democracy? A democracy full of slaves is not a democracy. Be they chattel slaves or wage slaves, a nation of slaves is a nation of the controlled, the dominated, the manipulatable.

Ancient Greece knew this. It was unfortunate their solution to this problem was a nation of free men served by owned men, but they did realize what the most important job of all was — citizen.

You see, in ancient Greece, work was regarded as a curse. It was disdained as the enslavement of the human mind by the body’s need for survival. Work was not seen as something that free people should be forced to perform. Slaves were forced to do the menial work of survival so that the citizens of Greece could be free to perform the activities more worthy of a citizen, like art, philosophy, and politics.

Politics was viewed as the work of true citizens, not survival work. To not be a citizen, was to be a slave.

This is a profound insight, however immorally implemented. Back then we had an agricultural society. The work required to feed everyone was great, and so the burden forced upon unfree people was also great. That’s no longer true.

In the US, 1% of our total work efforts are involved in the production of food, and the technological progress that makes that possible stands to reduce that soon to virtually 0%.

Instead of enslaving flesh, we have enslaved metal machines. We have enslaved silicon.

Our problem is not a lack of these new silicon slaves capable of performing our work for us. We have the technology right now to automate half of all the work we do, and as David Graeber has discovered, about 40% of all the work that hasn’t yet been automated doesn’t seem to even need to be done at all.

We are enslavers of silicon, who only force the silicon to work for our masters.

In his essay “In Praise of Idleness,” Bertrand Russell wrote “Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”

What if we stopped being foolish? What if we put machines to work for all of us, to free us as citizens to perform the work of citizens? What if in the case of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, everyone started higher up the pyramid, and no one ever had to start at the bottom of it?

Well, for one, with basic needs covered, an entire world of unpaid work opens up to everyone. That means more volunteers. It means more people working in phone banks and knocking on doors for those fellow citizens they’d like to represent them. It means more care work done by those who care most about those cared for. It means people doing work they actually want and choose to do, whatever that work may be. It means people having the time to be informed citizens, to think critically, and to engage as informed citizens.

Basically, it means an entire nation of people with the same abilities and freedoms as the idle rich.

We know there’s a connection between money and citizen engagement. In the US, if you earn over six figures, there’s an 80% chance you’ll vote, but if you earn less than the poverty level, that chance drops to 30%. Why is this? We can think of many factors that apply to low wage earners, such as a concern of showing up late to work on election days, or of having less time in general to vote or feel informed enough to vote. But perhaps most impactful of all is a self-fulfilling prophecy where the poor feel ignored by their representatives, who because they don’t vote, ignore them.

What can we do to break such a cycle? Recent research has discovered a piece of the puzzle: cash without conditions.

It turns out that providing cash unconditionally to poorer families increases their children’s likelihood of voting as adults. Why would this be? I think the answer lies in another finding.

In 1992, the Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth began studying the youth in North Carolina to determine the possible risk factors of developing emotional and behavioral disorders. Because Native Americans tend to be underrepresented in mental health research, researchers made the point of including 349 child members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. About halfway into the ten-year study their parents began receiving a share of casino profits. By 2001 those dividends had grown to $6,000 per year. By 2006, they were $9,000. Today they are $12,000. The results have been nothing short of incredible.

Poverty declined by 50%. Behavioral problems declined by 40%. Crime rates decreased. High school graduation rates increased. Grades improved. Home environments were transformed. Drug and alcohol use declined. Additionally, the lower the age the children were freed of poverty, the greater the effects as they grew up, to the point the youngest ended up being a third less likely to develop substance abuse or psychiatric problems as teens. It has even even calculated that the savings generated through all the societal improvements actually exceeded the amounts of the dividends themselves.

However, the most powerful finding of all was in personality effects. These changes were observed as a result of better home environments that involved less stress and better parental relationships. Incredibly, the children saw long-term enhancements in two key personality traits: conscientiousness and agreeableness. That is, they grew up to be more honest, more observant, more comfortable around other people, and more willing to work together with others. And because personalities tend to permanently set as adults, these are most likely lifelong changes.

I think these behavioral changes explain the observed increase in voting. It’s about seeing each other as being in the same boat. It’s about trust and teamwork. It’s about growing up in an environment where you feel the world gives a damn about you.

You see, democracy requires trust in each other. If we don’t trust each other, democracy is lost. And yet we built our entire system around distrust. Unconditionality is not the norm. Cash to spend on anything is not the norm. It’s all about conditions and benefits-in-kind, and these are full of unintended consequences.

