AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is a draft of the first chapter of the book I’m working on: Universal Basic Income: Essential Knowledge. It can also be thought of as a reply to Bitch Bastardly’s guest article from last week. Comments welcome: Karl@widerquist.com.
Every minute of every day, you use something you don’t own to meet your needs without asking anyone’s permission and without paying anyone for the privilege. You do this every time you take a breath. You can’t do that without an atmosphere. You don’t own the atmosphere, but you’ve never had to get a job to earn the money to buy the right to use the atmosphere to keep yourself alive. You simply used it as if the free use of a common resource was the most natural thing in the world.
I bet you’d be pretty angry if the government made a new rule dividing atmosphere into private property without giving you a share large enough to meet your needs. I don’ think it would make you feel better if they gave you the opportunity to get a job to earn the money to buy the right to breathe in your area, and thereby keep yourself alive. I think you’d recognize that if you had that much need for a job, you’d be willing to accept very low wages. I don’t think it would make you feel much better if lifetime subscriptions to breathe were affordable, and if, after working for years, saving your money, investing it wisely, you have the chance to become one of the small portion of people who own piece of the atmosphere before retirement age or the even smaller portion of people who own enough of the atmosphere that other people will pay them to breathe.
If the government tried to privatize the atmosphere, I think you’d say something like this. My ancestors and I have used the atmosphere freely for millions of years. We’re evolved to depend on it. If you take away our independent access to it, you make us dependent on whatever group of people owns it. If there’s some benefit in dividing the atmosphere into private property, either everyone should get a share, or those who don’t get shares should be compensated unconditionally for their loss with an income, and that compensation should be at least large enough to buy a lifetime subscription to the right to breathe.
If you’d be that angry about needing some else’s permission to use the atmosphere to meet your need to breathe, why aren’t you angry that you need some else’s permission to use all the other resources you need to meet all your other needs?
I think you should be. Our ancestors used the land and other resources of the Earth freely for millions of years, just as you and I use the atmosphere now. Every one of us is evolved to depend on it. No group of people “naturally” owns it. A few generations ago, governments took away the independent access our ancestors enjoyed. They created a system in which the resources we all need are owned by a few without giving the rest of us any compensation. By doing that, they made us dependent on the people who own the Earth’s resources.
The vast majority of us who don’t own a large enough share of natural resources or of the stuff we make out of natural resources to keep ourselves alive and thriving. The vast majority of us aren’t allowed to use any resources but air without the permission of an owner. We can’t build a shelter, hunt, gather, fish, farm, start a cooperative, or start our own business. Except for the wealthy few, we get a job to earn the money to buy the right to do use the resources that were here before anyone and that we’re all evolved to depend on. Wages are such that, only the lucky few get to the point where we’re free to do something other than paid labor before we’re too told to work anyway.
The division of the Earth’s resource into private and public property has many benefits, but if some people get a share and others don’t, the private property system has many cruel side effects, among them poverty, homelessness, alienation, fear, and hopelessness. Because most of us have no alternative to paid labor, we are all willing to accept lower wages, longer work hours, and less appealing working conditions than we otherwise would. In some situations, people are forced to accept dangerous jobs, sexual harassment, and other forms of abuse from employers or spouses, because they need the job or a spouse with money to keep them alive. That need is artificial, created by the way our governments chose to divide the Earth’s resources.
Let’s consider a way to divide resources that isn’t so cruel.
Back in 1918, Bertrand Russell’s suggested “that a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all, whether they work or not, and that a larger income … should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful. On this basis we may build further.”
Russell’s proposal is very much what we know today as Universal Basic Income (UBI). Later chapters define it in more detail, but his description gives you a very good idea what it is. UBI is not all there is to social justice, but it removes an exceedingly cruel feature built into our economic system. If we’re going to divide the resource of the Earth unequally, those who own more of the wealth we make out of resources have the responsibility to pay those who have to do with less access to resources.
Although there are many reasons to introduce UBI, I started with this one, not only because I think it’s one of the most important, but also because I think it brings up the central decision that people have to make if we’re going to introduce UBI. Should everyone get an income—even the people who could take jobs but chose not to? I think that question already divides most readers into two groups with pretty firm positions: Yes, because no one should live in poverty or homelessness. No, because every nonwealthy person who can work must work.
