I had something like a basic income; here are nine ways it influenced my views
For me, a job-unconditional basic income guarantee was simply a part of the life to which I grew accustomed as a young adult. In this piece, I describe how this experience has influenced my hopes and expectations concerning the effects of basic income as a policy.
Entering college as a scholarship student, I moved directly into a life in which I received a monthly living stipend that was not conditional on holding or looking for paid employment. There were, of course, some other conditions on the funding; I was, for instance, required to take classes at the university and make “sufficient academic progress” by some measure.
However, my “salary” was not contingent on anything that felt like being employed: I didn’t need to keep 9-to-5 hours, work in an office, report to a boss, or dress professionally — and, most importantly, I didn’t have to plan any aspect of my life around the question “What will people pay me to do?” I just took classes that interested me, which I invariably selected without consideration of the potential “market value” of the knowledge and training.
After about six years of such a lifestyle, I entered the “paid workforce” as a graduate teaching associate, an arrangement in which monthly pay continued to feel more-or-less disconnected from work, despite the addition of some new obligations. Now in my 30s, I’ve never worked a full-time job or signed an employment contract for more than a year — and I’ve continued, for the most part, to keep my deliberation about how to lead my life at a remove from questions of how to make money.
Certainly, there are significant differences between university scholarships and fellowships and a true basic income. Moreover, I am but one person, and individual cases are sure to vary considerably. Nonetheless, I believe that I came to adopt a lifestyle and internalize a mode of thought similar to what might be encouraged by a basic income.
This present piece is not an argument for basic income. On the contrary, it functions in part as a disclaimer on my own support for the idea. Of course I support a basic income, one might conclude; a basic income would help to sustain a lifestyle like the one to which I’ve grown accustomed, and it is difficult to give up what one has known and enjoyed. It is also an partial explanation of why I came to certain specific views and conjectures about the potential merit and effects of a basic income.
The following are nine conjectures about basic income that I developed due to my own experience:
- It would be easy to take a basic income for granted.
- A basic income might prevent the conflating of work (and worth) with paid labor.
- A basic income can promote lower consumption in the long-term.
- A basic income would facilitate living without long-range plans.
- A basic income could allow precarious jobs to be the most appealing jobs.
- A basic income could enable social isolation.
- A basic income would not “cure” anxiety.
- A basic income could enable individuals to make no useful social contributions.
- A mere “personal basic income” can make one feel alien.
This, I believe, is the crucial lesson, and it lays essential groundwork for all that follows.
When basic income proponents ask “What would you do if your income were taken care of?” they want the audience to fantasize about the myriad benefits a basic income could confer upon their lives (and, ideally, to imagine the ways in which they could use their good fortune proactively).
But when a guaranteed basic income is all one has ever known, it doesn’t feel liberating. It doesn’t feel special. It doesn’t spur one to better oneself. It is simply part of the ordinary state of existence, a silent component of the background conditions for everyday life.
When I headed off to college, I didn’t think, “Hey, cool! I have free tuition, a living stipend, and I’m relieved of working in a job; I think I’ll really make something of myself and contribute to the world!” No, not at all. Instead I thought, “Hey, cool; I have a living stipend! Now I’ll continue taking classes, as always, but I’ll get to live alone in my own apartment!” Arguably, the main effect of my job-unconditional income was to enable me to retain the mentality of a studious high-schooler: I took for granted that my basic needs would be met, that my main purpose was to study and learn, and that a job would just be a burden.
Of course, by contrasting this experience with that of those who lacked such financial good fortune, I can come to see that a basic income (or full-ride scholarship) entails freedom from much stress and overwork, and, in principle, opens the door for great accomplishments. However, I never truly felt freedom or relief, for I never knew a “before time” when I lacked my income guarantee.
I am ceaselessly baffled by the contention that people need jobs in order to feel a sense of purpose and self-worth, as well as the frequent assumption that when individuals are not at work in a job, they are idling away their time in passive leisure.
None of this is natural. Indeed, it is not what we learned as children. As children, we did not hold jobs, and yet our time was not one homogeneous block of undifferentiated recreation. We did not work for pay, and yet this did not entail that all of our activities were worthless.
