From the Algosphere Alliance
To the attention of the United Nations,1
represented by Secretary General António Guterres
- Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees
- Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, UN Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the - Caribbean
- Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO
- Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF
- Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO
|Subject||Alleviation of suffering in the world: global universal income, world peace and a Universal Declaration of Rights expanded to include all sentient beings|
Dear Mr Secretary General,
We, the undersigned organisations and individuals, envision a world where the alleviation of suffering is given the highest ethical priority. Recently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) decided to implement a basic income for refugees,2 a strategy that will have positive consequences for their precarious economic and social situation. In this letter, we advocate the implementation of a universal income3 for the entire world population, and explain why we believe this measure would have dramatic positive consequences — not just economically, but for the structural alleviation of suffering and the furthering of some of the UN’s own key objectives. We believe that approaching the subject of a universal income in synergy with other objectives offers opportunities to advance such central goals as world peace and fundamental rights. In this letter, we put the benefits of a global universal income into a larger context, and propose concrete steps that the UN can take to promote this approach.
1. The potential benefits of a global universal income for social progress
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948 can be seen as anticipating a universal income in several of the rights it encodes:
- The Preamble refers to “freedom from want” as one of people’s highest aspirations.
- Article 22 states: “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”
- Article 25 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”
There is little doubt that a universal income would be a powerful means to end people’s worries about their material existence and that of those close to them. The many organisations that are now promoting a universal income have highlighted the numerous advantages, including:
- reduced poverty and economic precarity;
- increased freedom, autonomy and innovation;
- improved health and access to healthcare services;
- reduced harm due to economic inequality;
- emancipation of women;
- emancipation of children;
- increased access to knowledge acquisition;
- increased self-confidence.
Furthermore, the introduction of a universal income would present two additional opportunities:
A) A universal income could be used to promote ethical consumption that would help reduce suffering.
For example, as plant-based diets have been shown to reduce suffering in the world — through a reduction in the cruelty and exploitation of non-human animals, as well as improved human health and a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation — part of a universal income could be allocated for plant-based food consumption. Other similar forms of allocation could ensure that consumption is channeled towards products and services that minimise suffering and promote well-being.
B) The means chosen to finance a universal global income could have a major positive impact on the structure of the world economy.
The primary mechanism that we propose could be termed generational altruism:
- Create an internationally managed world fund whose dividends would help pay for the universal income, similar to the sovereign wealth funds that already exist in different parts of the world, including in Alaska, Norway and Saudi Arabia;
- Inject into the fund a percentage (e.g. 1%) of the capital returned to public control on the deaths of individuals;
- Enlarge this fund over time through a progressive increase in this percentage; for example, with an annual increase of 1 percentage point, which would lead to 100% generational altruism after a century.
This mechanism would have numerous benefits for humanity:
- Increase global solidarity. Every individual would receive an income financed by the entire human community — a form of global solidarity that would encourage closer ties between people and support world peace.
- Reduce inequality and concentration of power. The institution of individual inheritance is, arguably, one of the primary causes of the economic problems and political corruption of democracies,4 through the steady increase in inequality that it generates over time, and the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of fewer and fewer people. This essential cause of humanity’s problems is not directly related to capitalism, a free market economy or economic liberalism: these can exist with or without inheritance. The cause lies outside of the main economic explanations traditionally given and is deeply anchored in a more ancient, neglected ideology: the ideology of reproduction. The institution of inheritance, a hugely taboo subject that is surprisingly absent from public debates, electoral platforms and university economic courses, nonetheless corresponds to a public expenditure5 that is difficult to justify as being in the public interest.
- Align the economy with the public interest. It would progressively put an end to a huge and unjustified public expenditure by eventually transferring most of the world’s capital to the control of the international community, without putting into question individual private property. This would be an effective lever for putting an end to the sometimes dangerous cleft between the public interest and the logic of private capital, for example, with respect to environmental risks.
With the inheritance of political power having come to an end, as was the case with absolute monarchies — increasingly viewed as illegitimate over the centuries — the inheritance of economic power would follow the same path, as it is another ancient institution that is also unjustifiable from the perspective of prioritising the alleviation of suffering.