UBI, on its own, is a mild reform with far-reaching effects. Later chapters show that it isn’t terribly expensive. On its own, UBI creates a market economy where income doesn’t start at zero. People who don’t take jobs, get less than those who take jobs, but no one has to go without the money they need for food, shelter, or clothing in the same way that no one today has to go without the money they need to breathe.
By offering good salaries and good working conditions, we have enormous ability to give people an incentive to engage in work that the community recognizes as useful. And if we’re not willing to pay enough to get people to freely choose do some particular job, maybe that job doesn’t need to be done all. If we do it this way, we end poverty and homelessness. We end the cruel treatment people at the bottom and relieve the fear of the people in the middle. We invite everyone—rather than frighten everyone—into participating in our economic system. That mild and humane reform finds resistance from the belief that everyone—or more realistically, everyone who isn’t wealthy—must work, and so the issue of whether everyone including those who refuse to take jobs should get the income comes up again and again throughout this book.
The idea of UBI has inspired a growing worldwide movement. Although the concept of a UBI goes back at least as far as the 1790s, the movement for it is stronger as I write these words than it has ever been. The movement grows out of frustration with the ineffectiveness and political vulnerability of conventional approaches to poverty and inequality. The market system also needs many other reforms, but millions of people are coming to believe that one of the most important and fundamental reforms we need right now is UBI.
The central goal of this book is to explain the essentials of UBI: what it is, how it works, the most popular arguments for and against it, how much it costs, how it can be financed, its likely effects, its history, and its possible future. But as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, I am a strong supporter of UBI. And so, this book’s secondary goal is to convince readers that UBI is a good, workable idea that should be enacted all around the world, but I will make this argument in a way that explains and addresses both sides of the debate over whether to introduce UBI. Whether you agree with my position on UBI or not, I think you can learn more from a passionate attempt to argue points for it and refute points against it than from a dispassionate list of points on either side.
With this in mind, the book begins with a more thorough explanation of what UBI is.
-Karl Widerquist, begun sometime ago, but completed in Aspen, Colorado, July 29, 2021
Workers aren’t working for the wages we’re offering as much as they used to. Five million fewer Americans are working now than were working in June of 2019. That’s 3.33% of the U.S. labor force—a shortage! Think about what that means: 3.33% fewer pool boys at the spa, 3.33% fewer caddies at the country club, 3.33% fewer ball girls at the tennis club. Just the other day, I had to wait more than 30 minutes for my lobster bisque. Today, I called my service, and they couldn’t schedule anyone to clean my house until the middle of next week! If this keeps up, who’s going to iron my shirts? It’s a crisis.
All this is happening even though most businesses are still offering a very generous $7.25 per hour and, in some cases, even more. At that rate, a single parent only needs to work one-and-a-half jobs to get herself and her child out poverty. Then she’ll only need two more jobs to pay for the childcare she needs for the time she spends at her first job.
Despite this wonderful generosity, some workers have the audacity to suggest employers could end the labor shortage by paying higher wages. Some even suggest improved working conditions. That’s class warfare! We don’t need that radicalism here.
I suggest a simple solution—a small extension of our well established way of doing things—and it will literally eliminate the labor shortage in 5 minutes.
Privatize the atmosphere. The problem with the air we breathe is that nobody owns it! People take it for granted that they can inhale air any time they feel like it as if they have some natural right to breathe. That’s communism! And that never works. Poor people won’t appreciate the air they breathe until they pay for access to it from a corporation, until they know the police will arrest them if they steal the air from its natural owner—the American corporate sector.
This simple solution is in accord with the American way of doing things. We don’t usually give anything to poor people unless they work for it or prove they can’t work. Why are they getting such a valuable thing as breathing rights for free? Because they need it? People need food, shelter, and clothing; we don’t give them access to the resources they need to produce these things for themselves. Only naked savages do that. In civilized countries like ours, people don’t get access to the resources they “need” until they go to a boss and say I will work for you all day to get the money to buy the stuff I need to live.
This free atmosphere policy is unnatural and unamerican.
Imagine what a privatized atmosphere will do for the labor shortage? Once workers who are “looking for a better job offer” lose the right to inhale and exhale without the permission of the owner of the atmosphere, they’ll learn the truth of my motto, no job is a bad job, right quick. Like a good member of the lower class, they’ll do what they’re told and they do it in five minutes. If they don’t do it, they pass out and die. But that’s their choice. That’s what freedom in the free market is all about. People who don’t own resources, choose to work for people who do, or they choose not to use resources. If that means homelessness, hunger, or malnutrition, that’s their choice. This simple solution simply adds another choice: suffocation.