When we were children, we had our schoolwork, which we were generally supposed to prioritize. We might also have had some organized extra-curricular activities like sports, band, debate, drama, or Science Olympiad, or various clubs in our schools, churches, and communities. These organized activities were also generally encouraged by our elders, as long as we did not pursue them to the detriment of schoolwork. Finally, we had “free-time”–and, even then, certain recreational pursuits (e.g. reading novels) were told to us to be more worthwhile than others (e.g. playing the Nintendo).
We were paid for none of this, of course, and yet we did not conclude that our activities were thereby equally valuable (or, perhaps better put, equally valueless).
Moreover, when we did grow old enough to take jobs, unpaid schoolwork (mark that: “school-work“) was usually still considered more important than paid job-work. We were subject to censure by teachers and parents if our paid work compromised our performance in our unpaid work.
At some point, apparently, many unlearn these truths that still seem obvious to me–that paid work and passive leisure are not exhaustive categories, that unpaid activities can be valuable, that unpaid activities can be work, and identify and self-worth can be found outside of the labor force–though, to be sure, I don’t know precisely when, why, and how this unlearning occurs. If the necessity of finding paid work is a contributing influence, however, then it might be said that a job-independent guaranteed income helped to prevent my unlearning of these truths.
As I said above, I was able to continue to live with (roughly) the mentality of a high-schooler, taking for granted that my basic needs would be met, that a job would just be a burden, and that my main purpose was to study. That said, there were occasions when I’d find myself with extra time, feel uninspired to make any productive use of it, and think to myself, “Well, I might as well take up a part-time job…” In these times, however, paid employment always felt like a path of last resort, a last-ditch effort to mask a transient but troublesome feeling of unproductivity or worthlessness. I could (and did) justify job-hunting by telling myself, for example, “I will earn money to save so that I can ‘buy more freedom’ for myself in the future, once my inspiration has returned.” Nonetheless, I would continue to feel somewhat ashamed of my failure to find my own intellectual or creative activities to which to devote my time; a job always seemed like something of a cop-out.
My personal experience is the main reason that I have become interested in the supposition that a basic income could encourage degrowth. Because I entered adulthood with something like a basic income, I grew accustomed both to minimal consumer spending (since my stipends afforded only a basic “no frills” lifestyle) and to substantial freedom and flexibility in structuring my time.
Yes, the thought more money and greater purchasing power was (and is) often alluring; however, I never found it sufficiently attractive to tempt me to pursue a lucrative career. Instead, since I have always had the option of greater freedom, I have almost invariably chosen it–even though this has required me to content myself with significantly less consumption than a well-paying job (or even a modestly paying one) would have allowed. And this, importantly, has never felt like a sacrifice. I truly believe there is no salary high enough to motivate me to work a 40-hour job for the next 30 years–as long, that is, as it remains possible for me to afford my basic needs while spending little or no time in standard structures of employment. Having grown to know and cherish it, I feel my freedom has no price.
It is significant here, though, that this “basic income lifestyle” is simply the life to which I adapted; it is, in essence, all I’ve known. I doubt that many individuals who earn, say, $40k per year in full-time jobs (an amount well beyond my highest annual earnings, yet slightly below the US median individual income) — let alone those with higher earnings — would want to leave their jobs to live on the much more modest amount of an unconditional basic income. For many, working a full-time job has become a natural part of life, and so has the lifestyle that their salary can afford.
It is difficult to give up the pleasant aspects of a lifestyle to which one has grown acquainted — whether this is freedom and flexibility, as in my case, or more lavish consumption, as in the case (presumably) of many individuals with full-time jobs in successful careers. Meanwhile, it is fairly easy to persist in something that has come to feel like second nature, even if mildly unpleasant, whether frugality in consumer spending (as in my case) or the confines of standard employment (as for many others).
A lifelong basic income has the potential to transform that to which individuals become habituated. It is on this basis that I conjecture that a basic income has the potential promote lower levels of consumption and economic growth.
This is also, incidentally, one reason for which I am skeptical about the ability of basic income pilots to reveal anything interesting regarding the long-term effects of an income guarantee on labor and consumption. If a person begins to receive a basic income after having already grown habituated to full-time employment and the lifestyle of earning-to-consume, then it might be highly unlikely that she would choose to leave the paid workforce and subsist on her comparatively meager basic income payments. But the situation could be much different in a society in which youth begin to receive a basic income before they have experience as either full-time laborers or high-volume consumers.