2. Support for refugees as a current first step in the implementation of a global universal income
Refugees represent one of the most vulnerable human populations. Since the adoption, under the auspices of the UN, of the Convention of 1951 concerning the status of refugees, an embryonic “universal global income” has been gradually put in place, even though it is not yet referred to with that term. Recent measures taken by the UN6 point to the discreet but deliberate implementation of a prototype of a universal income at the global level:
- through cash-based interventions since the 1980’s in around 60 countries7 — a demonstration that an income specifically for refugees has been put in place by the international community;
- through the launching of a mid-term plan called the UNHCR Strategy for the Institutionalisation of Cash-Based Interventions 2016-2020,8 with the goal of expanding this universal income to the entire refugee population, within the framework of the Policy on Cash-Based Interventions9 of October 2016.
The signatories of this letter affirm their support for these new steps that are being taken by the international community, and for the institutionalisation of this policy which began in January 2016.10 This initiative has great symbolic significance, showing that a universal global income is possible and is not merely a utopian vision.
This initiative also represents a valuable laboratory for testing the feasibility of various aspects of a universal global income; for example, the technology for identifying recipients, the protection of personal data, and steering the use of a universal income towards ethical consumption, such as through purchase vouchers.
3. Next steps in implementing a global universal income
The refugee population is not the only area where the UN has considered implementing a universal income. An example is this 2016 document from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Horizontes 2030: A igualdade no centro do desenvolvimento sustentável11 (Horizons 2030: Equality at the heart of sustainable development), which states (page 76; our translation):
“Today there is a better understanding by public and private actors of the importance of putting in place a minimum income for all citizens that will provide social stability in the face of the inevitable transition to automation and its strong negative impact on employment.”
After the refugee population, it would be logical for the international community to progressively expand a global universal income to other most vulnerable populations in the world. We suggest that abandoned children (including orphans, street children and other children separated from their families) who lead a marginal existence should be given high priority:
Article 25 of the UDHR states:
“Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.”
The services of the UN could be given the mission to implement a global universal income for every inhabitant of the planet, given the strong expertise already acquired by the administration. An exploratory study would be tremendously useful for determining the deployment strategy.
4. Towards a state of perpetual peace12
We have suggested that a universal income eventually paid out to every human being regardless of where they live on the planet, financed primarily from dividends from the capital accumulated by humanity, should make global solidarity a concrete and realisable objective. By shaping a world where global resources are shared more equitably among the inhabitants of our planet, where no one is allowed to suffer unnecessarily, and where everyone has their basic needs covered and the means to live a life of happiness, greater trust may be established between peoples, and the tensions that can lead to armed conflict may be sharply reduced.
A global culture of solidarity should thus facilitate the eventual achievement of a state of peace, which humanity has been seeking for millennia. Over the centuries, we have seen how a unified command structure for armed forces has risen progressively from one level to the next, willingly or by force, replacing local conflicts with peace, among groups of an increasingly large size: clans, tribes, villages, cities, principalities, kingdoms, nations and regional alliances. For humanity to achieve a state of perpetual peace, one final stage left in the process could be a unified command structure for all armed forces on the planet. Although clearly still at the idea stage, the day when the global community has one single command structure over all armed forces, the risks of war between nations and regions will disappear. The resultant shrinking of military budgets would allow a much more constructive use of global wealth than the senseless arms race that humanity has inflicted on itself: annual military expenditures13 are on the order of $1700 billion (USD), the equivalent of a global universal income of $230 per person.
But for every community to agree to transfer its military command structure to the control of a larger structure, it is necessary to create trust between all groups of humans; in other words, that all agree on a unique ethical priority. And what ultimate goal would achieve greater consensus than giving priority to the alleviation of suffering?
For this reason, it is both important and urgent to focus on the drafting of a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Sentient Beings that gives explicit priority to the alleviation of suffering.14
5. Towards a Universal Declaration of Rights expanded to include all sentient beings
Arriving at a clear ethical consensus is essential for the wellbeing of humanity. We suggest that the ideal place for such a consensus to be expressed is in an update of the UDHR: a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Sentient Beings in which the goal of alleviating suffering could be enshrined as the foundation of international law.
