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Contesting the Tragedy of the Commons: A Universal Basic Income for All

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

By Stephen Colley

Themes: Economy, Policy, Work

Published in 1987, Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, describes two competing visions of humanity: the constrained and the unconstrained. The constrained vision understands human nature as flawed a priori and incapable of achieving the unconstrained vision of the perfectibility of human beings. This dichotomy, Sowell argues, is a source of historical conflict between individuals given that ideas about reason are deployed from fundamentally different philosophical traditions. On the one hand, the constrained vision—loosely defined as embodying “conservative” values—praises the logic of the self-regulating “free market” while, on the other hand, the unconstrained visionaries—the “liberals” insist on maintaining the essential capitalist features of the economy through the redistribution and regulation of wealth through progressive taxation and income supports. Situated at opposite poles, these two visions of human nature provide us with a rough dialectical outline for interpreting the conversation around a Universal Basic Income for All.


Against this backdrop, I will introduce Garrett Hardin’s influential essay The Tragedy of the Commons, published in Science Magazine (Hardin, 1968) by situating it within the debate inspired by Elinor Ostrom’s counter-argument that individuals and communities are capable, and have been capable historically, of managing, and not exploiting common resources (Ostrom, Governing The Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action, 1990). Ostrom’s pivotal refutation of Hardin’s conception of the commons as composed of “selfish, self-maximizing individuals” is then challenged with De Angelis & Harvie’s work on The Commons (2014) that goes beyond Ostrom’s liberal and Hardin’s neo-classical economic analysis to develop an anti-capitalist argument of the Commons. Building on this examination, I will then introduce Guy Standing’s ideas around the moral and human entitlement to a “social or common dividend” that, as a policy prescription, is designed as a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all (Standing, Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen, 2017). From here, I will then explore how and why we are re-thinking the neo-liberal market given the influence of COVID-19 on the global supply chain, and the jobs that depend on the world system. Interest in a basic income that compensates people for the economic hardships imposed by medical martial law (lockdown) is receiving increased attention from pundits situated across the Left and the Right of the political spectrum. Today, the idea of Universal Basic Income offers a point of convergence—although commencing from different ideological starting points and with diverse interests in mind—between the ideals of economic democracy and the rationality of economic freedom. Economic Freedom is encoded within neo-liberal ideology as individual choice enshrined in property rights. Such think-tanks as the Fraser Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and Cato Institute have provides the intellectual ammunition needed for the sale and consumption of “austerity politics” for the past 35 years. I will conclude by offering hope to economic democrats in this moment of the COVID 19 economic crisis. Hope that the historic plunder of the commons can be reversed—or at the very minimum slowed—through the transformation of our “death economy” to one that respects our right to a “wage commons” within a paradigm that prioritizes planetary limits to growth.

The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons

For the sake of clarity, two distinctions need to be made here regarding the idea of the commons as outlined by De Angelis and Harvie (2014). One is the neo-liberal theory of the commons illustrated by the ideas of Garret Hardin’s influential “tragedy of the commons” argument which was published widely. The other is a liberal theory of the commons advocated by Nobel Memorial Prize recipient, economist Elinor Ostrom. Before unpacking Hardin and Ostrom’s perspectives, we define “the commons” in the following manner: “[t]he commons are the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come. The commons consists of gifts of nature such as air, oceans and wildlife as well as shared social creations such as libraries, public spaces, scientific research and creative works” (Magazine, 2020). Fundamentally then, we can choose to cooperate and share this wealth or, we can individually exploit these resources through the commodification of everything.

Hardin conceives of the commons as composed of selfish, self-maximizing individuals or rational herders who share in common grazing land where each has free access. Rather than cooperate and share this common land, Hardin—like Sowell after him—raises the constrained vision of humankind and our supposed inclination to serve ourselves before others. Since Hardin believes this is true of everyone, we are locked into a system of “fouling our own nest, so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers” (Hardin, 1968, p. 284). To do otherwise, we read Hardin to say, would be against our own nature as individuals living in society. To protect us from our despoiling nature, he advocates for private property rights, or ownership over that which was once held in common. Effectively, Hardin encapsulates the neoclassical economic perspective by advocating for the enclosure of the commons to protect it from our rational, Hobbesian choices which, from his view, are individual and not communal. Hardin theory of our nature is a good example of prisoner’s dilemma: it only takes one greedy, uncooperative, selfish individual to spoil what is held in common.

For Ostrom, communities cooperate to share resources in the commons (1990). Consider her research exploring communal tenure in a Swiss village where farmers work private plots for crops while sharing a communal meadow to graze cows. For Hardin, this would be appear to be confirm the tragedy-of-the-commons theory. Ostrom, however, discovered the opposite effect. The villagers has come to a common agreement that no person is allowed to graze more cows on the meadow than they can care for over the winter—a rule that dates back to 1517. Ostrom has documented similar effective examples of “governing the commons” in her research in Japan, Spain, and the Phillipines (1990, pp. 58-88).Ostrom rejects Hardin’s idea that rationality consists solely in selfishness and opportunism by arguing that economic behaviour is dependent on both competition and cooperation in solving problems. In sum, Ostrom's work aligns with liberal perspectives of the economy given that she places the state and the market in parallel with the development of the commons.