It is sometimes argued that a basic income would better enable individuals to plan for the long term, given its ability to mitigate the scarcity mindset and survivalist thinking engendered by poverty or economic insecurity (see, e.g., Louise Haagh’s article “Basic Income’s Radical Role” in Social Europe).
It has been my experience, however, that work-independent financial security can also produce the opposite effect: if one is guaranteed long-term economic security, then one is thereby relieved of the need to plan job and career goals oriented towards minimizing the chances of future economic hardship. Indeed, if one knows that one has long-term financial security, then one needn’t plan for the future at all, economically speaking, as long as one is able to live within one’s “basic” means. In other words, a stable and reliable work-unconditional income can permit individuals who might otherwise plan and act upon long-term career goals to think only in shorter terms, pursuing present interests with little or no concern for how these present tasks might promote employment or career advancement in the future. This is, at least, how I have always lived, continue to live, and desire to live.
The idea that basic income can enable risk-tasking is nothing new or unfamiliar. Notably, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently recommended consideration of the policy for precisely this purpose. Most commonly, however, this idea is raises in arguing that basic income can promote entrepreneurial activities, in which the risk is assumed for the sake of pursuing a specific long-range project or goal. But deliberately and intentionally living without a plan — choosing to remain open and adaptable to unplanned opportunities and the ever-changing natural flow of life — is itself a type of “risky” lifestyle.
Those with conventional “careerist” values might read the above passage as admission that the feeling of financial security provided by a basic income can be mentally and morally degrading. It seems that many consider it a mark of good character to plan for the future and devote oneself to long-term career ambitions–and a character flaw not to do so.
I can only ask, then, that we critically reexamine the moral importance we place on career-oriented thinking. I have personally embraced my relative economic security as way to eschew careerism — to live and work in a way that is maximally flexible and adaptive to my evolving interests, abilities, social networks, external demands, and whatever unanticipated possibilities may arise. For me, this may be the single most liberating thing about my lifestyle — as well as the key source of my excitement and fascination with life — and I am hard-pressed to see it as wrong.
As I mentioned near the outset of this piece, I have never worked a full-time job or signed an employment contract longer than a year. And this is no dismal fate but, rather, my ingrained preference and my incredible luck. It is one of my greatest hopes to maintain this lifestyle for as long as possible, primarily due to the flexibility that it allows, and its ability to sustain the “anti-careerism” described in the above section.
Having grown used to a stable but basic income, I have acquired a taste for jobs that can be picked up when in want of extra spending money and abandoned as quickly as possible after the desired sum of money has been obtained. I often found it desirable to earn a little more than my basic living stipend; at the same time, as discussed above, I could never imagine relinquishing freedom and flexibility for a full-time and permanent job, even a well-paying one.
Traditional full-time permanent positions seldom permit employees to work just enough to gain a desired sum of income — much to the frustration of those of us who identify with Max Weber’s classic description of the pre-industrial piece-rate worker: “A man does not ‘by nature’ wish to cam more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose.”
In contrast, “gig work” makes it easier to adjust the amount of one’s work to one’s desired income level, avoiding excessively confining commitments to jobs.
Proponents often speak of basic income as an “exit option” from employment, as if an independent source of financial security is enough to allow individuals to quit their jobs. But this strictly economic picture of employment obligations seems almost to fetishize money-making and downplay social norms in a manner reflective of the very status quo values that (in my view) a basic income should help us to overcome. The economic view of “exit” neglects the ethical importance of loyalty and trustworthiness: when I sign a contract, or otherwise give my word that I will follow through on certain tasks and duties, I consider myself bound to complete the work I have promised — irrespective of whether I am paid for that work, and irrespective of whether I can make a living for myself apart from that work. If one is under a long-term contract, the option of “exit” can pose ethical and psychological conflict even if one has the financial wherewithal to leave a job (and, we might add, even if one believes that one’s personal interest would be bettered by leaving the position).
