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‘Unconditional’ and ‘universal’: definitions and applications

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Abstract

The paper will explore a variety of different ways in which words are defined: according to current usage; by a legitimate authority on the basis of normative considerations; by a legitimate authority on the basis of current usage; or via a prototype. These methods will then be employed in order to define the terms ‘unconditional’ and ‘universal’, and, on the basis of the definitions constructed, relationships between the two terms will be discussed. How the terms are used in current social policy debate will be explored via case studies. Whereas it might be difficult to envisage a variety of kinds of universality, it is possible to categorise different kinds of conditionality: those that we cannot affect; those that we have affected and that relate to events in the past (such as the payment of social insurance contributions); and those that we can affect and that relate to future or current events (such as paid employment). The different behavioural effects of the different kinds of conditionality will be discussed. ‘Unconditional’ and ‘universal’ will then be treated as ideal positions, and the question will be asked as to whether we might legitimately speak of degrees of unconditionality and degrees of universality: and, if so, whether levels of unconditionality and universality can be quantified. If so, levels of conditionality will need to be measured separately for each kind of conditionality. Finally, policy implications will be discussed.
A paper for the FISS conference, Sigtuna, 2017
‘Unconditional’ and ‘universal’: definitions and applications
Abstract
The paper will explore a variety of different ways in which words are defined: according to
current usage; by a legitimate authority on the basis of normative considerations; by a
legitimate authority on the basis of current usage; or via a prototype. These methods will then
be employed in order to define the terms ‘unconditional’ and ‘universal’, and, on the basis of
the definitions constructed, relationships between the two terms will be discussed. How the
terms are used in current social policy debate will be explored via case studies.
Whereas it might be difficult to envisage a variety of kinds of universality, it is possible to
categorise different kinds of conditionality: those that we cannot affect; those that we have
affected and that relate to events in the past (such as the payment of social insurance
contributions); and those that we can affect and that relate to future or current events (such as
paid employment). The different behavioural effects of the different kinds of conditionality
will be discussed.
‘Unconditional’ and ‘universal’ will then be treated as ideal positions, and the question will
be asked as to whether we might legitimately speak of degrees of unconditionality and
degrees of universality: and, if so, whether levels of unconditionality and universality can be
quantified. If so, levels of conditionality will need to be measured separately for each kind of
conditionality.
Finally, policy implications will be discussed.
Dr. Malcolm Torry, Director, Citizen’s Income Trust, and Visiting Senior Fellow, London
School of Economics.
Dr. Malcolm Torry, Citizen’s Income Trust, 286 Ivydale Road, London SE15 3DF, United
Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0) 7635 7916; mobile: +44 (0) 7739 330229
info@citizensincome.org malcolm@torry.org.uk
www.citizensincome.org
‘Unconditional’ and ‘universal’: definitions and applications
Introduction
‘Conditional cash transfers’, ‘Unconditional cash transfers’, ‘universal benefits’,
‘unconditional benefits’, ‘conditionalities’ … But what do these terms mean? How should
they be defined? And are those two questions the same?
This paper will explore a variety of different ways in which words are defined: according to
current usage; by a legitimate authority on the basis of normative considerations; by a
legitimate authority on the basis of current usage; or via a prototype. These methods will then
be employed in order to define the terms ‘unconditional’ and ‘universal’, and, on the basis of
the definitions constructed, relationships between the two terms will be discussed. How the
terms are used in current social policy debate will be explored via case studies.
Whereas it might be difficult to envisage a variety of kinds of universality, it is possible to
categorise different kinds of conditionality: those that we cannot affect; those that we have
affected and that relate to events in the past (such as the payment of social insurance
contributions); and those that we can affect and that relate to future or current events (such as
paid employment). The different behavioural effects of the different kinds of conditionality
will be discussed.