De Angelis and Harvie (2014) go beyond both Ostrom and Hardin to develop an anti-capitalist argument of the commons by claiming that the commons is in constant class struggle within and against capitalism. They assert that what is required is the creation of the commons against and beyond capitalism through the practice of “commoning”. Simply put, the social act of commoning draws on a network of relationships oriented to the expectation that we will each take care of one another in a world where some things belong to all of us—which is the essence of the commons itself. Antithetical to the neo-liberal idea that “you’re on your own”, commoning tells us that “we are in this together”. A Universal Basic Income for All lowers that idea that idea into the world through social security policies affirming our historical and common right to a minimum viable wage that, rather than privatizing the commons, shares wealth not as profit but as an equitable resource for all.

Guy Standing: A Universal Basic Income (UBI) for All

Guy Standing is a world renowned advocate of a UBI for all. Writing in response to the past 35 years of neo-liberal economic austerity—in particular the 2008 Financial Meltdown, Brexit, and the 2016 election of Donald Trump—Standing claims that unless a new income distribution system is constructed, society will continue to drift to the political Right which will result, he predicts accurately, in greater and greater income inequality and the further dismantling or hollowing out of the ‘middle class’ (2017, p. XI) to form a new ‘precariat’. The antidote to the unfettered marketplace, Standing declares boldly, is a social (common) dividend, or entitlement, similar to already prefigured sovereign wealth funds such as the Heritage Savings Trust Fund established by the Government of Alberta, Alaska Permanent Fund, or the Norwegian Pension Funds, which make regular payments to constituents simply because they are members of society (2017, p. 151).

In his latest book, The Plunder of the Commons (2019), Standing connects the historical importance of the Commons and its subsequent enclosure to the uneven economic development of his country of birth, Britain. He does this by drawing a straight line from the royal seizures of common land 800 years ago to the Reagan/Mulroney/Thatcher neo-liberal austerity politics of the 1980s to demonstrate that “progress” has always depended on the coercive seizure of public wealth for private gain. Consider the 2008-2009 bailouts of those corporations too “big to fail” and the massive transfer of private debt to the public balance sheet. Standing’s account makes a compelling argument for the maintenance of the commons against the creeping colonization of public spaces and the hyper-commodification of common resources. By arguing for a common’s charter founded on a Commons Fund sustained through commercial taxes and levees on common land use, Standing hopes to finance a common’s dividend or universal basic income for all. In conclusion, he notes that as diverse forms of commons are enclosed, privatized, and commercialised,, our social fabric is weakened, we become more fragile, fragmented and consequently less resilient to shocks (2019, p. 39). The COVID-19 pandemic provides persuasive evidence that we must re-build the commons for the sake of humanity and the planet that sustains us. Here, I want to specifically focus on the importance of securing what I call a wage commons: a universal guarantee for an allowance for all to be able to meet the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and dignity.

Convergence: Re-thinking UBI in Light of COVID-19

In the early months of 2020, the Canadian economy was ‘humming’ along; unemployment was low, and businesses were generally profitable. And then along came COVID-19 to turn neo-liberal capitalism on its head. Wuhan province China, the epicentre for the pandemic, and a critical world supplier from everything to soup to bolts, is quarantined to contain the spread of the virus resulting in a severe contraction of world trade, and dramatic global jobs losses not seen since the 1930s Great Depression ensue. Decades of reliance on a ‘just in time global supply chain’ driven by the ideology and imperatives of the ‘bottom line’ have come home to roost. Like other governments around the world, Canada, was unprepared for this economic ‘shock’ and responded by launching—and recently extending—the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to provide up to $2,000 per month for up to four months for those whose employment has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic (Canada, 2020). And demand for the benefit has been high, with the most recent federal numbers showing that 8.41 million Canadians have applied for the benefit with $43.51 billion paid to date (Press, 2020).

Trudeau’s emergency investment in CERB has re-opened the debate around the implementation of a national basic income strategy for Canada. Canadian political commentators from the political Right, such as former adviser to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Ken Boessenkool, and former Conservative senator and Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Mulroney, Hugh Segal, to former Toronto mayor and federal Liberal cabinet minister Art Eggleton from the political Centre, and the Broadbent Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on the Left, have all contributed to the debate by providing their perspectives on the need for a Universal Basic Income.

