“Would a universal basic income make us lonely?” – A Reply
Oxford Fellow Max Harris presents an argument that a universal basic income (UBI) could contribute to loneliness. The argument as given, however, seems to rest on misconceptions about what a UBI would and would not do, and even in its strongest form does not give us reason to reject a UBI.
Would a universal basic income exacerbate loneliness?
In Harris’s assessment, there are two ways in which a universal basic income might contribute to loneliness:
- A UBI “removes the social interaction that some people gain from employment.” Harris worries that recipients of the UBI would “curl up in individualist cocoons” rather than initiating social contact, since they have already been conditioned by the norms of a society in which interpersonal contact has become limited (“we email people who sit in the same office as us, for example, and often text people over talking to them in person”).
- A UBI by itself does not provide any “accompanying public infrastructure to underscore the value of community.” It is, of course, an investment directly in individuals — not in, say, community programs or public parks, libraries, or recreation centers.
Harris himself does not endorse the conclusion that, as a matter of fact, a UBI would make us lonely. Indeed, he does not take a firm stance on whether it would or not. His objective is merely to raise the concern.
As Harris points out, citing basic income proponents such as Scott Santens and the UK think tank Royal Society of Arts (RSA), one can also make a case that a UBI should be expected to foster social relationships. After all, if people are liberated from dependency on full-time paid employment, they would be able to spend less time in jobs that are themselves socially isolating — as some jobs surely are — and more time “pursuing communal projects” outside of work.
According to Harris, the question is in part empirical: we won’t know whether a UBI increases loneliness in society, or whether it reduces it, until it is actually tested.
A Non-Empirical Assessment
I want to offer a counterpoint to Harris’s loneliness worry that differs slightly from the brief pro-UBI response entertained in his essay.
It’s no doubt correct that some office work does inhibit individuals from engaging in community projects (a point that Harris attributes to Santens) — or, for that matter, prevent individuals from spending time with friends and family — but it’s a bit beside the point to argue about whether jobs facilitate valuable social interaction or whether, more often, they just get in the way. Presumably, there are jobs of each type. The key point here is that a UBI would provide options: with a UBI, a worker can choose to say at a job, or a worker can choose to quit (perhaps for the sake of engaging in some communal project).
Contra Harris, I believe that we don’t need an empirical study to demonstrate the flaws in the argument that “a universal basic income would make us lonely.” The argument, as he presents it, is a non-starter.
Look again at his two major concerns: (1) a UBI removes the social interaction gained at a job, and (2) a UBI offers no infrastructure to replace this lost interaction.
The first of these premises is plainly false, and it doesn’t take a pilot study to see why: receiving a basic income does not prevent an individual from also continuing in paid employment. Thus, there is no sense in which a UBI “removes” the social interaction gained at a job; it does not even remove the job!
Indeed, one oft-touted benefit of basic income is that, because a UBI is not means-tested, it is not a disincentive to work (in contrast to most existing systems of welfare, in which benefits vanish if a receipt receives a job or earns income above a certain amount). Despite loose talk in the media about “paying people to do nothing” and “giving people money not to work,” receipt of a basic income is not conditional on quitting work (obviously); quite the contrary.
We might assume that people are able to recognize whether their jobs provide a valuable source of social interaction and connections — and that, if this is so, they will retain their jobs even if UBI came to be. (I will, though, revisit this assumption shortly.)
To be sure, UBI is often discussed in parallel to forecasts of mass unemployment (e.g., especially, due to automation). In the scenarios envisioned, many workers will lose their jobs — but, of course, this job-loss is not due to UBI. A UBI, insofar as it’s in the picture, is there to offset one of the worst effects of joblessness: loss of income. By itself, it is not meant — and should not be expected — to replace all aspects of the lost jobs. A UBI “merely” ensures that displaced workers won’t have to worry about paying for food or rent, thereby providing a foundation that allows us to focus on concerns at higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy — such as how and where to find social interaction.
This leads to the second concern raised by Harris: a UBI does not provide alternative infrastructure for social interaction. Here, I think that we should accept Harris’s claim, but we should question its relevance.