In the coming years, the drafting of a new Universal Declaration of the Rights of Sentient Beings will become essential. The case is compelling. It would acknowledge the dramatic importance of the suffering of non-human animals, an issue that has gained growing attention as our society has become more conscious of the capacity of other species for emotions and suffering, and thus of their moral relevance. A new Universal Declaration could also take into account all the experience gained since WWII regarding fundamental rights. The principal improvement on the existing UDHR should be to clarify the ethical priority of humanity and to link it to humanity’s other priorities, including happiness, liberty, solidarity and equality. Once again: what ultimate goal would achieve greater consensus than giving priority to the alleviation of suffering?
6. Concrete next steps
The primary objective of this letter is to share an ambitious and, we believe, worthwhile vision of the future. The proposals made here would be the start of a larger program with a view to alleviating suffering. The signatories are ready to collaborate with the UN on concrete actions for implementation, as numerous obstacles will need to be identified and overcome in order to make this vision a reality. For example:
- Global universal income: What should the precise level and form be, and how should they be determined as a function of the various populations concerned? Should there be a single level for everyone on the planet?
- Transition away from inheritance: What changes in behaviour would this bring about? Would individuals make sure not to hold any remaining capital the day they die? How could a transition be organised from the current economy based on stock management (capital: housing, vehicles, placements) to a future economy based on the management of flows (transformation of capital stocks to life income flows)? Would it be necessary to plan an exceptional system of transfers for SMEs, small heritages or other special cases?
- Perpetual peace: How could we ensure that any future unified command structure for all armed forces would not represent a risk for democracy, as there would no longer be armed forces of other countries to counterbalance any tendency towards hegemonic power?
- Universal Declaration of the Rights of Sentient Beings: How can we justify today the “right to marriage” written into the UDHR, a patriarchal invention that discriminates against single people?15 And isn’t the term “dignity”, proposed in 1948 as an ethical reference point for humanity, particularly ambiguous? We would recommend to form a pluridisciplinary project group to discuss the developments to take into consideration since the UDHR of 1948.
We thank you for your attention and look forward to your thoughts regarding possible next steps.
Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering
URL of the open letter on Algosphere website: algosphere.org/about/positions/open-letter-to-the-united-nations ↩︎
Definition of universal revenue used here: an unconditional attribution to each individual, by the collectivity, from birth to death, of rights to available resources. The content of these rights could depend on the specific situation of each individual and be adapted in order to meet their needs. For example, the level of universal revenue could rise with a lower degree of autonomy: a baby is especially handicapped, from this perspective, and requires a high level of rights, including the parental obligation to meet its needs. One component of these rights could correspond to money, as long as this ancient tool has not been replaced, while another component could correspond to more direct rights to certain goods and services (health, nutrition, lodging, learning…). From this perspective, many countries that have put in place universal healthcare or education have de facto already established a form of universal income. ↩︎
The most comprehensive demonstration of this harm was made in Thomas Piketty’s 2013 work “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. ↩︎
The collectivity puts in place the mechanisms for managing the capital left by an individual at their death, in the form of “rights of non-living persons”, such as a testament. Without these institutional mechanisms, individual inheritance would arguably not be possible: the capital would remain in the hands of the state. It is therefore mistaken to refer to an inheritance “tax”: inheritance is in reality a “public expenditure”. ↩︎
“UNHCR began the cash-based interventions institutionalisation process in January 2016, prior to the formal adoption of the Strategy on 10 October 2016. Implementation will run through 31 December 2020 and will be subject to periodic review and revision.”, unhcr.org/584131cd7.pdf, page 19. ↩︎
A term taken from the 1795 essay by Immanuel Kant “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch”. (Original title: Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf) ↩︎
Recognising a right to marriage signifies the introduction of a legal distinction between those who are and who are not married, which in turn supports discrimination against single people. If, on the other hand, the right to marriage were not to introduce any such legal discrimination, it would be void of meaning. The subject of procreation is distinct from the subject of marriage — one can be married and childless, and one can be single and have children — and to the extent that the institution of marriage is intended to provide greater financial security for children, the issue could be more directly and efficiently addressed with a global universal income. ↩︎