‘Unconditional’ and ‘universal’ will then be treated as ideal positions, and the question will
be asked as to whether we might legitimately speak of degrees of unconditionality and
degrees of universality: and, if so, whether levels of unconditionality and universality can be
quantified. If so, levels of conditionality will need to be measured separately for each kind of
conditionality.
Why does all of this matter? Only if different participants in a conversation understand
similar things by a particular word or group of words will mutual comprehension be possible,
will rational discussion be likely to occur, and will collaborative research be productive. If we
mean different things by such terms as ‘universal benefits’ or ‘unconditional cash transfers’
then the people and organisations involved in research and debate about such ideas might
think that they are understanding each other when in fact they are not. While ‘definition’ and
‘meaning’ do not mean the same thing, and, as we shall see, two people can mean different
things by the same words: for two people to agree on a definition of a term can help both of
them to have some idea about what the other one means, and can therefore enable useful
dialogue to occur.
Definitions
What is the meaning of ‘definition’: that is, what are we doing when we ‘define’ something?
(‘How should we define “define”?’ Take care, reader, that you do not disappear down an
infinite regress.) We shall discover a variety of ways of defining, and we shall then apply
those different methods to the task in hand.
There are a number of different ways of defining:
Usage
Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested that we discover the meaning of language by studying how
language is used (Wittgenstein 1967: § 1), and, as the same word might be used in different
ways in a multitude of different contexts, he offered the image of ‘family resemblances’ to
describe the relationship between one use of a word and another (Wittgenstein 1967: §§ 66-
67).
By ‘definition’ we generally mean a set of words that indicates the ‘meaning’ of a word or
group of words. This immediately poses a problem. If we study a particular use of a word and
then construct a set of words to express the meaning of that use, then the use of the new set of
words, and of each of its component words, will be specific to a particular context: so even if
we employ the same definition (in the sense of the same set of words in the same order), it
will have different meanings in different contexts.
However, there really will be a family resemblance: and it is on this that dictionaries rely
when they define a word or group of words. Thus the Oxford English Dictionary not only
offers a definition of each English word commonly in use, but it also lists the particular
usages on which it has based its definition.
Defining ‘unconditional’ in relation to its use
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘unconditional’ as
Not limited by or subject to conditions or stipulations; absolute, unlimited, complete;
(Oxford English Dictionary)
the entry on ‘condition’ contains the following:
… Something demanded or required as a prerequisite to the granting or performance
of something else; a provision, a stipulation. … In a legal instrument, e.g. a will, or
contract, a provision on which its legal force or effect is made to depend. …
Something that must exist or be present if something else is to be or take place; that
on which anything else is contingent; a prerequisite; (Oxford English Dictionary)
and the entry on ‘stipulation’ includes
The action of specifying as one of the terms of a contract or agreement; a formulated
term or condition of a contract or agreement. (Oxford English Dictionary)
The dictionary gives as one of its examples of the use of ‘unconditional’, ‘The Kuwait
authorities insisted that the [hijackers'] surrender was “unconditional”’; and as a use of
‘condition’ it offers a quotation from John Wesley: ‘The word condition means neither more
nor less than something sine quâ non, without which something else is not done.’
If usage is the key to a word’s meaning, then we must seek examples of usage. Take these
examples of uses of the words ‘conditional’, ‘condition’ and ‘unconditional’ drawn from an
International Labour Office publication:
Improvements in schooling are not restricted to conditional cash transfer programmes.
Positive effects on schooling can also be observed for unconditional transfers or
workfare programmes. … Brazil’s Bolsa Familia provides income transfers to poor
households, on condition that they regularly send their children to school and that
household members attend health clinics. … In Chile, Programa de Pensiones
Asistenciales, a non-contributory and unconditional social pension programme, is found
to have reduced poverty amongst people in old age by about 9.2 per cent.