Imagine all the jobs a privately owned atmosphere will create in the banking sector as workers who can’t find a job before they pass out seek loans to buy breathing rights? Years of interest payments and collections will follow, generating banking sector profits that will trickle down to everyone.
The atmosphere’s new corporate owner will really clean up our environment. They’ll use their Supreme-Court-given free-speech rights to make all the campaign contributions it takes to get Congress to pay them money to remove pollutants from the atmosphere they own. And think of all the jobs that will create!
They’ll file suit in federal court to get the police to stop polluters. Right now, the government allows polluters to dump dirty chemicals into the air whenever they want. If the atmosphere was owned—as nature intended—by a wealthy campaign contributor, the government would stop polluters. No one has the right to dump pollution into the atmosphere you breathe unless they pay for that right from a private, for-profit corporation.
When corporations own resources, the consumer is sovereign, so you’ll be free to choose exactly how much pollution would get into your lungs. If the people want cleaner air, all they need to do is use their combined bidding power to make it more profitable to sell them clean air than to sell polluters the right to dirty up the air. If you think global warming is real, you can offer money to the corporation to get them to stop that too. It’ll be an old-fashioned bidding war, you versus the polluters, and may the deeper pocket win—it’s the American way.
And the best thing is that, whoever wins, the atmosphere-owning corporation will make lots of money, and that’s good for everybody, because what will they do with that money? They’ll spend some of it and that will create jobs. They’ll invest the rest and that will create even more jobs!
And what will people do with all the money they make in those jobs? They’ll buy the right to breathe, of course. But when they get home and take a deep breath, they’ll know they earned it, because they bought it from whatever corporation owns the right to tell them it’s OK to breathe. That’s the freedom of the free market. -Bitch Bastardly, June-July 2021
For information about the Indepentarian blog, contact Karl@widerquist.com For information about Bitch Bastardly, just make it up.
The book, the Prehistory of Private Property by Grant S. McCall an me, examines the origin and development of the private property rights system from prehistory to the present day to debunk three widely accepted false beliefs about the private property system: that inequality is natural, inevitable, or incompatible with freedom; that capitalism is more consistent with negative freedom than any other conceivable economic system; and that there is something “natural” about the private property system. That is, the normative principles of appropriation and voluntary transfer applied in the world in which we live support a capitalist system with strong, individualist, and unequal private property rights. The book reviews the intellectual history of these claims and demonstrates their importance in contemporary political thought before reviewing the history and prehistory of the private property system to address their veracity. In so doing, the book uses thorough anthropological and historical evidence to refute these three claims. The book shows that societies with common-property systems maintaining strong equality and extensive freedom were initially nearly ubiquitous around the world, that their claims to common ownership were consistent with appropriation-based theories, and that the private property rights system was established through a long series of violent state-sponsored aggressions.
This post summarizes the book, chapter-by-chapter.
This chapter previews the book, explains the importance of debunking the three claims, the usefulness of examining the intellectual history of how they became so important in political thought, and the value of reviewing the prehistory and early history of the private property system to debunk them.
2. Hierarchy’s Apologists, Part One: 5,000 years of clever and contradictory arguments that inequality is natural and inevitable
This chapter reviews the history of the belief that inequality is natural and inevitable, showing that different versions of it played a role in differently unequal societies from prehistory to modern times. Inequality has been attributed to the divine favor of gods, to leaders actually being gods, to the belief that only hierarchies are capable of maintaining peace; to the intellectual, moral, or genetic superiority of the upper class; to the need to reward useful behavior; and to many other questionable beliefs. The parallels between the uses of the inequality hypothesis are striking. Although predominant ideologies in virtually all unequal societies agree that inequality is natural and inevitable, they can’t agree why inequality is natural and inevitable, and they all use this natural-inequality hypothesis to justify force in order to maintain inequality.
