Beyond Temptation: Addiction and Basic Income

October 24, 2017

One of the persistent criticisms of the Universal Basic Income is that it would either entice people to purchase addictive substances, such as alcohol, or enable existing addictions through the added cash benefit. Dr. Katarzyna Gajewska, an independent scholar researching the UBI, has studied this question in the past. Her unique insights deserve further exploration. I recently had the opportunity to interview Katarzyna on the subject.

In the interview, Katarzyna discussed her conclusion that it is “improbable” that a UBI would cause someone to become an addict. She believes that “abrupt measures,” such as taking away an individual’s basic income should not be how the state manages addictions; instead, the state should find ways to “protect” them from spending their income on addictive substances.

In order to win the political argument, Katarzyna said it is important that the UBI movement advance a “human argument,”. According to her, “the more we de-mystify and understand the unemployed and addicted by telling their stories, the more empathy will be created.”

Katarzyna also believes that the UBI movement should place greater emphasis on how a UBI would transform society:

One can think of the basic income project as a way of transforming culture and daily practices by exiting the competition and alienation that employment system boosts.

If one is liberated from addictions and non-meaningful consumption, basic income could make it possible to engage in the projects that one finds worth pursuing and bring joy into working together.

The entirety of my email interview with Gajewska is reproduced below. Some sections were slightly modified for clarity.

1. A World Bank study found that in Latin America, Asia and Africa cash transfers had little impact on “temptation goods,” such as alcohol. Do you think these findings are applicable to Western countries as well, or what are the limits from this type of study?

Definitely, it is a research question to pursue. The Finnish experimental study on basic income that is about to be produced or the Dutch experiment in the city of Utrecht could be an interesting opportunity to generate several PhD projects on such a question. I would go for a meticulous sampling of addicted (or prone to addiction) individuals with basic income, including as much diversity of individuals as possible in terms of variables like demographic, job history, and variables relevant to addiction. Such a study could be an opportunity to gather a lot of qualitative data and get a new understanding about the relation between income and addiction. The research would reveal whether the UBI contributes to or rescues individuals from addiction, and under what conditions. It seems improbable to me that one would fall into an addiction because of the UBI. A healthy, emotionally fit individual would not be tempted by an excessive substance use in the first place. However, one can address this question in the general survey. Revealing the influence of monetary allowance on addiction (positive or negative), while taking into account other contributors to addiction, would be an important finding to inform social policy makers. Instead of deciding in favor or against a UBI, further adjustments informed by experimental research need to be formulated.

2. How should a basic income scheme handle relatively extreme instances of alcohol and drug addiction? That is, is there a point when the state should intervene and remove an individual’s basic income for undesirable behavior, even if it only causes individual harm?

With or without a basic income scheme, the state should prevent further individual harm by providing therapy measures. Depriving an addict of subsistence may lead to a criminal behaviour, harming family members or friends. A person in an advanced stage of addiction will find all possible means to get a fix while remaining in denial of the addiction. So the costs may become much higher than providing the addict with therapy. Instead of employing someone to detect who is an addict in order to deprive them of their basic income, the state could make a better use of this money. Additionally, there is a whole problem of defining at what stage the addiction justifies such a decision and the administrative procedures involved in it. A more constructive measure would be to offer psychological therapy and organize addicts in work collectives within subsidized enterprises as Johann Hari reports was done in Portugal. Furthermore, physiological deregulation needs to be accompanied by therapy. I have heard of a foundation in Budapest that accompanied addicts with massage therapy. Instead of withholding subsistence means from an addict, one could think of protecting an addicted individual from spending all their income on the addiction. Such measures can include public housing and other basic services.

However, financial resources are relatively irrelevant in pursuing addictive behaviour. In France, a woman who held a high position in a big company became an alcoholic. Alcohol use was widely accepted and even promoted in this male-dominated environment. Once she fainted because of alcohol overuse. Then she got fired and company management informed her that her problem was widely known within the company for quite some time. No one in the company had talked to her about it. She stopped drinking and wrote a book. A person in such a position has probably enough savings not to worry for a while, so it was not the fact of losing money that made her stop in the first place. What protects an alcoholic’s self-illusion is the taboo culture around addiction and others’ fear of confronting the addict about it.

In developed countries where social networks are very loose, it would be difficult to recreate such a structure of belonging to a group that would motivate an isolated addicted person to undergo treatment. In the research on addiction, this is one of the theories that the lack of deep social ties boosts a withdrawal into addictive behaviours. So instead of “healing” an addiction with punishment, social policy needs to take into account the basic human need of belonging to a community. Bruce Alexander, the author of Rat Park experiment that demonstrated the impact of the social isolation on addiction, identifies the main reason for addiction in dislocation, which he defines in the following way: “On a social level it is the absence of enduring and sustaining connections between individuals and their families and/or local societies, nations, traditions, and natural environments. In existential terms, it is the absence of vital feelings of belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose.” While recovery movements addressed this void by creating local initiatives to help people create new ties and feel more integrated, Alexander considers that this is not enough a remedy and advocates transforming the entire society to prevent the conditions that bring isolation and the lack of meaning that push people into addiction.

Addiction poses an enormous challenge on policy makers, us individually and as a society. Taking away an income, or considering that the state should take care of the money is searching an easy way out that turns against us in the long run. Punishment is a sign of hopelessness and helplessness. To question this policy, it is essential to reconnect to our emotions – to understand why punishment appears as the sole solution. Anyone who has had an opportunity to talk to an addicted person, as I have several times, knows how emotionally draining and painful it is to see an addict. Personally, when walking through a town, I would not give money to a person that is obviously going to use it on addictive substances. I look away because I feel powerless. We do it individually and we do it as a society. This is probably why the political solution easiest to envision is not to see it, not to address it, or address it with abrupt measures such as withdrawing income. UBI movement needs to address this reticence that probably is common to many potential supporters.