(International Labour Office, 2010: viii, 2, 11)
This passage provides a useful case study in how the word ‘unconditional’ is used. In relation
to its first use, ‘unconditional’ is employed in direct contrast to ‘conditional’, where the
conditionality is clearly ‘something demanded or required as a prerequisite’: in this case, that
parents send their children to school. The second use of ‘unconditional’ is interesting. The
author appears to think it necessary to add ‘non-contributory’. This suggests that in the
author’s mind ‘unconditional’ does not necessarily mean ‘recipients do not have to have paid
social insurance contributions of some kind’. Also, the pension is presumably paid only to
individuals above a certain age, which suggests that it is conditional on the recipient’s age:
but this does not appear to compromise the payment’s description as ‘unconditional’.
There is clearly a wide variety of meanings of the word ‘unconditional’ in circulation. A
categorisation might be helpful. There will be conditions that we cannot affect; there will be
conditions that we have affected and that relate to events in the past (such as the payment of
social insurance contributions); and there will be conditions that we can affect and that relate
to future or current events (such as paid employment). The use of ‘unconditional transfers’ in
the passage might suggest that none of these kinds of conditions apply, or it might imply that
one or two of them do, with ‘unconditional’ applying to a type of condition that does not
apply. The second usage of ‘unconditional’ is more explicit. Here a particular condition that
we cannot affect, age, does apply. The author is clear that a conditionality related to past
events (paying contributions) does not apply. We can reasonably assume that the author does
not intend that conditions that we can affect and that relate to present or future events should
apply.
The word ‘unconditional’ can imply a variety of meanings and associated definitions broader
than those represented in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Defining ‘universal’ in relation to its use
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘universal’ as follows:
Extending over or including the whole of something specified or implied, esp. the
whole of a particular group or the whole world; comprehensive, complete; widely
occurring or existing, prevalent over all. … Affecting or involving the whole of
something specified or implied. … Modifying an agent noun, personal designation, or
title, indicating that the role of the person concerned extends over or to all people,
nations, etc. … Originating from the whole body or number of people specified or
implied; done, given, made, etc., by all without exception. … Of a service or facility:
extended to, provided for, or accessible to all members of a community, regardless of
wealth, social status, etc. … (Oxford English Dictionary)
I have italicised this last entry because of its particular relevance to social security. The most
recent example given is from the South China Morning Post: ‘By last year, 94 per cent of the
mainland's populated areas had provided nine years of universal compulsory education.’
(Oxford English Dictionary). Here it is clear, as with other parts of the definition given
above, that any use of the word ‘universal’ requires the specification of the community within
which something applies, from which it comes, or to which it is supplied. By ‘all without
exception’ is meant ‘all without exception within the specified community’.
We shall employ the same International Labour Office publication as a case study:
But despite the progress made in the materialization of the universal right to social
security, very important gaps remain. … Non-contributory schemes include a broad
range of schemes including universal schemes for all residents, some categorical
schemes or means-tested schemes. … Categorical schemes could also be grouped as
universal, if they cover all residents belonging to a certain category, or include
resource conditions (social assistance schemes). They may include other types of
conditions such as performing or accomplishing certain tasks. (International Labour
Office, 2010: 1, 39)
Here we find three different uses of ‘universal’. The first use applies to everyone, globally;
and the second and third to everyone within a particular country. However, the second and
third uses have different meanings, and we can only deduce these from the context. The
second use implies that a ‘universal’ scheme is neither means-tested nor categorical, and
therefore that it pays the same income to everyone, whereas the third use implies that
universal schemes can be categorical or means-tested. While ‘universal’ always means
‘extending over or including the whole of something specified or implied’, the different uses
here warn us to be clear about what precisely is universal: Is it the provision of an income?
Or is it the provision of an income on certain conditions? The UK’s ‘Universal Credit’ is the
provision of a means-tested and work-tested income to everyone who fulfils the conditions
(and would probably be better designated ‘Unified Benefit’), whereas in the context of
‘Universal Basic Income’ ‘universal’ means that ‘every individual unconditionally receives
an income as a right of citizenship, independent of labour-market status’ (Painter and
Thoung, 2015: 18). (‘Independent of labour-market status’ is strictly redundant, but is
presumably added to emphasise the point.)
