The democratic setup of society allows for free speech and the expression of ideas and thoughts. These expressions of ideas, when coming into the public domain as an effort to bring reform in the policy infrastructure, acquire the shape of discourse; an interchange of ideas in the public domain. Discourses can be an outcome of a social movement, public debates, political speeches, media reports, etc. One such discourse in the public policy domain is on the Universal Basic Income (UBI).
The idea of a universal income is a matter of policy discourse in various democracies across the world. The welfare states have been engaging with this idea which ensures every citizen, irrespective of his/her economic status, background, working status, and so on, a certain minimum amount of assured income. The government makes unconditional periodic cash transfers to the citizens who are free to spend this amount according to their consumer basket preference that maximizes their utility. UBI liberates citizens and transfers the agency from the state’s hands to the poor to take economic decisions relevant to their lives.
Economists hail UBI as a measure to bridge the loopholes in existing social welfare schemes. It can address the problem of leakage in government subsidy transfers, acts as an immediate response to reduce poverty, and since it is universally applicable, targeting errors can be minimized. It would act as a security net for people rendered jobless due to technologically induced unemployment. UBI would help to expand the middle-class group substantially and reduce inequalities. The existence of multiple social security schemes creates an undue burden on the state exchequer and the taxpayer; UBI would be a single alternative to all those, thus saving ample resources and reducing administrative burden. Several pilot studies (ES, 2016) show that people getting extra income regularly tend to use it rationally. They make use of additional income to attain better education, spend on their healthcare and wellbeing, and engage in other economic activities that further generate more income.
However, along with the above-stated plethora of UBI advantages, there are many arguments made against it by economists and intellectuals that have also acquired public space. With this idea, the major moral hazard is that people will become lazy with a given minimum guaranteed income and will refuse to work, thus reducing the labour supply in the market. Given the patriarchal construct of Indian society, there is a risk that the additional income will be constrained in the hands of men who would rather spend it on wasteful activities. This would further induce gender disparity within the households. Another major argument against the universalization of income is that it challenges the poor’s idea of equity and state welfare. The rich will get an undue advantage, and it will create unnecessary government expenditure. Also, the cash transfers are subject to price fluctuations and need to be upscaled regularly, unlike in-kind transfers.
Besides the normal debate on UBI as a policy, various supplementary ideas have entered the discourse. To ease out the apprehensions on the well-off getting the benefits, qualified universalization can be an option. Identifying and excluding the creamy layer (who possess certain assets) out of UBI, promoting voluntary ‘give it up’ scheme on the lines of LPG subsidy, regular self-verification by beneficiaries, naming and shaming the rich who avail these benefits, so on so forth. Adopting UBI in a phased manner is another alternative approach that will allow for incremental reform. Giving people the agency to choose between UBI and the current schemes would give them a greater choice, negotiating power, and contain costs. Implementing UBI in urban areas first, which have adequate banking infrastructure. UBI for women, strong fiscal infrastructure, and successful JAM implementation, adequate funding with federal negotiations are few other aspects adding to the discourse on UBI.
The above-explained discourse on UBI challenges the reductionist approach, followed by the institutional theory of public policy. Institutionalism suffers from the limitation of reducing things to a particular explanation and emphasizes upon the laid structure excessively. These discourses bridge the limitations of institutional theory. It will help the institutions look beyond the existing structural policy framework, gain fresh insights, consider UBI as an alternative, nullify it all together, or suggest another better means of reducing poverty and raising people’s living standards. UBI as a policy enhances the agency of the individual, whereas institutions emphasize the structure.
To keep the institutions relevant in a society, it is important to integrate the discourse analysis with public policy’s institutional theory. Institutions need to acquire and renew legitimacy continuously in a dynamic world driven by technological, financial, social, moral knowledge production and enhanced awareness of rights. For the institutions to grow and make them in tune with the world’s dynamism, one has to be open to the discourses that exist outside these institutions. Otherwise, after a point of time, institutions become redundant, deplete, and cannot serve the purpose of their existence. So for a welfare state to serve the country’s poor people, it is important to understand the lacunae in the policy framework and address the loopholes in the structure. The discourse on UBI would help the administrative bodies and government institutions reflect upon new ways of achieving the old objectives and create new ones as our targets.
This discourse will help the policy analysts to go beyond the formal institutions and not merely remain restricted to the procedures laid out by the government, their official reports, and figures. But also bring in fresh insights and thinking about various ideas as suggested by various stakeholders who are out there, and gradually convert the policy discourse into institutions. Through institutionalizing the discourse on UBI, we will again reduce all the welfare and anti-poverty programs to one single variable that is universal basic income. However, it will further create room for more analysis, debates, and new perspectives, which is the purpose of the discursive approach to public policy.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.