3. Hierarchy’s Apologists, Part Two: Natural inequality in contemporary political philosophy and social science
This chapter shows that the belief in natural inequality survives in many guises in contemporary social science and political philosophy—most especially in social contract theory and in “freedom-based” arguments for unequal private property rights in natural resources and the things people make out of them. The parallels between contemporary and historical justifications for inequality are striking. They all use the belief that inequality is natural and inevitable to justify coercive rules to maintain inequality, but they all present conflicting explanations why inequality is inevitable. This observation itself raises doubt about this claim and provides reason for empirical historical analysis of whether the natural inequality hypothesis is true.
4. How small-scale societies maintain political, social, and economic equality
This chapter uses anthropological and historical evidence to debunk what the authors call the natural inequality hypothesis—i.e. the belief that inequality is natural and inevitable and/or that inequality is the inevitable result of respecting negative freedom. It examines land-tenure and property systems in a wide-variety of societies known to history and anthropology. It shows that many societies maintained very high levels of social, political, and economic equality for extremely long periods of time while protecting negative freedom at least as well, if not better than, contemporary property rights-based societies.
5. The Negative Freedom Argument for the Market Economy
The negative freedom argument for the market economy relies on the belief that capitalism delivers greater freedom from interference and coercion than any other system. This chapter shows that this claim cannot be established in pure a priori theory and that “propertarians” (people who use this argument) have so far failed to establish it empirically. Section 1 shows that the establishment and maintenance of the private property system involves an empirical tradeoff of liberties that most versions of the negative-freedom argument ignore. Section 2 considers and rejects a priori attempts to use a rights-based conception of freedom to resolve that tradeoff. Section 3 considers other possibilities for resolving the tradeoff in pure theory and concludes that it must be addressed empirically. Section 4 explains why a particularly useful way to examine that tradeoff is to make an empirical comparison of the freedom experienced by people in the market economy and the hunter-gatherer band economy.
6. The Negative Freedom Argument for the Hunter-Gatherer Band Economy
This chapter presents an empirical argument that the hunter-gatherer band economy is more consistent with negative freedom than the market economy. Although freedom is difficult to measure, the freedom of people in band societies dominates the freedom of the least free people in capitalist societies. There is no form of coercion, interference, force, non-contractual obligation, involuntariness, or aggression, to which people in band societies are subject and from which lower- and middle-class people in capitalist society have been freed. Lower- and middle-class people in capitalist societies are subject to forms of coercion, force, and so on that do not exist in band societies. The independently wealthy might have more liberties than people in band societies, but if so, their additional liberties come at the cost of fewer liberties for middle- and lower-class people. Therefore, the market economy—as usually conceived—fails to deliver the highest equal freedom. The potential advantage of large-scale societies is in promoting opportunity, not in protecting freedom. If the private property system is to be justified against other systems, it must be justified on the basis of opportunity, not on the false claim that it promotes negative freedom.
7. Contemporary Property Theory: A story, a myth, a principle, and a hypothesis
This chapter argues that rights-based justifications of unequal private property systems rely on an empirical claim that the authors call, “the individual appropriation hypothesis.” That is, if people were allowed to appropriate resources, in the absence of interference, an unequal, individualistic property rights system would develop. It essentially means that the private property rights system is natural and that collective property systems are unnatural and tend to be established only by interfering with individually appropriated property rights. Propertarians who try to distance themselves from empirical claims tend either to fall back on this claim or to fall into tautology and/or special pleading.
8. The History of a Hypothesis
This chapter reviews the intellectual history of the individual appropriation hypothesis from its seventeenth-century origins to the present to show how it became a background assumption in contemporary political theory. The history of appropriation theory and the appropriation story are intertwined with the history of the hypothesis.
9. The impossibility of a purely a-priori justification of private property
This chapter assesses attempts to justify specifically private property rights on an a priori basis. It shows how such attempts either resort to special pleading or fall back on one or another version of the individual appropriation hypothesis. It demonstrates that arguments based on negative freedom, opportunity, inequality, market power, self-ownership, and the Lockean proviso all fail to rule out a property-owning government. Even Loren Lomasky’s explicit attempt to remove empirical claims from the theory involves both special pleading and the appropriation hypothesis.
10. Evidence Provided by Propertarians to Support the Appropriation Hypothesis
Chapters 7-9 have shown that propertarianism requires some version of the (set of) empirical claim(s) we call the individual appropriation hypothesis. Some propertarians actually have provided evidence in favor of it. This chapter reviews that evidence, showing that it is superficial and inconclusive. A more thorough investigation is needed. Therefore, this chapter sets up the following five chapters, which provide that investigation.