As with ‘unconditional’, the meaning of ‘universal’ is determined by its particular use, and
care must be taken not to make untested assumptions about the word’s meaning in a
particular context.
Definition by characteristics
What is sometimes called the ‘classical’ way of defining a definition is to envisage a category
defined by a list of characteristics, with the category name being defined by the names of the
characteristics. Thus a rectangle is a four-sided figure with opposite sides parallel and all four
of its angles right angles: so a square is a rectangle because it has four sides, opposite sides
are parallel, and the angles are right angles, whereas neither a triangle nor a circle are
rectangles. Those entities that possess the characteristics are in the category, and those
entities that do not are not. But for anything other than simple cases of definition this strategy
quickly breaks down because there are frequently cases where we cannot determine whether
the entity concerned is in the category or not. Thus if to be a ‘bird’ something needs to fly,
then an ostrich is not a bird and a bat is one. The category ‘table’ is defined by the
characteristics ‘horizontal surface’ and ‘supported on legs’. A folded drop-leaf table is not a
table, whereas a stool is a table.
Eleanor Rosch (Rosch and Lloyd 1978; Rosch 1999) has suggested that categories are not the
clear-cut things we often think they are, and that it is often not the case that entities are either
in the category or not in it; and neither is it the case that entities belong equally. Thus a robin
is more a bird than an ostrich is, and a bat is on the boundary of the category. Rosch points
out that in the real world we define categories in terms of prototypes and then decide whether
something is in the category by asking how similar it is to the prototype. For the category
‘bird’ the prototype might be ‘robin’. Mark Johnson (Johnson 1993) has successfully used
this means of definition to give a coherent account of how we categorize actions as moral or
otherwise: we have in our minds a prototype lie and we then ask whether other actions are
more or less like it.
So the question to ask is this: Is there a set of characteristics by which we can decide whether
something belongs in the category labelled ‘unconditional’? And similarly with the category
labelled ‘universal’? There are a number of ways to approach this:
Each user of the terms ‘universal’ or ‘unconditional’ could select their own preferred
characteristics. The individual’s autonomy would thus be honoured, but at the risk of
losing mutual comprehension.
We could study a wide variety of actual usages of the terms and work out the lists of
characteristics either stated or assumed by users of the terms. If we could find
characteristics employed in all actual usages, then we would have discovered the ‘family
likeness’ and would be able to list a definitive set of characteristics. However, that does
not mean that everyone would agree with the list. It would only take one user of the terms
‘universal’ or ‘unconditional’ to insist that they understood a characteristic not in the list
to be essential to the definition of the category for the definition to become problematic in
relation to attempts at mutual comprehension.
An authority of some kind could decide on the list of characteristics that would qualify
something as belonging to the categories ‘universal’ or ‘unconditional’.
A recognised authority
If a field of interest has related to it an organisation that those involved in that field believe to
have some standing or authority, then participants might look to that organisation to supply
definitions of terms. This will be by way of something like a social contract. In order to avoid
the chaos of multiple definitions, participants might be willing to forego their autonomy and
to grant authority to the recognised organisation.
There are a number of ways in which the organisation might construct the expected
definitions. It might construct a list of characteristics that something has to have in order to
be included in the named category; or it might collect examples of the use of the term and on
that basis decide on a definition; or it might employ a mixture of those methods, constructing
a list of characteristics and testing the list against current usage. There might be various ways
in which an organisation might go about the task. There might be an individual with the
authority to make such decisions about lists of characteristics; a small body of people might
be elected or appointed to decide; or the entire membership might decide on definitions by a
democratic process (although this method might in practice come down to an individual or a
small group making the decision, because the wording of a resolution will always be made up
of words written by an individual or a small group).