3. You mentioned there needs to be a “broader vision and a movement needs to stand behind the UBI”. Can you elaborate on this point?

This is my criticism of the UBI movement. We are a movement of many visions and versions of a UBI. This deters potential supporters. For example, during citizen debates I participated in here in France, sometimes we find ourselves not knowing which proposition we are talking about. I believe that it is a high time to elaborate a vision not only of giving people money but also the transformation that we want to achieve by it. For example, the p2pTransition Towns, and de-growth movements* could join forces together with (at least some parts of) the basic income movement. The vision to elaborate would be less about the logistical and technological solutions and more about the transformation of human relations, organizational structures and dynamics, the trade relations between Western consumers and workers in developing countries, and individuals’ lifestyles. In all of this, the way of organizing production and consumption is crucial. I do not think that giving people money so that they can pursue their shopping addictions, buying imported cheap stuff produced by exploited workers and with high environmental costs, is a political project that can motivate enough people. The capitalist system generates a set of conditionings. We need to heal our relation to work and consumption (including addictive forms of consumption) so that work is a source of meaning and belonging. One can think of the basic income project as a way of transforming culture and daily practices by exiting the competition and alienation that the employment system boosts. If one is liberated from addictions and non-meaningful consumption, basic income could make it possible to engage in the projects that one finds worth pursuing and bring joy into working together. Starting from there, a less consumerist and more communal lifestyle could develop. Western civilization has advanced so much in technology and so little in community living and emotional healing.

To advance the UBI proposal, the movement needs to give a taste of this transformation. Create stories and enact this new way of being together. There are already such examples in place: Rainbow Gatherings are a way of enacting a different way of being together; Occupy Wall Street experimented with organizing logistics; intentional communities generate a new way of living together. Another such example is a free cafeteria, People’s Potato at Concordia University in Montréal where volunteers can drop in and contribute their work. In the interviews I have conducted, some pointed to the integration and breaking of isolation that this project induces. Multiplying experiments of living without conditions and questioning other capitalist premises could become the movement’s agenda. And through these experiments, activists can touch the deeper questions like the healing of addictions and the reflection on the policies and organizational structures that should accompany the introduction of a UBI. Many people in the movement see the potential that would be liberated and the new cultural shift thanks to a UBI, but we can already begin working on this new culture and accelerate the realization of the UBI implementation as a result.

4. Even if evidence suggests the basic income would not have a significant impact on undesirable behavior, the fact that some individuals may abuse the system is a political liability. How does the basic income movement win the political argument?

The argument for or against a basic income (one that effectively liberates citizens from the necessity to be employed to have a decent life standard) is a debate about human nature. So the movement needs to focus on confronting people with the image of human nature they hold and where it comes from. The movement’s strategy should be to help individuals arrive at a deeper understanding of such judgements. The debate needs to be informed by research findings on trauma therapy, addiction, and epigenetics. Bringing scientists from these disciplines on board would be a great strategic choice. When engaging with the political process, the movement should come up with additional research-informed measures to accompany the UBI. The winning argument would be a more specific proposal of the reform to be introduced.

It would be great to mobilize money for academic research, future empirically and qualitatively informed research studies. A senior researcher would need to be enchanted by the idea. Applying the case study method, scientific inquiry should select individuals facing unemployment stigma, addiction, or other difficulties in the Western context. Research funding could be allocated as a UBI to several well selected individuals to study their behaviour under this condition and test other conditions such as basic income combined with therapy.

There are these crowd-funded basic income projects: one in Germany and other for Scott Santens in the US. These are great projects, but why not bring the idea to the next level and allocate such an allowance to a typical “strawman” or scapegoat in the debate who has not even heard of a basic income before? Great material for a documentary. This would also be an occasion to explore the idea of unconditionality and trust. These are the psychological and cultural preconditions to implementing a UBI.

People tend to consider political attitudes or support for a reform as an effect of logical-rational reasoning, so one searches for an argument. But there is some scientific evidence that emotions define our “rational” decisions. So more work needs to be done at this level instead of winning any argument. My take on the reason why the gay movement has experienced many successes is not political process or winning an argument but cultural shift within the society. Gay people came out and took pride in who they are. And they were visible in our friend’s circles and among work colleagues. The same can apply for the strategy for UBI. The more we de-mystify and understand the unemployed and addicted by telling their stories, the more empathy will be created. We should work more on the human argument, the emotional side of it. Like with gay rights, the UBI may be supported by a silent not mobilized majority.

5. Any other important comments?

It is very important to address this question and to learn more about it within the movement. To arrive at any substantial change, we need to meet people at where they are, address their fears. And this requires a better understanding of addiction and healing. Also the problem of alcoholism and addiction is not well understood in our society. By remaining silent about it, we deprive the affected and their close circle from taking action. Media outlets have a role to play. Thank you for bringing it up!

Tyler Prochazka

Tyler Prochazka is a Fulbright scholar completing his Master's in Asia Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He is the features editor of Basic Income News and a coordinator for UBI Taiwan. Tyler launched the first Asia-Pacific basic income conference in 2017. Support my work with UBI Taiwan: @typro

Tags: addiction, new economy, Universal basic income