11. Property Systems in Hunter-Gatherer Societies
This is the first of four chapters examining the origin and development of property rights (private, public, collective, common, and other) in order to investigate the individual appropriation hypothesis and related claims outlined in Chapter 7. Section 1 considers whether appropriation theory applies to animals. Section 2 explores the broad variation of systems of territoriality among modern human hunter-gatherers and uses the results to think about territoriality among the earliest human occupants of most of the globe. Section 3 argues that nomadic hunter-gatherer bands appropriated most of the world’s land in ways that were consistent with all or most appropriation criteria contained in natural property rights theories. In contradiction to propertarian theory, these original appropriators chose not to establish individual private property—neither in land nor in other goods. Land was a common, and food and tools were subject to requirements to share.
12. Property Systems in Stateless Farming Communities
One appropriation criterion, the requirement that appropriators mix their labor with the land, bypasses nomadic foragers and gives the first ownership claims to the first people to clear and farm the land. This ubiquitous appropriation story uses this ethical principle in tandem with the empirical claim that the first farmers established private land ownership systems to support the claim that private property is a natural development. The evidence presented in this chapter shows it is not so. The origin of private property occurred long after the origins of agriculture. Private ownership and individual appropriation play no role in small-scale stateless farming communities. Small-scale swidden agriculturalists clear the land together and choose to establish nothing like the supposedly natural private property system. Early farming societies had complex, overlapping, flexible, nonspatial, and at least partly collective land-tenure systems with a significant commons in the sense that individuals retained one or another kind of access rights to land for different purposes.
13. Property Systems in Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern States
This chapter shows that no period of private, individual appropriation is found in the formation of states. Early states had land-tenure systems in which political elites—kings, pharaohs, lugals, etc.—were considered the owners of all of the land in their kingdoms and subjects had various forms of usufruct rights for farming or other practices. The beginnings of individual private property occurred gradually, long after the formation of states, not with individual acts of appropriation but with elites using their political power to name themselves or their underlings as owners of assets. Even then, private landownership did not become the dominant property rights system in ancient or medieval times. Communal village agriculture remained the most common system in state societies throughout the world until the early modern period.
14. The Privatization of the Earth, circa 1500-2000
The history recounted in Chapters 10-14 shows that private property does not arise spontaneously through appropriation or any other method. The first people to discover, claim, use, occupy, or mix labor with resources over most of the Earth established complex, overlapping, flexible, nonspatial, partly collective land-tenure systems with significant common elements. The individual appropriation hypothesis is not merely unproven: it is disproven. The history discussed above indicates that the establishment of private property systems necessarily involves coercion and violence. Claims that the defense of unequal private ownership is somehow the defense of “natural liberty” are false. In the context of real history rather than the made-up appropriation story, the natural rights theories invented to defend private property shows that the people and the community have a better claim to land and resource ownership than unequal private owners.
15. The individual appropriation hypothesis assessed
The history recounted in Chapters 10-14 shows that private property does not arise spontaneously by appropriation or any other method. The first people to discover, claim, use, occupy, or mix labor with resources over most of the Earth established complex, overlapping, flexible, nonspatial, partly collective land-tenure systems with significant common elements. The individual appropriation hypothesis is not merely unproven: it is disproven. The history discussed above indicates that the establishment of private property systems necessarily involves coercion, violence, and dispossession. Claims that the defense of unequal private ownership is somehow the defense of “natural liberty” are false. In the context of real history rather than the made-up appropriation story, the natural rights theories invented to defend private property shows that the people and the community have a better claim to land and resource ownership than unequal private owners.
This book has told six histories: the intellectual histories of three widely believed empirical claims, and the political and economic histories that refute those claims. The natural-rights-based argument for strong, unequal private property rights relies on false empirical claims about equality, freedom, and the origin and nature of property rights in the past and as a stand-in for some kind of imagined universal human nature. A society that will be more consistent with the protection of all individuals from violence, coercion, and interference will have to find some way to ensure that each individual has direct and unconditional access to the resources necessary to survive. We suggest Universal Basic Income as an important policy to help achieve that goal.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is making significant progress in Brazil, according to the following letter former Senator Eduardo Suplicy sent to leaders of BIEN. (See also: Maricá one step from Universal Basic Income):
my dear friends of BIEN:
Let me inform you what I consider another positive step in favor of the Citizen’s Basic Income, Universal and Unconditional. Yesterday we had municipal elections in all Brazilian cities. As a candidate for being reelected citycouncilman I got 167.552 votes, the most voted candidate for a citycouncilman in the city of São Paulo or in any other city of Brazil.
