Move the debate from Universal Basic Income to Universal Basic Services


The following article is authored by Ian Gough.



Many arguments have been made for Universal Basic Income (UBI). This article summarizes an alternative case: for Universal Basic Services (UBS). The issue of their relationship is not directly considered here, but the argument is made that UBS is more egalitarian and sustainable than UBI, as befits the rethinking of eco-social policy in the face of dangerous climate change. Furthermore, it is argued that UBS is also politically more incremental and reformist than the case for a true UBI.
UBS advocates a wider range of free public services enabling every citizen to meet their basic needs and achieve certain levels of security, opportunity, and participation. The core principles are:

Universal: guaranteed entitlement according to need and not one’s ability to pay.
Basic: sufficient rather than minimal, enabling people to meet their basic needs, participate in society, and flourish.
Services: collectively generated activities that serve the public interest.


In many countries, public health services and school to higher education are founded on these goals, despite cuts, attacks, and ongoing disputes over principles. UBS poses the question: can we extend these principles to other basic necessities, such as housing, care, transport, information, and nutrition (IGP, 2017)?[1]
Clearly, these necessities are all very different things, so there can be no uniform formula to implement UBS. But entitlements to certain levels of provision can be guaranteed and these can be backed up by a menu of public interventions including regulation, standard setting and monitoring, taxation, and subsidies. This does not necessarily entail direct government provision – a plurality of collective and communal providers will be involved with appropriate support from government. But the unifying principle is to extend collective solutions, as opposed to providing income support and leaving provisioning to market forces.
The case for collective provision to meet such needs can be made on two main grounds: equity and sustainability (though there are also strong arguments for efficiency and solidarity covered elsewhere but not here).

Equity. Free public provision of necessities is always remarkably redistributive – even if the total tax system of a country is broadly proportional to income. On average, in OECD countries, existing public services are worth the equivalent of a huge 76 percent of the post-tax income of the poorest quintile compared with just 14 percent of the richest (Table 1). Public services also contribute to reducing income inequality by between one-fifth and one-third depending on the inequality measure. Free provision of necessities automatically targets lower income households without the disincentive effects that often result from money transfers.



Table 1: In-kind benefits as a share of disposable income by quintile, average over 27 OECD countries, late 2000s
Source: Verbist et al 2012
Sustainability. Climate heating and ecological breakdown now pose existential challenges to wellbeing. The urgent necessity to move away from unsustainable economic, social, and environmental practices provides a new justification for extending UBS. First, public provisioning systems for healthcare are more sustainable than market systems. For example, the per capita carbon footprint of health care in the USA is two and a half times greater than in the UK and three and half times greater than in several European countries (Figure 1). Second, public services can play a vital role in decarbonising the economy in a just way. For example, Green New Deal programmes to retrofit the vast bulk of the housing stock will require public planning, finance, and management. They will be needed to ensure a ‘just transition’ to lower carbon living, rather than one that will load costs onto the poorest people and communities. Third and relatedly, public consumption through UBS supports sustainable ‘consumption corridors’ (Coote, 2020).