Conditional benefits divide the citizenry into the deserving and undeserving poor. This stigmatizes the assistance and those who receive it. It creates anger and shame. It disincentivizes the earning of income through withdrawal of benefits that leaves recipients with little reason to accept employment. It is paternalistic in telling people what they need instead of letting people decide for themselves. And by creating and enforcing tests that people must pass, people in need don’t take the tests at all, or even fail them. So conditions exclude those we wish to include, and those included can actually be lifted higher than those not considered to be in need, which is justifiably seen as entirely unfair.

This is not a recipe for a strong democracy. It’s a recipe for division. To heal this division we must do as government was always intended to do, treat all citizens as equals. To do this, what government provides to citizens must be decoupled from work, and coupled instead to citizenship itself.

That’s the heart of the idea of UBI. It’s an investment in the citizenry of a nation. It’s We the People deciding that being a citizen has inherent value, and that to be a good citizen requires a level of opportunity provided to all citizens equally, and a level of freedom from poverty that no citizen is denied.

UBI is the foundation of a nation, and yet all nations are missing it.

Some look at UBI instead as being the end of democracy, where the fear finally comes true that all a democracy needs to do to self-destruct is for the citizens to realize they can vote to take all the wealth away from the rich, killing the proverbial golden goose in the process.

This fear was seen as having two safeguards to protect against it. Aristotle believed that the way to make sure the have-nots didn’t use their greater numbers to vote away the very existence of the have-a-lots, was to create in the middle a group of have-enoughs, sufficiently content in their own wealth and circumstances so as to not look upon the rich with want and disdain. In other words, he saw democracy as requiring a high enough level of political equality and a low enough level of economic inequality to sustain long-term stability.

James Madison saw the same problem as Aristotle, but instead believed the answer was a lower amount of democracy with more power invested in those with the most wealth. It was Madison who in his fear of full democracy designed a system of aristocratic representation. American political power would reside in the hands of the wealthy — those who by their wealth were seen as more capable and willing to protect the rights of property owners — to act as representatives for the common man but also protectors of the aristocracy.

I look around right now and see both these solutions as having failed. I think Aristotle was right to believe in a strong middle class, but it’s only a partial solution. Politics and economics are connected so there must be an economic component in place to maintain the political component. And I think Madison was wrong in not trusting all citizens equally, but he was right in coming up with an idea that scaled better than direct democracy as population grew.

At this point in our history however, aside from a system of UBI that starts all citizens above the poverty line and keeps inequality from growing too extreme, I think there needs to be a lot more democracy in a great multitude of ways.

Liquid Democracy

Among the many ideas I’d like to see widely implemented are: national popular votes, ranked-choice voting to eliminate the spoiler effect, fair representation where people are represented by multiple reps from different parties, mail-in voting, voting holidays, automatic voter registration, open primaries, tax-funded elections, laws that make clear corporations aren’t people, and as we go forward into the future, the utilization of technology to implement liquid democracies where people can choose to vote on issues directly, choose to delegate their votes to others based on topic, and choose standard representatives, all in a more dynamic fashion. Basically, anything that empowers citizens to vote and to better make sure their vote counts is something I support.

I’d also like to see democracy spread outside of politics and more into our daily lives. Democracy should be a perpetual experience. It should be in our workplaces. It should be in our monetary system. Why do we let banks create our money out of debt instead of creating it debt-free in the hands of all citizens equally?

But again, these solutions on their own, however much they improve the structure of democracy and shift it from representative democracy toward direct democracy, they do not create a better citizenry.

The key to creating a better citizenry is to create an environment where citizens are less stressed. Chronic stress is the physiological weak point of humanity as a species. It’s a byproduct of our evolution.

You see, back in the day, we evolved a bit of a super power now known as the fight or flight response. Those who had it when faced with danger were able to immediately shift into a state where long-term higher-order creative thinking shut down, and the body was enabled to think faster, react quicker, be stronger, move faster, run longer, and think only about survival. This clever evolutionary adaptation however is now maladaptive.

We don’t live in that same world anymore where we can turn a corner and be eaten by a giant cat. We need our long-term higher-order creative thinking. We need it pretty much all the time.

Prolonging fight-or-flight into a chronic condition means that neurons in the brain related to things like learning, memory, and judgment all suffer the consequences, thanks to the wide-ranging effects of double-edged sword stress hormones called glucocorticoids. Recent research has even shown a constantly stressed out brain appears to lead to a kind of hardening of neural pathways. Essentially, feeling chronic stress makes it harder to not perceive stress, creating a vicious cycle of unending stress.

Aside from the many health issues like diabetes and cardiac disease that chronic stress leads to, it also causes behavioral changes as people reach for levers of control to reduce stress. These levers include among others, self-medication and displacement aggression.

Self-medication is self-explanatory, it’s pretty much any addictive substance or behavior you can think of, but displacement aggression is a special something among mammals. It turns out that we can reduce our stress by picking on those below us in our social hierarchies. In other words, this is where anti-social behaviors like bullying, racism, and anti-immigrant xenophobia are born. You know, those same things that fuel fascism.