That is, I have found that job flexibility is most easily attained not only by having access to a financial safety net but also by adopting more short-term and easily abandoned forms of employment. If a basic income enables individuals more easily to exit jobs, this is not merely due to its provision of a safety net but also due to the fact that this safety net allow individuals to avoid long-term contractual agreements in the first place (though I will admit that I myself am somewhat conflicted over the ethicality of this recommendation to avoid long-term commitment to employers).
In the spring of 2016, I managed the Facebook page of the US Basic Income Guarantee network. I recall sharing an article entitled “Will the Universal Basic Income make us lonely?“ (written by Oxford fellow Max Harris) and feeling rather disillusioned by the comments, which, I felt, often failed to engage sympathetically with Harris’s concerns.
Many commenters reacted as though the very suggestion that basic income could cause loneliness was utterly ridiculous. Some pointed out that (no doubt accurately) a basic income would permit many individuals to have a enjoy richer social life that they can currently manage. None replied that a basic income could indeed facilitate a potentially harmful reduction of social activity for some people. Although just a fledgling basic income writer at the time, I was inspired to write my own reply to Harris’s article, attempting a more charitable and nuanced treatment of the loneliness worry.
There was a reason that I took the loneliness worry as seriously as I did (and do): my own job-independent income helped to enable me to lead a life of fairly extreme social isolation. There’s little doubt that any sort of on-site job would have forced me to have more social interaction than I voluntarily chose during my college years. My nearly unconditional stipends permitted me to follow my natural tendency to seclude myself and work in solitude; a job, on the other hand, would have compelled me to act against it. To be sure, being very much an introvert by nature, I didn’t want additional social interaction. I didn’t feel lonely. Indeed, I would have objected vociferously if I had been required to relinquish my substantial alone-time, especially when busy with solitary work or other activities I found enjoyable. Its naturalness, however, doesn’t imply that my high degree of social isolation was healthy, and I later came to recognize that it was not.
We should admit that, in some cases, a basic income could facilitate unhealthy behaviors that a forced regime of paid employment could counter. Social isolation is one such behavior: some of us are disinclined to engage in social interaction when it’s not forced upon us; when it becomes voluntary, we naturally tend to abstain. With a basic income, then, we must force ourselves to do what, in other circumstances, the demand to earn a living might have forced upon us. We need to take it upon ourselves to ensure that we receive a healthy dose of social interaction — and sometimes, when it’s easier and seemingly “more natural” not to do so, we won’t.
Now, this is no more a reason to oppose basic income than “Some people won’t exercise if they aren’t forced to work in the fields” would have been a reason to oppose the mechanization of agricultural. But it is a possible outcome that does merit consideration.
In May 2017, basic income social media witnessed a viral spread of stories claiming that Finland’s basic income experiment was already showing a reduction in stress and anxiety. Although these particular stories apparently had their source in sensationalistic reporting of a single anecdote, the supposition that a basic income would reduce stress and anxiety is nothing new — and for good reason: economic hardship and income instability are major sources of stress and anxiety for many people (as is, on the side of the spectrum, overwork).
At the same time, however, many cases of stress and anxiety are not attributable to financial insecurity, poverty, or overwork. I know this firsthand: I have never experienced great economic difficulty, nor overwork (other than that brought on by my own perfectionism), and yet I have been affected by generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety is an adaptable tormentor; it can find innumerable other potential sources of anxiety — as trivial as they might seem to others — to which to affix.
I often grimace, then, when I read particularly roseate predictions of the ability of basic income to alleviate anxiety — or, for that matter, any mental illness. Quite likely, a basic income would present significant advantages to sufferers of mental illness, especially those whose conditions prevent them from working (or from working steadily in full-time jobs), when compared to current systems of conditional welfare benefits. But a basic income is no panacea.
I have spent most of my adult life as a professional student, receiving stipends to study, and choosing my courses of study with no regard for either employability or ability to contribute to society. And, to show for it, I have indeed made no great social contributions.
Certainly, I’ve never been the stereotype of the lazy person content to live on her basic income payments; I’ve never been one to spend my days smoking weed and playing video games. On the contrary, I have a natural desire to feel productive, including (perhaps especially) during weekends and holidays, and it must have taken years for me years to overcome workaholic tendencies that made it difficult to enjoy leisure activities from socializing with friends to simply gazing at a beautiful sunset.