Take the Foundation for International Studies on Social Security as an example of an
authoritative organisation: One of the themes of its 2013 conference was ‘The nature and
impact of recent trends in universalism versus selectivity in social security (including
targeting, conditionality, and the balance between rights and responsibilities)’. This assumes
that ‘universal’ implies nonselective social security benefits rather than selective ones open to
everyone who fulfils the conditions. This in turn suggests that ‘universal’ is being used to
mean something close to ‘unconditional’. One of the 2015 conference themes was ‘The
nature and impact of recent social security reforms (including targeting, coverage,
conditionality, and the balance between rights and responsibilities)’ (Foundation for
International Studies on Social Security). In both of these quotations ‘conditionality’ is in a
list alongside ‘coverage’ and ‘targeting’. In the social security context ‘targeting’ means
either means-testing or some other method for directing resources at the worst off (although it
might legitimately be suggested that reducing Income Tax rates and increasing the UK’s
Income Tax Personal Allowance tend to target wealthier members of society). ‘Targeting’
therefore implies conditionality, suggesting that means-testing is not included in the meaning
of ‘conditionality’ as it is used here. Similarly, ‘coverage’ is universal if unconditional or in
the context of conditions that can potentially be met by anyone, or it might be conditional. In
the wording of these conference themes we find a certain lack of clarity in relation to the
terms ‘universal’ and ‘conditional’.
Given the ubiquity of the words ‘universal’ and ‘unconditional’ in social security discourse,
and given the diversity of meanings of both of them that we have discovered, there would be
a case for FISS researching and disseminating definitions of the two terms. It could do this by
studying usage and drawing up definitions on that basis; or it could construct draft lists of
characteristics that would need to be satisfied by social security benefits if they were to be
included in the ‘unconditional’ or ‘universal’ categories and then test those lists against
usage, or it could draw up lists of characteristics and put them to a vote of FISS members.
One approach that it could take would be to treat ‘unconditional’ and ‘universal’ as ideal
positions and then promote the idea of degrees of unconditionality and degrees of
universality. Clearly quantification of such degrees would not be possible, but qualitative
evaluation might be useful, particularly in relation to the different kinds of conditionality that
we have discussed, and in relation to the two kinds of universality that we might call
‘universality of provision’ for incomes or other services offered equally to everyone within a
jurisdiction, and ‘universality of entitlement’ for a universal right to a benefit or other service
if certain conditions are met.
If such evaluation is to be considered then it will need to be undertaken separately for the
three different kinds of conditionality and for the two different kinds of universality. An
income or some other service provision would need to be evaluated separately in relation to
whether it was conditional on factors that we cannot affect, factors relating to past events that
we can affect (such as paying social insurance contributions), and factors relating to current
and future events that we can affect (such as labour market status and household structure),
and also in relation to whether it was universality of provision, universality of entitlement, or
neither.
Policy implications
Different conditionalities imply different behaviours
The existence of different kinds of conditionality might appear to be a somewhat theoretical:
but it is theory with significant behavioural implications and therefore with policy
implications.
Conditionalities relating to factors that we might be able to influence, such as household
structure and labour market status, can result in moral hazard and in disincentives. Someone
whose means-tested benefits depend on them not being employed might be hesitant to seek
employment if their employment income and any remaining means-tested benefits would
offer them little additional net income, or even with a lower net income if they have to pay
fares to work. Moral hazard will be a risk; and there will certainly be a level of disincentive
that would otherwise be experienced.
Factors relating to events in the past, such as paying social insurance contributions, do not act
as a direct disincentive, and exhibit no moral hazard: and a disability, however originated,
does not either. However, both the payment of contributions and the existence of a disability
require bureaucratic enquiry which can create stigma, and certainly creates complexity and
administrative cost. So while it might look as if conditionalities relating events in the past
should not be a problem, they can be.
