Money for Nothing – it Sounds Like a Utopia
The London-based Apolitical website’s article on basic income (BI) opens with “Money for nothing – it sounds like a utopia” and then looks at some examples of BI concepts that have already been applied around the world.
This phrase, “money for nothing” represents a commonly held bias that, when there is no commodity returned for the money, whether that commodity is a thing or someone’s labour, then there is no tangible value returned for the monies. This bias is widely held and promoted by many adherents of modern-day economic theories – a bias which too often dismisses, or simply ignores, the numerous personal and societal benefits that others have evaluated and documented as attributable to BI models.
The article does a fairly good job of maintaining its organizational claim of being “apolitical” in that it does not overtly favour any particular side in the issue. Yet that does not mean it has escaped the narrow-minded focus that so many politicians, their handlers, and media commentators alike have grudgingly adopted regarding the BI. In fact, the Apolitical article offers a wonderful example of the very limited ways in which the BI idea is being appraised, namely as simply a response to job automation and/or carrot-and-stick welfare programmes.
Apolitical does, occasionally make mention of the fundamental roots of a BI, roots that run far deeper than simply jobs and poverty. Yet to emphasize that a BI is simply about addressing poverty or unemployment is to overlook the very foundation of a BI – namely that such a policy is meant to be an expansion upon, and commitment to, something that should never be commodified, namely personal freedom. All other aspects of a BI flow from this fundamental premise. That is, if a nation and its people are sincerely committed to the idea of freedom itself.
The five points made by Apolitical in the above article are all legitimate and commonly discussed around the world. Yet the shallowness of these points is intricately tied to the same old penny-pinching issues that surround welfare, as well as the easy access to cheap human labour that employers have enjoyed for far too long.
Yes, a BI can help eliminate the stigma and overbearing bureaucracy associated with welfare programmes. It would also force employers to be truly competitive regarding employee wages and hours. However, the most valuable asset each and every person possesses is our time in this life. We should be the stewards of that time – not employers and not bureaucrats. It is the personal freedom provided by a BI that is truly important to everyone, not just the workforce and welfare recipients.
A BI would allow individuals to tend to family and personal concerns without the anxiety of how to survive without a “job” income during these times of personal need. There may be no greater freedom than to have the time and economic stability necessary to order our lives as we, ourselves, see fit, rather than as employers demand, as is becoming far too common these days. Politicians are slowly coming to accept that individuals are the best stewards of their monies, not bean-counting governments who tend to value the beans over the people the beans are intended for.
Let us examine each of Apolitical’s five points to see how personal freedom is addressed here.
1. Governments are not thinking the same as tech optimists
Apolitical is right about this and politicians are notoriously slow to respond to social changes of any kind, never mind one of this magnitude. Yes, the tech optimists foresee an evolutionary step in human time management when robotics and automation take over the monotony and the drudgery of the repetitive and injury-prone tasks found in so many labor-intensive “jobs”. This creates a new workforce that is far more reliable (never taking time off), disposable (without regrets or complaints) and economically efficient than human beings.
From the technologist’s viewpoint, a BI becomes an essential aspect of employment and personal advancement because of the accelerating pace of technological advancement. Every new innovation requires that the humans who will be utilizing those innovations undergo time-consuming training and up-skilling. These advances can even lead to whole new careers for which a BI would be the springboard to pursue those educational and up-skilling goals. To tech experts, this is not “money for nothing” but instead an investment in the future of the nation, its economic infrastructure, its people and its economy.
But there is also a very real need to understand how a BI frees workers – especially those who only have labour, rather than any marketable skills or training, to sell – from the spectre of destitution and homelessness if they are unable to find work, or simply to feed and/or shelter themselves on the meager, subsistence wages offered today to unskilled labourers.
Of course, time management in this case refers only to the workplace. What is overlooked here is the personal freedom that a BI introduces into the optimist’s time management scheme. A BI would provide an individual with the economic freedom to then choose to acquire more skills or education, or to spend more time with family, or to take a much-needed break. This freedom is of great value to the individual, as well as their future prospects, but has little or no meaning to many economists.
Apolitical, however, does make a very good point about welfare reform. It is true that eradicating the expensive and needlessly patronizing welfare bureaucracies would entail huge cash savings for governments at national, provincial/state and municipal levels everywhere – savings that could be utilized far more efficiently and effectively when incorporated into a BI.