But what it is to have the natural drive to “feel productive”? Well, for one, it can be a drive to further one’s own learning and development — irrespective of whether one uses one’s skills and knowledge in any way whatsoever for the betterment of others or society. By divorcing the means to a living from the demands of the marketplace, a basic income could better enable individuals to pursue art for the sake of art, science for the sake of science, and so on. For me, this has long been integral to the appeal of the idea — even before a “basic income” of sorts came to feel like an established part of my life. It must be admitted, however, that one consequence is that artists, scientists, and other self-motivated individuals would also be free not to publish or promote their work in any way, burying any potential social contributions. (And this is not to mention that a world of self-directed artists and scientists would still have a need for those who will tend to individuals’ medical needs, repair roads and bridges, clean sewers and collect garbage, and so forth. But that is another essay, for another time.)
I believe I’ve done well for myself: my life doesn’t lack for happiness, meaning, or identity, despite (or perhaps because of) my persistent low income and lack of anything resembling a stable career. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that I could have done better for the world. I was, for one, a pretty decent STEM student; it’s possible, I suppose, that I could already have contributed to great advances in technology to improve the lives of millions. Instead, having the means, I chose to spend years engaged in pursuits such as (for example) the study of a narrow sub-sub-field in contemporary analytic philosophy of language. Moreover, because I chose such activities merely for the personal intellectual challenge, I never bothered even to try to publish or distribute my work.
All that being said, I should mention that a basic income is not unique in permitting individuals to survive without contributing to society. Perhaps most obviously, we might imagine the “idle rich” living from inheritance, trust funds, and interest earnings. Moreover, and more importantly, the fact that an activity is profitable does not imply that the activity is socially beneficial (think of those who make a living in the “manufacture of demand” — getting people to buy things they otherwise wouldn’t even want — or, say, patent sharks). This does not imply, however, that tu quoque is an adequate response to the common concern that a basic income would permit free-riding on the societal contributions of others — for, simply put, a basic income would permit free-riding on the societal contributions of others.
I have spent much of my adult life feeling like an outsider to much of my own culture — largely due to my rejection of career culture and other attitudes that I believe to have been engendered by the “BI-like” aspects of my early adult life.
I recall that, by the time I reached 20 years of age, I was already tired of living in a world in which success was equated with personal ambition or, more specifically, personal ambition as played out in a career in paid employment. There were those who wanted to advise me on how to achieve “success” and yet insisted upon projecting their own definition of that notion onto me. It felt, in those days, like there was no one with both the knowledge to offer good guidance and the open-mindedness to hear me out on my own interpretation of “success” and the good life. I embraced anti-careerism as part of my values and identity. I saw nothing inherently wrong with myself. I saw my situation as a case of organism-environment mismatch, and I was happy with the organism, just not the environment. Sometimes, when I felt particularly at odds with the job- and career-focused culture that surrounded me (but powerless to change it), the prospect of never contributing to society actually felt good — itself an act of rebellion.
Would my young adult years have been different if I had been born into a society with basic income already in place? Would I have been more eager to contribute my talents in a socially productive way if I had felt a less pronounced sense of “organism-environment mismatch”? I can’t say. Perhaps, even in utopia, all youth must go through their stage of rebellion and angst.
Still, I think, there’s an important point that transcends the rebellion and restlessness of youth: having a “personal basic income” in our present culture – obsessed as it is with jobs, careers, consumption, and economic growth — is likely much different from having the same in a culture in which GDP is not the measure of societal success, income is not the measure of personal success, and education is encouraged for its own sake, not merely as a means to attain a good job. And, quite likely, it would take a universal basic income, or something like it, to pave the way for these latter large-scale cultural shifts.
What a financially self-sufficient individual would do in a society of financially self-sufficient individuals is different — potentially much different — than what the same financially self-sufficient individual would do in a society like ours, in which nearly all other people continue to rely on full-time employment as a means to earn a living.
In May 2016, campaigners for Switzerland’s basic income referendum presented the world with the “world’s biggest question“: “What would you do if your income were taken care of?” Having lived with a job-unconditional income guarantee, however, I realize that there is a much bigger question: “What would you do if everyone’s income were taken care of?”
Reviewed by Tyler Prochazka.
Cover Photo: CC BY 2.0 Generation Grundeinkommen