Opinion; The USBIG Blog, edited by Michael A. Lewis

A response to ‘The dangers of a basic income’

Michael A. Lewis

Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College

A recent post, by Nathan Keeble, which appears on the Mises Institute’s website is titled The Dangers of a Universal Basic Income. The main danger seems to be that a basic income (I’m paraphrasing) would provide non-productive people with an income they would not have to work for. “Non-productive” in this context isn’t synonymous with lazy, shiftless, or anything like that.

The non-productive among us could be very busy writing poetry, composing music, playing it, or engaging in other pursuits. What makes one non-productive isn’t a lack of effort or initiative but the lack of a market for their goods or services. That is, if you create or produce something no one wants to buy, you’re non-productive. The problem with a basic income is that it would subsidize such activities. According to the Mises article, this is bad because it would allow people to continue such non-productive pursuits, instead of trying to figure out how to do something there’d be a market for. The result, Keeble writes, is that a society with a basic income would be less productive and experience a lower level of social welfare than a society without one.

I think this is a questionable line of reasoning because it’s based on the shaky assumption that the market is the sole determinant of what’s productive. If someone wants to buy your good or service, you’re productive; if not, you’re not. This is an extremely narrow view.

Consider folks who’re currently employed in factories that make cigarettes, firearms, sugary snacks, or alcoholic beverages. There are huge markets for all of these activities. But if a basic income were enacted, folks working in the above industries reduced their labor supply, and this resulted in a decrease in the production of cigarettes, handguns, Twinkies, and liquors; it’s not clear to me this would amount to a net reduction in social welfare. This is because there’s evidence that all these goods contribute to serious public health problems. And if people spent less time producing cigarettes and more time making art, even if there weren’t markets for their work, this might amount to a net increase in social welfare.

What does or doesn’t contribute to net changes in social welfare is far too complex to be reduced to what people are willing to buy in the marketplace.


About the author: Michael A. Lewis is a social worker and sociologist by training whose areas of interest are public policy and quantitative methods. He’s also a co-founder of USBIG and has written a number of articles, book chapters, and other pieces on the basic income, including the co-edited work The Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee. Lewis is on the faculties of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the Graduate and University Center of the City University of New York.

Image: Mises Crest – By ConcordeMandalorian – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31860282

About Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis has written 8 articles.

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The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.

7 comments

  • Gary Lawrence Murphy

    Also people would be better able to fulfil urgent and important jobs for which the is no business model such as caring for the infirm or elderly family members, or raising children.

  • Thank you for countering Keeble’s article. I wanted to share my response to it here:

    The article presupposes that UBI is a replacement for current welfare system within the capitalist system most of our developed countries operate in. The problems we are facing globally— climate change, mounting wastes, kleoptocracy, oligarchy and autocracy—are directly or indirectly a manifestation of the final stage of capitalism. If we want to avoid a global catastrophe and extreme violence, we need to switch from the perpetual growth model to a circular and waste-free model.

    The market system Keeble is referring to as a given ignores the importance of our well-being, or happiness. Why do artists spend so much energy creating art, despite the fact that the practice impoverishes them financially? It’s because it enriches them on a much deeper level, more important than having multiple cars or mcmansions. And we’ve been doing it since the beginning of the civilization. By adhering to the market system in which such artistic activities are discouraged and minimized, we are depriving not only artists, but the rest of the society from experiencing the deep satisfaction and the sense of connection we all deserve. UBI could play an important tool in making this challenging but necessary and desirable shift from our current scarcity-based market system to abundance-based system.

  • Robin

    What if UBI resulted in a sudden drop in the amount of nurses, garbage collectors or any other ‘lowly’ occupation that is vital to modern life?

    I think that that was what Mr. Keeble was getting at. This article would have been much more enlightened if you had considered that point.

    As undesirable as you may find the industries you identified, they contribute to the economy and a loss of productivity would be harmful to it. That may reduce its ability to support artists.

    • Michael

      Hi Robin,

      Since robots haven’t taken all our jobs yet (assuming, for the moment, the technologists are right), I understand that we need quite a few human beings to sell their labor. I also understand that a basic income could result in a net reduction in labor supply. So I suspect you and I agree on this, although we may not agree on how much of a reduction would occur. But I acknowledge that it’s possible, depending on the size of a basic income, as well as how it was financed, that the reduction could be large enough to render the policy unsustainable,

      We also seem to disagree about what Keeble was saying in his article. I don’t think he was merely saying that nurses, garbage collectors, and others engaged in work “vital to modern life.” might work less. I think he was saying that whether what one does is productive depends on whether there is a market for their work. If there’s no market, they aren’t productive. This is the position I was addressing in my article.

      Consider the point made above by Gary Murphy. Are we really to conclude that women (primarily) the world over engaged in all types of unpaid care work are unproductive? In order to make this unproductive work more productive, should we require their kids and others being cared for to pay them?

  • Dominique Kenens

    Moreover, and tantamount to the economical logic inherent in valuating the economic and para-economic (artistic) activities of market- artists, are the possibilities of monetary income offered by freedom itself.

    As an artist, fi, I am unable to gain any monetary recompensation for my art, unless I invest a considerable portion of my time and effort in producing a platform (eg, a website, requiring attention and maintenance), some backlog of work (as a sole picture would rarely attract enough attention), and a pseudo-professional persona (ie, a shop, webshop or sales network through wich I am able to sell my work, as in a relationship with a publisher or gallery).

    These efforts are rarely remunerated, and are inherent in the value of a work of art itself (you pay the editor, the bookstore and the agent through the price of every book; you pay the gallery, the art dealer, and the phone and travel expenses through the price of every painting).

    By offering leisure time to possible artists, a lot more market-ready work has an actual chance of being sold, appreciated etc… without the inherent risks of having to quit your job to “dedicate your life to your art”.

    Will this produce better Art? No possible way to know. Art however, is not “unproductive” unless it is sold: it is producing intangible value in the Artist, and creating a potential for creating something in an uncertain future.

    As an artist employed in regular business as a Graphic Designer, I regularly get the question “How long does making this illustration take?” And should answer “5 minutes of drawing, and 30 years of exercise”.

    By M. Keeble’s logic, medical students are “unproductive” because they are not (yet) producing tangible services.

    By investing in themselves, students, craftsmen and artists are taking a risk, but they do not pollute the marketplace. Quite the contrary: they could open up the marketplace to contributors (and consumers) that are now unable to contribute, leading to a more equitable and possibly fruitful market.

    In the past, the most renowned authors and artists lived by virtue of patrons and/or wealthy families. UBI could well be the first true democratization of the Arts. Their perceived value will finally repose in the hands of the consumers, and no longer in the hands of a select group of patrons.

  • gary

    It seems we don’t know much more than we do know concerning the side effects of guaranteed income. It looks like several countries are gearing up to mull the premise over and perhaps implement guaranteed income on a small scale and track the effect on those who receive it over several years. Bucky Fuller spoke on this and although he wasn’t always correct he did have insights that have proven to be correct that most didn’t comprehend initially.

    Fuller quote ….. “We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough cable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. We have inspectors of inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

  • I’m unemployed but I’m much more productive now than when I had a job. I worked as a first-level help desk operator and my main activity was resetting end-user passwords. A pretty tedious activity that could have been done automatically by a computer instead. Now I don’t have an income but I’m learning a lot of stuff and I’m making contributions to free software projects that benefit a lot of people. I also avoid wasting 3 hours each day on average moving back and forth to the workplace, which is definitively not a productive activity. Implementing a universal basic income scheme will do wonders to support people like me.

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