2. People already get money for nothing
Actually people get money from their government because they are deemed, by their government, to be in need and it is a government’s principal responsibility to succor to its citizens in times of need. While Apolitical talks about how “money for nothing already exists in the state pension” system, it ignores a number of other social safety net programmes such as health care, welfare, student loans, disability, make-work projects, employee subsidies, food banks, and shelters, to name a just a few of the most common.
Social safety net programmes always incur infrastructure and staffing costs associated with the policing and distribution of these monies. A BI removes the stigma associated with so many of these programmes via its universality but it cannot ignore the special needs associated with people such as the disabled, seniors, and the unemployed. Their special circumstances can easily entail more than simply a “free money” infusion involving things such as in home support, accessibility of public buildings, mobility aids, wheelchair-friendly streets and curbs, and emotional and mental supports to deal with chronic and acute complications, to name just a few.
Apolitical also mentions the Alaska Fund, a decades old statewide “free money” programme that, today, is surrounded by much controversy, with some demanding the money be used, instead, to fund state social programmes while others are happy for the money to be put directly into the hands of the people themselves.
This is a very good example of how the assets of a community – its resources, both natural and human – are the heart and soul of its economy. However, the Alaska Fund’s greatest feature is that it offers good, sound support for the premise that some of the wealth flowing from a community’s resources should be returned to the people that comprise the community.
The debate here is not whether “free money” should be distributed to the citizenry, but rather how much and in what manner.
3. The schemes in the developing world aren’t really analogous
Apolitical is absolutely right to point out that the drastically modified BI programmes implemented in Namibia, India, and Brazil cannot be directly applied in more developed areas. These programmes are largely a response to severe destitution and poverty in those countries, while here in North America the BI is framed as a response to automation and welfare inequities.
However, Apolitical does recognize that there is a self-empowerment and entrepreneurial spirit that blossoms within the poorest individuals in the above-mentioned countries once they have been freed to make their own choices of how best to utilize their time and abilities to address their own needs and interests.
These observations correlate well with Canada’s own Dauphin Manitoba Mincome BI programme, which ran for five years. Mincome was well monitored and documented at a variety of levels and interests. Documentation that highlighted the many personal advantages derived from a BI. These advantages included the reduction of both individual and family stress levels, greater ability to cope with family issues and, most importantly, noticeable improvements in children’s health and growth due to better nutrition which lead to higher learning evaluations. While some people did indeed leave the workforce, they did so to upgrade their education and skills, to attend to personal and family issues, or simply to take a much needed break.
All of these findings amount to huge social and personal savings that invariably strengthen and improve communities, yet, once again, they are not benefits that economists are able to quantify or put a monetary value on and are too often deemed to be without value.
4. It actually all comes down to incentives
Here Apolitical addresses the commonly held fear that a BI would act as a disincentive to “working,” as if “paid employment” should be every person’s preoccupation rather than the management of their lives. However, Apolitical cites Hugh Segal, a Canadian senator who has been a long-time advocate for BI programmes and who laments the very real disincentives to improving one’s life that have been built into Canada’s social programmes. This is why Senator Segal has long applauded the personal empowerment that a BI could provide to all Canadians.
It is here that Apolitical acknowledges Sam Altman of Y Combinator – a US private investment firm – who sees a BI as the seed money necessary to provide the personal freedom allowing individuals to be economically empowered to address the rapidly changing education and training demands of a technologically driven economy. Of course, Altman seems far more interested in employing a BI to address the demands of technology and its impact upon production and the workforce than in actually addressing personal freedom per se.
Apolitical is absolutely right to acknowledge that BI differs from existing, welfare-style social programmes and highlights the divide as between those who insist upon “incentives” used coercively to promote job seeking and those who support the “freedom to choose” as incentive enough for anyone.
5. It’s not utopia or bust
Apolitical wisely concludes that, if supporters of a BI succeed, “…they will establish the principle that you can simply give people money and trust them to use it in a way beneficial to themselves and, indirectly, to society.” This is a sentiment long-shared by those who advocate for BI and wonderfully demonstrates that this sentiment is central to personal freedom and the creation of an empowered population. For Apolitical and the rest of us only time will tell.