Custodians of Wellbeing

Like a number of their progressive NGO contemporaries, Feasta has long been of the view that Growth is not per se Good [1], GDP is a poor measure of progress [2], and that a focus on wellbeing rather than economic turnover or profit is needed to achieve any sane outcomes.

Feasta has also put its limited money where its mouth is by participating in a number of initiatives seeking to put wellbeing meat on the bone such as the Wellbeing Economy Alliance [3].

The frustration, of course, is that there is no shortage of innovative thinking and progressive ideas. What is lacking is the will to enact them in the corridors of those with the agency to do so.

This article attempts to explore obstacles to wellbeing from the point of view of two ‘initiatives’  that are currently receiving considerable airtime – CBDCs (Central Bank Digital Currencies)  and UBI (Universal [or is it Unconditional?] Basic Income).

CBDCs and UBI can change the world dramatically. Both can have contrasting outcomes depending on the way they are introduced and managed. Both will move the Wellbeing dial at a planetary level – but in what direction?


Agents of Change

CBDC and UBI are generally national or supranational in scope. But this is not to say that only interventions of this scale are possible. Indeed much can be achieved at a local level to improve wellbeing and some local micro-projects will be networkable to produce macro-effects. Community-grounded initiatives, with or without modern technologies, can certainly pioneer progressive game-changing governance and rise above all the politicking.

It is also worth highlighting a tension between nation-state initiatives and one-world (or perhaps proto-one-world) programmes. While the nation-state has been the primary modern mover and shaker, there is increasing coordination across the international political class, evidenced by a noticeable choreography of messaging concerning the ‘crisis du jour’ and parroted by a posse of WEF Young Global Leaders.



CBDCs are a form of digital cash issued by central banks such as the Bank of England, the Fed or the ECB. There are two flavours : retail and wholesale. With a retail CBDC individuals can have accounts directly with the central bank; with a wholesale CBDC the central bank issues the currency but the accounts are managed on their behalf by commercial banks like HSBC or Barclays. The direction favoured by a given central bank is likely to be informed by the prevalent national (or regional) ideology. The Bank of England in its CBDC Discussion Paper [4] states (Principle 2) “A competitive CBDC ecosystem with a diverse set of participants will support innovation and offer the best chance to deliver the benefits of a CBDC”. Depending on how they are implemented either model could act to preserve, perhaps even enhance the gatekeeping advantage currently enjoyed by the big commercial banks or it could open up opportunities for challenger banks and fintech companies.  And potential competitive advantage at a (pseudo-)national [5] level for the City of London’ might mitigate against the inclusion of foreign-controlled entities in the competitive landscape. It all depends on who are ‘approved’ as competitors – how much diversity is permitted.

The Chinese central bank may be expected to take a stricter view on competition. For them the programmability of CBDC digital money may represent an unmissable opportunity to strengthen further the societal control the CCP seeks and which is already exemplified by their social credit scheme.

The ECB, as a key element of the European project, surely must welcome another reason for members to join (or stay). The centralising of programmable monetary control may be too much of an attraction for the Brussels technocrats as they struggle to resist their authoritarian tendencies. (They are not alone in this.)

Progammability is an important double-edged feature. On the one hand it offers the abllity to monitor and track spending accurately and to direct digital cash to its most strategic use-point. On the other it allows authoritarian-minded governments to withhold money conditionally (a la CCP Social Credit). If this seems alarmist, just think of the most important elements of your own direct spending and then imagine needing permission to transact. Governments are increasingly confident in specifying what exactly constitues the common good and vilifying anyone who thinks differently. And while lip service is paid to transparency and accountability, some western governments are looking semi-enviously over their shoulders at the CCP (gushingly in Trudeau’s case!)[6].

Behavioural conditioning via propaganda is as old as the hills but big data and targeted messaging have turned it into an art form.


I have a question about UBI. When did U=Unconditional become U=Universal? Maybe some researcher out there with access to the Wayback Machine can shed light. Because they are rather different concepts. In the same way that initiatives with ‘Open’ in their title are invariably Closed to some, ‘Universal’ may accidentally or purposefully represent a weakening of potential impact.

Unconditional Basic Income emphasises the ambition of setting no conditions on receipt. A commons (and UBI is clearly a form of monetary commons) must define who is in and who is out [7], but the ambition to keep conditionality to an absolute minimum is fundamental. While there is a group based in Manchester aiming to include the whole world population [8] most initiatives will envision local or regional implementation.

Again there are opposite ways of looking at things. Does it reward the indolent and build in dependency? Does it increase the role of the state when it should be interfering less? Does it empower individuals freed up to work on their passions and not be energy-sapped by the unremitting need to put bread on the table?

It comes down to trust. Should we trust individuals to be master of their own fate; the community with its messy governance where ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’; the politicians as imperfect proxies for the common good; or maybe the algorithm, the hard coded non-negotiable non-capturable DAO.

Don’t expect an answer here. In practice the power of potential change agents is hugely unequal. We may need some Machiavellian management of the narrative to pitch different propositions to different stakeholder groups – everyone else does it. The roadmap leading to any major progressive development is never predictable at the outset. In the end we are defined by our actions.

[1] see for example: Growth – The Celtic Cancer November 2004

[2]: e.g. Beyond GDP (2016)


[4] 0-discussion-paper-on-cbdc

[5] ‘pseudo’ because the City of London cannot be seen as representative of the wider UK

[6] Google Trudeau CCP or see e.g.:

[7] as per Eleanor Ostroms rules:



Featured image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

2 Replies to “Custodians of Wellbeing”

  1. Thanks for that article.
    It raises in a very clear way some of the important considerations and possibilities around both concepts.
    I think ‘unconditional’ is better than ‘universal’ maybe it should be both..

  2. Hi Graham,
    regarding the question about terminology: unconditional/universal, it’s worth pointing out that basic income has always, by definition, been both universal and unconditional, not one or the other. It is a regular cash income, paid to all (universal), without means test or work requirement and regardless of income from other sources (unconditional). People who have advocated it for a long time, such as Philippe Van Parijs and Malcolm Torry, always stick to the plain term ‘basic income’. The U/UBI terminology is more recent and becoming more widespread. Maybe it should be UUBI.

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