So to solve these problems, we need to go to the root, which is what’s causing the stress in the first place. What’s the most common cause of stress? It’s money. Whether it be the lack of sufficient money, or money that is too irregular or infrequent, or money that feels like the flow of it could stop at any moment. There are a lot of reasons to stress about money, and it all comes down to the fact that we built a system that requires money for our continued survival.

Unconditional basic income cuts to the root by ending our existential money-based fears. With UBI, no matter what happens, our ability to secure our basic needs is guaranteed, from birth to death. That feeling of emancipatory security is transformative in the most profound of ways. It creates trust.

This trust effect has been observed in multiple UBI pilots and unconditional cash transfer programs. In India, people from different castes actually began to gather together. In Lebanon, recipients were less offended by others. In Namibia, recipients became friendlier with one another because it was less likely that someone they would talk to would ask them for money.

When you get right down to it, UBI is really a redistribution of trust, because that’s what money essentially represents.

Consider what happens when we digitally send money to everyone in a village in East Africa. Nothing physical is sent. The only thing that changes is the order of various 1s and 0s. The village gains no additional resources. Nothing is different. And yet suddenly, someone there can walk up to a shop, and walk out of that shop with food. That food was already there, but it was not being given to that person prior to having money. Why? Because the shop owner couldn’t trust that they themselves would benefit otherwise. They did trust that they could use money elsewhere to obtain something they themselves wanted. We trust money, and in trusting money, we trust each other.

Consider also the reverse of this. What happened in the Great Depression? The amount of resources and energy were unchanged. The manufacturing capacity was unchanged. The amount of human labor willing to work to produce what was needed was unchanged. And yet the system essentially ground to a halt. Why? Because there was insufficient money in most people’s hands and thus a lack of trust.

Nothing was stopping anyone from exchanging goods and services. As Alan Watts has described the situation, it was like everyone showed up on Monday to build a house, and they were told there would be no work that day, not because of a lack of wood or hammers or nails or cement, but because they were all out of inches. Money doesn’t really exist like we think it does. It’s just a tool of measurement built on trust.

So what are we doing hoarding so much of an imaginary construct in some places, and preventing any of it from reaching other places? Why have we invented something out of thin air, and then pretended it is a finite resource?

The answer is because we didn’t create enough democracy. We didn’t make citizens equal enough. We didn’t free citizens enough to engage in and grow democracy. And we weren’t able to do that because we didn’t implement unconditional basic income to free people from the imposition of survival work. It’s a catch-22. It’s two sides of a coin. We need UBI for democracy, and we need democracy for UBI. It’s a feedback loop for prosperity.

The beginning of this loop begins with the understanding that UBI is more than money. It’s a yet to be recognized right of citizenship. To see this, we need to recognize a few things.

First, Thomas Paine was right. His argument was that the creation of private property was a great invention that increased overall prosperity, but that it also made some people worse off than prior to its invention. Cutting people off from access to land effectively robbed people of their natural inheritance, and so those who owned land owed a rent on that land that was to be returned to everyone as their rightful inheritance.

Second, without an unconditional basic income, our other rights are infringed. Think about something as fundamental as the right to free speech. Does that right fully exist if we fear that saying something has the potential to get us fired or keep us from employment, in a world where employment is how we survive?

Third, if we have the right to life, if we truly do see ourselves as having the unalienable right to life, then access to the resources required to live cannot be justly withheld on the condition of work. It just can’t. If I sucked all the air out of this room, and sold you bags of it back in exchange for work I commanded you to do, you’d call me a super villain. But we do that every day and don’t call it anything, because it’s been entirely normalized.

Those are three justifications for the right to an unconditional basic income, but there are also justifications for a UBI that grows beyond covering survival needs, something more like an unconditional prosperity dividend.

Read “The Entrepreneurial State” by Mariana Mazzucato

First, citizens are effectively unemploying themselves with their own tax money. Those machines we built that are eliminating more and more jobs… all the research began with public funding. Because citizens paid for that technology to exist, because they put up the capital, all citizens should be treated as shareholders with dividends that grow as productivity grows.

Second, citizens are effectively training their own replacements. Citizens not only paid for the technology itself, but they are creating the data to train the algorithms how to unemploy them. Most of the discussion around big data is around data like the type we create via social media. What goes undiscussed is ambient intellectual property, which is the kind of omnipresent data we create through our everyday existence. It’s not just sending a tweet. It’s being born and going about our daily lives.