It is also a very good news for the objectives of BIEN that the Mayor of Maricá, Fabiano Horta of the PT (Worker’s Party), who has started the institution of a Basic Income, has been reelected with 88% of the votes. Since December 2019, ¼ of the population of 162 thousand people, 42.500 inhabitants started to receive a Basic Income of 300 mumbucas per month, a social money (each mumbuca is equal to one real – each dollar is equal to R$ 5.42). By December 2020, ½ of the population will be receiving it and by 2024 the whole population of Maricá will be receiving the Citizen’s Basic Income.
I have already informed you that last July 21st, 220 federal deputies and senators formed the Parliamentary Front in Defense of the Basic Income. The President João Henrique Campos invited me to be the President of Honor due to the fact that I am the author of the Law 10.835/2004 that institutes, step by step, starting with those most in need, the Citizen’s Basic Income.
Therefore, Brazil is moving, step by step, towards UBI.
On September 19, 2020, people marched for UBI all over the world even in New Orleans where a steady rain came down all day. This blog post has videos and pictures from the march. It was an honor for me to be asked to speak to this group of people who came out on the rain and stayed out for several hours even as the rain kept coming. It was great to think that we were one small part of a march that took place all over teh world–on all six of the inhabited continents. Next year: UBI march Antarctica! Meet me there.
Below is the a copyedited version of the speech I delivered at the Basic Income March, New York, October 26, 2019 in the Bronx, New York, October 26, 2019. Pierre Madden ranscribed and copyedited it, in Montreal, Quebec, September 2020. Then I copyedited it again, at St. Elizabeth’s, Napoleon Avenue, New Orleans, September 11-13, 2020
I march for UBI because it’s wrong to come between anybody and the resources they need to survive and that is exactly what we do in just about every country in the world today. Poverty doesn’t just happen. People don’t get themselves into poverty. Poverty is a lack of access to resources. The world is full of resources. The only reason you can lack access to the resources you need to survive is because somebody else controls them whether it’s an owner, whether it’s a politburo or whether it’s a bureaucracy. It doesn’t matter who controls them. If it’s not you and they say you can’t use them unless you do what we say, you are not free.
Freedom is independence. Freedom is the power to say no to anybody who wants to give you orders. But we’ve set up the world so it seems so natural that some people should just own the earth. And the rest of us, the 90%, the 99%, we all have to go to them to get our job or we have no resources to keep us alive. And we call that “work.” We act like there’s no other kind. As if the only thing work could possibly mean is going and taking orders from somebody who has more privileges than you do. Working for yourself has become impossible. It’s been impossible since we kicked the peasants off the land and enclosed the commons. Working for yourself has been impossible since we killed the buffalo. Working for yourself has been impossible since we abducted the slaves. And the freed slaves knew this at the end of the Civil War. That’s why they asked for 40 acres and a mule. Unfortunately, their masters knew it too: that’s why they didn’t get it.
There’s nothing wrong with a job. Jobs don’t make you unfree. What makes you unfree is when instead of saying I want you to work for me so I am going to pay you enough that you’ll want to work for me, they say I’m going to take everything starve you into submission. A small group of owners took all the resources. They didn’t invent these resources. These resources were here before all of us. And this group of people, this tiny little privileged group of people are going to take all the resources and they are not going to share with anybody until the people who have nothing provide services for the people who already own everything. That’s why when you control resources, you don’t get just the resources; you get to control other people.
The obligation should go in the other direction. Instead of the poor being obliged to work for the rich, the rich should be obliged to work for the poor. The only thing you could possibly do to justify owning resources, to own more resources than other people do, to have more access to resources, to have more control over resources, to use and use up more resources than other people do, is to provide some sort of service for them.
That’s why we need to tax the owners of property. All property is made out of resources. Every single piece of property, even on the internet. You need a place to stand when you make the internet. You need energy to make that internet work. All property is made out of resources.
They’ll tell you they’ve paid for those resources. No, they paid the last guy who owned them. They didn’t pay all of us who don’t own any resources. If you want to take a part of the earth that was here before you, you’ve got to pay back, provide a service for those who own nothing. That’s why you have to pay a tax on resources and the distribution of the revenue from that tax has to be unconditional.