“While it pains me as a conservative to suggest this,” Ken Boessenkool writes in a Globe and Mail op-ed, “the government should consider adding another $27-billion dollar expenditure for a Crisis Basic Income as a supplement to what has been announced.” Boessenkool, a hardline neo-liberalist finds himself in mixed company. Also writing in The Globe and Mail, academic Evelyn Forget argues that

[t]he largest experiment in basic income that anyone could imagine has been forced upon us by COVID-19. It has produced a national awareness that any Canadian, except for the very wealthy, might need an income top-up for reasons completely beyond their control. In the “lessons learned” process that will follow the pandemic, we have a historic opportunity for Ottawa, the provinces and territories to reshape cash transfers for Canadians who have low incomes, regardless of the reason why. (Forget, 2020)

Hugh Segal, a consistent advocate of basic income, helped Liberal Kathleen Wynn, former Premier of Ontario, design the Guaranteed Basic Income pilot in Ontario, and is supported by former Toronto Mayor and Liberal cabinet minister Art Eggleton. Contributing to an opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen, Segal and Eggleton write,

The Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) is one program that comes close to being a basic income measure. But there are still people falling through the cracks who can’t provide sufficiently for the necessities of life: food, medicines and housing for themselves and their families. For example, people on social assistance or disability allowances who can’t work and haven’t been able to work recently are not eligible for CERB. And yet they are struggling because social assistance and disability allowances are far below any poverty line measurement, and formally discourage work (Eggleton, and Segal 2020).

For Eggleton & Segal, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity. Coming out of the crisis, they believe that we can simplify a complex income support system by shaping an efficient, national, non-stigmatizing basic income that will contribute to Canada’s stability and prosperity.

Not surprisingly, the Left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) is another vocal proponent of a basic income. Writing in 2016, lead authors Alex Himelfarb and Trish Hennessy frame the UBI debate around our different views of justice, freedom, and the balance of collective and individual rights and responsibilities. They argue that for those on the political Left, UBI addresses inequality, while for those on the political Right, UBI is understood as a vehicle to reduce reliance on state provided social security benefits by promoting the provision of goods and services through the market (Himelfarb, 2016, p. 9). Along with the CCPA, the Broadbent Institute, advocates for a UBI which secures and strengthens already established social security guarantees, such as income assistance, EI, and universal health care. In sum, and with important nuances, the realities of the pandemic and their impacts on the global economy have moved the UBI debate from the fringes to the centre of policy discussions focussed on re-shaping the world post COVID-19.

Conclusion: A Wage Commons that Respects Planetary Limits to Growth

COVID-19 foretells a paradigm shift in our socioeconomic relations. Will it incite a movement away from globalization’s dependency on global supply chains by returning economic resiliency to local economies, where, to quote E.F. Schumacher, small is beautiful, again? Consider a world where local and regional economies produce goods and services for communities within safe reach of one another. Communities that care and share for the commons because they understand that the planet is finite, that our capitalist death economy consumes everything in its path and that this tragic trajectory must be stopped. Ostrom’s challenge to Hardin was important; it paved the way for anti-capitalist approaches to economic democracy. Standing’s UBI is another important contribution. It offers the idea of a wage commons that respects the right of constituents to receive benefits ‘in common’ and via practices of commoning.

CERB has offered a point of discursive and practical convergence, arrived at from different starting points yet, nevertheless, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic with a social/common dividend of $2,000 per month that has had a real and positive impact for those Canadians most in need. The COVID-19 pandemic is both a health and economic crisis. The hope is that through our collective pandemic experience, neo-liberals will take notice that capitalism has not delivered on its promise of the good economy—trickling down wealth to all—but has instead, plundered the commons. Now, in this moment of uncertainty, is the time for democrats of all political stripes to acknowledge the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system. We have the knowledge and the ‘know how’ to build an economy that provides people with a basic income while respecting planetary limitations.

The idea that the social good is maximized by deepening and extending the reach of the market into all human action has embedded itself in both thought and practice throughout the globalized world since the early 1970s. It is a cultural logic rooted in a neo-liberal doctrine that assigns and measures economic value for all human activity. In a world of creeping monetization, where who we are and what we do is understood from the perspective of “profitability”, the COVID-19 pandemic represents both a crisis and an opportunity for Canada. The shutdown of the global economy reveals that a “just in time” supply chain, interconnected and spread out like a spider’s web from its nexus, is vulnerable to “shocks” that are felt thousands of miles from their origin. Through no fault of their own, workers and businesses are forced to stay home or temporarily cease operations impacting salaries and sales. For the political Left, the CERB offers a working paradigm for the development of a robust Canadian basic income that has the potential to secure wellbeing in a post-pandemic world if coupled to hard-won social security benefits already in existence. For the political Right however, COVID-19 offers an opportunity to create more “efficiencies” in government by using basic income funding as a means to streamline other social programs offering public benefits. In other words, while the Right seeks to rationalize neo-liberalism through reform, the Left understands the pandemic as an opportunity to re-think and re-shape the economy. If we are truly interested in learning from our COVID-19 experience, and using it for the benefit of all, then a Universal Basic Income can provide income stability for all of us as we transition through this paradigm shift in our ways of being and doing.


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