What is the core ‘basic income issue’?
What’s the deal with this basic income issue? Why is it so difficult to push it forward? The reason, it seems, is deeply rooted within the human psyche. As Will Hutton put it, “humans believe that reward should follow proportionate effort”. This is the question, is it not? Hutton argues that we humans are hardwired for this relationship between work and gain, and that’s final. There’s no overriding it. No pain, no gain, like they say. Let’s debate this.
If I go camping with some friends, I’ll be pleased if everyone helps around with cooking, cleaning, setting up the tents, chopping up some branches for the fire and so on. And I’ll object to anyone just sitting around while everyone else is busy setting up camp. That is because the work involved can only be made by people, by the campers themselves, for their own benefit. It’s a team, and it’s only fair that all players team up to set a camp they will all benefit from.
Now let’s assume these were a high-tech team of campers, who had brought automatic setting tents, a battery driven portable cooker, a cleaning robot, and a complete set of canned food. How much labour would there be to distribute among the campers? Maybe just putting the tents in their places (these would setup automatically from there), turn on the cooker and open a few cans. That could be done easily and quickly by one person, maybe two at most. What about the others? Well, maybe it’s best if they just sit around and sing a few songs, dinner will be ready shortly. Doesn’t sound wrong to me.
The role of technology gets rather obvious in this simple example. Humans are not hardwired to relate work and gain. Humans are just wary of working more than they should if others are not helping out. But if machines are doing that, it ceases to be unfair. Besides, if machines are helping and there’s no sense in having six people pressing tent buttons and opening up food cans, I don’t mind doing that today and tomorrow someone else will do it. And then I’ll sit comfortably playing my guitar, without the slightest shadow of a guilt.
Another issue is that it may be so that some humans “believe that reward should follow proportionate effort”, but certainly not all of them. There are people that, living off rents – from land, houses, shares in corporations or financial assets – do not feel shame, or guilt, or any sense of responsibility towards society. And are humans nonetheless. Humans are not hardwired this or that way. We are a product of our environment and particular circumstances.
Still another aspect of this discussion is heritage. Is it not true that everyone, and I really mean every living human being on the planet, is born into a huge lineage of natural and social evolution? A new born human being doesn’t have to reinvent electricity in order to have a lighting bulb in the living room. Doesn’t have to rediscover the written language in order to communicate. Doesn’t have to make concrete from scratch to make a house. Human societies make this already existing wealth more or less accessible to individuals, but it’s undeniable that this wealth, natural or social, exists. And it’s just there for the sharing, grown and perfected over millions of years of evolution.
The fact that we have failed in that sharing for a long time, as a global society, it’s an entirely different matter. The truth is just that each if us is born into a bounty of global richness, without having contributed to it. That’s not debatable, it’s just a fact.
So how many arguments are there against basic income? It seems to me that, at bottom, only one really. Because once you accept that all humans are entitled, as their human right, to access the wealth of the natural world and the work of countless human generations before you, you’re already defending basic income on moral grounds. There’s no way, no matter how you look at it, that a person can do a “proportionate effort” to ever compensate for that he or she receives just for being alive. So let’s just get passed this annoying and fundamentally flawed argument.
After that one can ask oneself: Basic income is great, but how are we going to finance it? To be clear, a financial issue cannot be used as a fundamental argument against basic income. Financing is about distribution of power. Money is an agreement, and people can agree otherwise. Financing is, therefore, a challenge which comes from living together in society.
Different people have different perspectives and feelings over things, but if they agree among each other that the distribution of the natural and social wealth should be made to all, as a human right of existence, then the money will appear. Some will say as by a “miracle”. A miracle within an obsolete mindset, a natural consequence from an evolved, more inclusive and expanded view of the world.
Once you have accepted basic income on moral grounds and found a way to finance it – which is the same as bringing enough people to support its implementation – you might still ask: but what if this idea is hijacked by the far-right liberals, who just want to kill the commons, bury the welfare state and privatize everything? That amounts to asking: what if some dictator takes power and turns an imperfect democracy into a perfect dictatorship? For which I reply: we must be active and aware.
Democracy is not a system set in stone and we must always be defending it and contributing to it. Anything can be turned into a weapon by a wicked mind. Or basic income can be turned into a privatization-of-everything tool for a radical right-wing agenda. That risk is always there. It boils down to us, every conscious individual supporting basic income and knowing how to finance it, standing for democracy at all times.
Basic income can only help all people if it is democratically supported and implemented.
More information at:
Will Hutton, “Utopia for realists: and how we can get there by Rutger Bregman – review”, The Guardian, 13th March 2017