But they’ll say, that’s something for nothing. No, that’s exactly backwards. The system we have now is something for nothing, where people who own the Earth don’t pay anything to those of us who therefore must do without. That’s something for nothing.
We pretend we’re free because we have a choice of which one of these property owners we can work for. A choice of masters is not freedom. Freedom is independence. Freedom is the power to say no to anyone who would want to be your master. When you establish that, everybody gets some of the value of the resources of this earth, enough to live in dignity, enough to survive, enough that you don’t have to work unless somebody makes it worth your while. Oh, but they will say: All those lazy workers won’t work if you do that.
Notice how it’s always lazy workers and never cheap employers. No, that’s never said. So what we’re really doing when we say this, is we’re taking sides in a dispute. When somebody offers a job and somebody else doesn’t want it, that’s a dispute about wages and working conditions. Everyone has their price, right? So, if there’s a good price, people will take it: Good wages, good working conditions. Someone will take that job. But if we say whatever the wage is, if you don’t take that job you’re a lazy worker. Never a cheap employer. It’s like we’re looking at a dispute and pretending it’s not even a dispute. We’re pretending that only this side counts. We’re taking sides in a dispute, and we’re siding with the most privileged person. We’re morally judging the weakest, the least powerful person, the most vulnerable person, and leaving the privileged people beyond reproach, as if they’re not even a party to a dispute.
That’s the way the system works today.
And that’s based on a ridiculous assumption that the privileged people of the world, whether they’re in government or whether they’re private resource owners, they get to judge everybody else. They get to judge the weak and the vulnerable. They say: you deserve to live; you don’t. You go be homeless, you go eat out of dumpsters or do whatever else you have to do to keep yourself alive. That is the ridiculous assumption that there is anyone who doesn’t deserve the basic resources that they need to survive. And they decide who’s deserving on the self-serving assumption that privileged people have the right to judge whether unprivileged people deserve to survive. Those assumptions are self-serving to begin with. And look how self-servingly they use that power! In practice, the number one thing that we ask of the poor is, “if you’re truly needy, are you willing to work for the rich?”
Are you willing to work for people who own property? That’s what you’ve got to do to prove that you’re worthy. That’s so self-serving on the part of the privileged. And for almost all of us, it’s self-defeating, because most of us don’t have enough property to work for ourselves. The vast majority of us have to work for someone who owns enough property to hire us. By creating the situation where the more privileged to get to block the less privileged from the resources they need to survive, we’ve created a situation where just about everybody has to work either directly or indirectly for the wealthiest of us.
And that creates this terrible work incentive problem. When they talk about incentives, they only talk about the incentives for those lazy workers to work. What about the incentive for those cheap employers to pay good wages? That incentive problem doesn’t just affect the people at the low end. 41 years ago, real per capita income was half of what it is now. That means we could all be working half as much and consuming the same or we could be working the same and consuming twice as much as we did 41 years ago. But most people are working just as much as their parents were 41 years ago and consuming little if any more than their parents did 41 years ago. We’ve had all this economic growth all this automation in the past 41 years and the benefits have all gone to the top 1%. Basic Income is not just for those other people at the low end, it’s for everybody who has no other choice but to work for a living.
We have owed each other a Basic Income since we enclosed the common lands, since we abducted the slaves, since we killed the buffalo not because some long-dead person stole something from some other long-dead person but because they created a system that privileges some, impoverishes others, and corrupts us all. We all owe each other a Basic Income now. That’s why I’m marching today and thank you for joining me. –Karl Widerquist, the Bronx, New York, October 26, 2019, final edits St. Elizabeth’s, Napoleon Avenue, New Orleans, September 13, 2020
All the images and videos above are by Ching Juhl of Juhl Media.
Pierre Madden, transcribed this text, did some of the copyedting.
BIEN’s 2021 annual congress took place from the 18th to the 21st August 2021. The website for this online congress, containing the agenda, attendees, questions and answers, and much more, is still available: click here.
BIEN’s 2022 Congress will be held in Brisbane, Australia, from Monday 26th to Wednesday 28th September 2022. This will be a hybrid face to face and online event. Further details will appear here as soon as they are known.
A Basic Income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. Read more