It’s true that a UBI does not by itself provide schools, parks, or community programs; it also does not cure for cancer or end warfare. It would be patently absurd, however, to oppose UBI on the ground that it does not achieve the latter goals. A UBI might accomplish a lot, but it is not a panacea; no advocates take it for one.
We can even grant that the development and enrichment of the commons is a goal that we ought to pursue in conjunction with a basic income.
Guy Standing, for example, incorporates a call to protect and revive the “physical, social, and information commons” as part of his Precariat Charter (immediately after his proposals for basic income and sovereign wealth funds, as it happens).
And Harris himself describes the RSA’s idea for a “public contribution contract” to be introduced alongside of a basic income, by which individuals express commitment to contribute to their communities.
As an argument against basic income, Harris’s loneliness worry holds no water. At most, it is an exhortation to UBI proponents not to forget about parallel programs, such as the construction and enhancement of public spaces, that could foster social interaction and community well-being.
A Concession and Response
I do, though, want to offer an important caveat. Above, I suggested that individuals can recognize when the social interaction fostered by a job is beneficial to them, and that they will act accordingly. But, in fact, I think it’s quite probable that there are some individuals who — were they to receive a basic income — would leave their jobs and cocoon themselves in their homes, even if doing so would not be in their overall best interest. A guaranteed income could indeed be the catalyst that drives some individuals into a voluntary, but potentially harmful, life of isolation.
What sorts of individuals? There might be some who would intentionally avoid social interaction as a consequence of mental illness, such as social anxiety or depression. Meanwhile, others might quit their jobs to pursue passions that just happen to be solitary (whether writing, painting, computer-programming, or what have you). After all, one major talking-point in favor of basic income — and one with which I wholeheartedly agree — is that the policy would allow individuals to quit their jobs to pursue their passions. The loneliness worry might well arise, however, when a naturally introverted person engages herself in an inherently solitary pursuit; even if avoiding social interaction is not her goal, it might be her natural inclination — an inclination that would be unthwarted if paid employment is not necessary to make a living.
Against Harris, perhaps, I believe that the loneliness worry would be greatest for those people who don’t avidly desire social interaction — for they are the least inclined to be proactive in ensuring that they receive a healthy dose. (Harris states, “While some individuals might enjoy this time on their own, others might feel isolated by this lack of social contact,” which suggests that he forecasts that those who crave social contact will be the hardest hit.)
Would this problem arise under a UBI? If so, how big of a problem would it be? These, I think, are indeed empirical matters.
But a better question for our purposes is this: if there is a risk of the type of self-induced loneliness that I’ve described above, would this be a reason not to favor a UBI?
And here I think that the we can, with some confidence, answer no.
Consider an analogy. Presumably, there are people in industrialized nations who currently receive very little physical activity, and who would receive more physical exercise were it not for the mechanization of labor. (Perhaps, say, they’d work in the field instead of sitting at a desk.) Such individuals could hit the gym after work, or ride a bike to the office instead of driving a car, or jog in the morning, or so on; however, because exercise is not required to make an income, many opt out, despite acknowledging that they’d be healthier if they moved around a bit more.
Nonetheless, it would be inappropriate to attempt to impede progress (e.g., by banning mechanized agriculture) simply because some percentage of the population is disinclined to exercise unless their life and livelihood depends on it. Such a reactionary policy would be not only unfair to society as a whole but also condescending and paternalistic to those it endeavors to help. A better approach might be to make other options for physical activity more accessible (e.g., say, installing bike lanes, funding parks and community recreation centers, or sponsoring free fitness classes).
Likewise, the possibility that a UBI would lead some to reduce their amount of social contact — even if this possibility is likely — is not a good reason to deprive society of the myriad benefits that would be bought about by a UBI. That said, there is likely little harm in preparing for this contingency by thinking of ways of encourage social contact in a world with less work (or, perhaps more accurately, less mandatory paid employment), such as by expanding and protecting commons areas.
Max Harris, “Will the Universal Basic Income make us lonely?” openDemocracy, May 25, 2016.
Feature Image via Chris de Nice (flickr)
Thanks to Dave Clegg for reviewing a draft of this article.
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