Figure 1: Health carbon footprints per capita, 2014
Source: Pichler et al. 2019

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But does not a further extension of public services encroach upon peoples’ rights to choose how to spend their incomes? Money is fungible so social transfers including UBI permit people to spend income on whatever they want. The case for consumer sovereignty and market democracy needs to be addressed directly if the arguments for UBS are to prosper. I provide elsewhere a theoretical framework to justify this approach. In summary it depends on two things: a non-monetary conception of wellbeing and a disaggregated model of provisioning.
Human needs – or the functioning of capability theory – cannot be summed up into a single unit of account; they entail different satisfiers that are heterogenous and non-substitutable. Providing a study course will not directly improve someone’s poor housing conditions. A need-based conception of wellbeing is opposed to the indifference approach of welfare economics, where one service can be traded off against another (Gough, 2017).[2]
Similarly, we need to challenge the dominant view of the economy as a uniform space within which nameless and substitutable commodities are produced, exchanged, and consumed. Instead there are discrete ‘systems of provision’, such as the food system, the energy system, the housing system, the education system, the care system, and the transport system. These comprise a ‘foundational economy’ of mundane, taken-for-granted networks and services that people depend on every day, such as utilities, telecommunications, and banking (Floud et al., 2018).[3]
What these two frameworks have in common is heterogeneity: the varied and incommensurable needs and provisioning systems on which we depend. It is some of these that collective and public services can address in a more equitable and sustainable way.[4]
Of course, delivering and implementing UBS will vary greatly across these domains. Let me conclude with one proposal in one country: free bus travel in the UK. This would entitle everyone to enjoy the free bus travel currently available to the over 60s, with major benefits to participation and opportunity. Of course, it would require investment in new buses and routes at convenient times. It would also require regulation, which exists in London but is absent in the rest of the country with calamitous results (monopolies, asset-stripping, fares rising faster than other prices, declining passenger journeys everywhere outside London, poor connections and lack of inter-ticketing, halving of spending on subsidies for social necessary services and ‘forced car ownership’).
Yet, this could be rectified at a cost of around 0.4% GDP. Compared with UBI, costs are modest. To provide similar entitlements in childcare, adult social care, housing and infrastructure, as well as transport has been estimated to cost about 4.3% of GDP (Coote and Percy, 2020).[5]
In conclusion, there are strong justifications for moving towards UBS as a principled framework for allocating resources and reforming welfare systems. UBS are in-kind benefits that represent a ‘social income’ – an essential component of the means by which individuals and households are able to flourish. The case for it is theoretical - wellbeing is multi-dimensional; normative - the potential of UBS to secure greater equality, social efficiency, collective solidarity, and long-term sustainability; and political – UBS is incremental, relatively cheap, and can achieve superior results to a system of unconditional cash payments alongside markets for commodified services. Of course income transfers are just as important and require reform, but not at the expense of collectively provided in-kind benefits.
Recommendations and pointers for future action
UBS is a principled policy framework not a single policy (like UBI). Clearly different countries face quite different contexts, institutions, and policy histories. Similarly, the pattern of existing provision will vary across health, education, housing, social care, and so on. There are several implications for research.  One is to investigate the social, environmental and economic impacts of collectively provided services (social income) across different countries in the short, medium, and longer term. Another is to explore public and political interest in applying the UBS framework in different locations.  A third is to seek out best practice in each domain across countries, regions, and cities. And then to consider if and how lessons can be learned elsewhere. UNESCO would be ideally suited to carry out such comparative research. Similarly, an international network of supporters and advocates of UBS should be built up. Policy makers should turn their attention to ways in which ‘social income’ and cash payments interact and seek optimal ways of reforming social protection systems to support rather than undermine the collective approach.


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IGP (Institute for Global Prosperity), 2017. Social prosperity for the future: A proposal for Universal Basic Services. UCL, London.


Verbist, G., Förster, M.F. and Vaalavuo, M., 2012. The Impact of Publicly Provided Services on the Distribution of Resources: Review of New Results and Methods. OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers No. 130. OECD Publishing, Paris.


Gough, I., 2019. Universal basic services: A theoretical and moral framework. Political Quarterly.
Coote, A., 2020. Universal Basic Services and Sustainable Consumption, Sustainability, Science, Practice and Policy, 17 (1), pp. 32-46.


Pichler, P. et al., 2019. International comparison of health care carbon footprints. Environmental Research Letters, 14 (6).


Gough, I., 2017. Heat, Greed and Human Need: Climate change, capitalism and sustainable wellbeing. Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar Ltd.


Floud, J., Moran, M., Johal, S., Salento, A., Williams, K., 2018. Foundational Economy: The infrastructure of everyday life. Manchester University Press.


Coote, A. and Percy, A., 2020. The Case for Universal Basic Services. Cambridge: Polity.

[1] The original statement of the case for UBS.
[2] Making the case for recomposing consumption in rich countries in order to save dangerous emissions in an equitable way.
[3] A concise statement of the idea of a ‘foundational’ economy.
[4] Ian Gough (2019), links need theory, foundational economy and ethical arguments for UBS.
[5] Coote and Percy (2020) is the fullest and most recent statement of the case for UBS.
Ian Gough is the author of the much-cited book Heat, Greed and Human Need: Climate change, capitalism, and sustainable wellbeing, published in 2017. He continues to work on the interface of climate change and social policy - recently advising the EU, ILO, and the Irish Presidency (among other institutions) on these topics. His website can be found here
The authors are responsible for the facts contained in the article and the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.