Complex Adaptation and Permissionless Innovation
: An Evolutionary Approach to Universal Basic Income

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been proposed as a potential way in which welfare states could be made more responsive to the ever-shifting evolutionary challenges of institutional adaptation in a dynamic environment. It has been proposed as a tool of “real freedom” (Van Parijs) and as a tool of making the welfare state more efficient. (Friedman) From the point of view of complexity theory and evolutionary economics, I argue that only a welfare state model that is “polycentrically” (Polanyi, Hayek) organized as an evolving network of distributed decision-making can respond to the challenges of complexity in an adaptively efficient manner. UBI has the theoretical possibility to facilitate flexible, bottom-up innovation, since a) it embodies the “rule of law” principles of generality, nondiscrimination, simplicity, and transparency, and b) it grants people widespread freedom to experiment, innovate, and deviate from established practices and norms; but whether it can be made to work as intended depends on a number of variables in its design.

I situate my research in the contemporary UBI debate around automation and technological development, which I interpret creatively through the lens of contemporary evolutionary political economy. I advance a syncretic model of institutional design based upon the shared insights of the Santa Fe, Neo-Hayekian, and Neo-Schumpeterian schools of evolutionary economics that, following Adam Thierer and Michael Munger, I call the framework of Permissionless Innovation (PI). Under the PI framework, which is a development of the tradition of evolutionary liberalism (Hume, Smith, Mandeville, Mill, Hayek, Polanyi, Schumpeter, Hodgson), individuals are granted the default right to innovate without having to ask for permission, and the right to basic income, which they can use to support their right to innovate, mutate, and experiment. This framework is a liberal framework to the extent it relies on widespread human freedom as a means of fostering innovation and social learning. And it is an evolutionary framework to the extent that it seeks to facilitate evolutionary socioeconomic processes for the sake of social progress and welfare advancement.

I proceed to show, through an analysis of how innovation operates in both the economy and the cultural domain, that UBI can be used as an important cornerstone of an evolutionary liberal model of “ecostructural” governance that treats the socioeconomic order as an ecological garden of spontaneous growths, adaptations, and innovations. I call this the Permissionless Innovation Universal Basic Income (PIUBI) framework. In it, the right to innovate, deviate, and mutate is upheld as the “gold standard” of institutional design whereby individuals are granted widespread freedoms combined with the provision of UBI and other innovation-fostering (carefully bound) services and regulations. In the coming decades, UBI may even enable poor people to take better advantage of Human Enhancement Technologies (HETs) and other experimental innovations. Such a framework is compatible with a fast pace of evolutionary development, but the regulatory model accompanying such a framework must be capable of responding to evolutionary lock-ins, maladaptive innovations, self-destructive behaviour on the part of UBI recipients, and the management of catastrophic and existential risks. In the end, I will have shown that the PIUBI framework can be justified as a plausible default institutional mechanism for responding to radical uncertainty, but it needs to be experimentally adapted to changing circumstances with the help of various situation-specific, polycentric, multi-level, approaches.
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMark Pennington (Supervisor) & John Meadowcroft (Supervisor)

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