Conditionalities relating to factors over which we have no control, such as age, cause no
problems at all. No enquiry is required, except when a child is born, or perhaps when a
Citizen’s Income is implemented if the state holds no birth date information: so the operative
factor would appear to be not so much the nature of the conditional but whether or not
enquiry has to be made into an individual’s situation. The same can be said of conditionalities
related to events in the present of future. Enquiry has to be made into labour market status,
household structure, etc., so ‘making enquiry’ here acts as a proxy for conditionalities to be
avoided.
This all suggests that when social policy is made, conditionalities about which enquiry has to
be made should be avoided, whereas conditionalities that require no enquiry to be made are
not a problem. -
The Basic Income debate
An increasingly significant factor in research and discussion of social security benefits is the
now widespread global debate about the desirability and feasibility of a Citizen’s or Basic
Income: an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income paid to each individual.
In this context it will be particularly important to be clear about the meanings of ‘universal’
and ‘unconditional’. ‘Universal’ here generally means universal provision, in the sense that
an income would actually be paid to everyone within a particular national or regional
jurisdiction: although restriction to those legal resident, or to citizens (somehow defined),
might be necessary and might compromise the proposed universality. In the context of the
Basic Income debate, ‘unconditional’ generally means unconditional in relation to past,
present or future events that we can affect, but not in relation to age, which is a condition that
we cannot affect. Most illustrative Basic Income schemes assume that the Basic Income
would vary in relation to the recipient’s age (Torry, 2016a; 2016b).
The Basic Income debate raises the question of the relationship between ‘universal’ and
‘unconditional’. If within a particular jurisdiction a benefit is unconditional, then by
definition it is universal within that jurisdiction. If it is universal then it is not necessarily
unconditional. This means that ‘unconditional’ cannot necessarily be replaced by ‘universal’.
It might be thought that ‘universal’ in ‘Universal Basic Income’ is redundant. Strictly
speaking, it is: so presumably ‘Universal Basic Income’ has become a common designation
for a Basic Income because it emphasises an aspect of the income that its proponents might
wish to emphasise: that the income is for everyone. What adding ‘Universal’ does not do is
state Basic Income’s unconditionality: so it might be more to the point to add ‘unconditional’,
because an ‘Unconditional Basic Income’ would be both unconditional and universal.
As household structures and employment market behaviour become more diverse and
complex, the unconditionality and therefore universality of Basic Income will look
increasingly attractive: provided we recognise that ‘unconditionality’ does not preclude an
age conditionality, and the ‘universal’ means universal of provision and not just universality
of entitlement.
References
Foundation for International Studies on Social Security,
http://uahost.uantwerpen.be/csb/fiss/?page_id=33
International Labour Office (2010), Effects of non-contributory social transfers in developing
countries: A compendium, Geneva: International Labour Office,
Johnson, Mark (1993), Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics,
Chicago: Chicago University Press
Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/
Painter, Anthony and Chris Thoung (2015) Creative citizen,
creative state: the principled and pragmatic
case for a Universal Basic Income, London:
Royal Society of Arts
Rosch, Eleanor (1999), ‘Reclaiming Concepts’, in Freeman, Walter J. and Núñez, Rafael
(eds.), Reclaiming Cognition, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6 (11-12), 61-77
Rosch, Eleanor and Lloyd, Barbara B. (1978), Cognition and Categorization, Lawrence
Erlbaum
Torry, Malcolm (2016a) An Evaluation of a Strictly Revenue Neutral Citizen’s Income
Scheme, Institute for Social and Economic Research, Colchester, Euromod Working Paper
EM 5/16, 2016, https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/research/publications/working-
papers/euromod/em5-16
Torry, Malcolm (2016b) Citizen’s Income schemes: An amendment, and a pilot project,
Institute for Social and Economic Research, Colchester, Euromod Working Paper EM 5/16a,
2016, https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/research/publications/working-papers/euromod/em5-16a
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1967), Philosophical Investigations, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe, 2nd edn.,
Oxford: Oxford University Press
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