Third, human civilization is a generation by generation accumulation of knowledge. It’s like a staircase. Every generation begins on the top of all previous generations. Not a single billionaire alive today single-handedly accomplished anything. Consider Elon Musk. Yes, he and his SpaceX team have advanced rocketry in amazing ways, but they didn’t start from scratch. They built off what we already learned during the 1960s when we invested heavily in our goal of men walking on the moon. And that technology had origins in WWII. And down and down into history it goes.

There is a technological inheritance not being inherited and instead being concentrated in the hands of whomever is lucky enough to be at the top of a knowledge chain that made the latest innovation possible. Mark Zuckerberg is worth billions, partially because of Facebook and all its unpaid users freely creating all the data, but also because of the internet, which was a publicly-funded creation.

We need to come to realize that we’re all in this together. There is no such thing as the “self-made” billionaire. In fact, the term “self-made” needs to die. No one is self-made. Everything we do is on the shoulders of others. Because of the division of labor, we are all interdependent. We all need each other, and we all benefit from each other.

Democracy is built on this. Governments are instituted among men (and women) to secure our unalienable rights, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. We have agreed that we have certain rights as human beings, and that if we band together, we can together ensure those rights equally for all.

We are human beings, not human doings. Our great purpose is to be, not to do. Our most important job is to be a citizen, to be involved in our lives, the lives of our loved ones, the lives of our communities, the lives of our fellow citizens, and the lives of all humankind. It’s about life itself. Our great task is to find meaning, and to share it with each other.

This notion that for one to win, another must fail, is false. Human civilization is not zero-sum. If we lift each other up as we progress forward, everybody can win. But as long as we are only trying to survive, we will never thrive. We have to guarantee everyone’s survival as their unalienable right to live. Only then can we attain non-zero-sum thinking, where scarcity thinking gives way to abundance of thought.

Democracy is one of our greatest achievements as a species, but we implemented it without UBI, and that was a mistake. Democracy is incomplete as long as a citizen can’t choose to be a full-time citizen. And human civilization itself is at risk as long as humans grow more and more concerned about meeting their most basic needs.

We are living in an incredibly dangerous time. We are facing long-term threats that risk our very extinction. Climate change is here. Artificial Intelligence is being born. Fascism is on the horizon. Nuclear weapons are still everywhere. We have to create a world where the human mind is freed from immediate survival concerns and is instead free to tackle these threats instead of each other.

Imagine a box with a button that can extinguish humanity in the blink of an eye. Who is more likely to push that button? Someone living in a democracy with an unconditional basic income? Or someone living under a totalitarian dictatorship, who lives each day awash in fear?

Consider the ability to create bioweapons in garages. Consider a future of weaponized nanotech. Do you see that technological advancement will force our hand? We have to become better, kinder, more thoughtful, and more loving. We must have social innovation alongside tech innovation.

We have to give up the desire to control other people. That is not the answer to fear. The answer to fear is trust. It’s the relinquishment of control. We need to free people, and we need to trust in one another.

We need democracy built on unconditional basic income. Without this foundation, I believe our civilization will fall. With it, I believe humanity will turn the page, and begin writing our next chapter as a truly civilized species.

Special thanks to: Haroon Mokhtarzada, Steven Grimm, Andrew Stern, Stephen Starkey, Larry Cohen, Floyd Marinescu, Aaron T Schultz, Topher Hunt, Gisele Huff, Sasha Barrese, Robert Collins, Kian Alavi, Stephane Boisvert, Justin Walsh, Daragh Ward, Jordan Lejuwaan, Joanna Zarach, Ace Bailey, Daryl Smith, Albert Wenger, Peter T Knight, Danielle and Michael Texeira, Jack Canty, Paul Godsmark, Vladimir Baranov, Rachel Perkins, Chris Rauchle, David Ihnen, Sylvain Barone, Michael Hrenka, Natalie Foster, Reid Rusonik, Matt DeKok, Daniel Brockman, Carrie Mclachlan, Michael Honey, George Scialabba, Che Wagner, Gerald Huff, Will Ware, Joe Ballou, Richard Just, Jack Wagner, Gray Scott, Catherine MacDonald, Max Henrion, Arjun Banker, Dan O’Sullivan, Chris Smothers, Alvin Miranda, Kai Wong, Jill Weiss, Nicolas Pouillard, Christopher Anderson, MARK4UBI, Brooke Colwell, Elizabeth Balcar, Robin Ketelaars, Georg Baumann, Lisa Hallman, E. Davies, Dylan Taylor, Mark, Kirk Israel, Valentina Petricciuolo, Chris Boraski, Lee VilliHaukka, Casey L Young, Robert F. Greene, Oliver Bestwalter, Thomas Welsh, Walter Schaerer, all my other funders for their support, and my amazing partner, Katie Smith.

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Unconditional/Universal Basic Income (UBI) advocate with a crowdfunded basic income; Founder and President of ITSA Foundation, Author of Let There Be Money; Editor of

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