Why the unconditional basic income is a liberal vision
Our concept of work is hopelessly outdated, capitalism is in crisis, and democracy in danger. The reason: working and making a living still are inseparably connected. An unconditional basic income could redefine the concept of work, help us get rid off jealousy, existential angst and lobbying, and lay the foundation for modern liberalism. Nevertheless, it is still ridiculed as an unaffordable utopia supported only by hopeless idealists. Why is that?
Almost every Sunday I get a message from online fashion store asos, by mail or push message: It is time to spend some money! Today you are singing the Sunday Blues, tomorrow will be Monday, followed by five long days until the next weekend. Reward yourself! Treat yourself to something good, you deserve it. After all, you work hard, pay taxes, pay your bills and care for your loved ones.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with spending money on beautiful things. But sadly, I have come to the conclusion that our whole society follows this principle. We work primarily to survive and consume. Isn’t that perverse? Shouldn’t we also produce something meaningful with our work? Shouldn’t we use our time on this planet more deliberately?
We should produce, not compensume
Many people do not work, they simply perform a job. They have learned to ignore their need for self-realization, to abandon their self-determination, to switch off their brains and to act like a robot. But in the long run it is a gambling to perform a job only to survive, to save money for tomorrow or to compensume, i.e., to compensate the consequences of an unloved work by consuming excessively in leisure time. At the end of our lives or in a midlife crisis, we look back and realize that we fell for an illusion — because the great future we had always dreamed of never came to life. The plan to work today to live tomorrow has not worked out. We look back in regret: time cannot be taken back, and all the money hasn’t transformed into happiness. The idea of a “work-life balance“ is absurd: Work is a part of life. So why should we outweigh it against “life“ or leisure time? Good work is fun because it has a deeper meaning — even if it sometimes makes you feel uncomfortable.
We should all realize that we need to create our own work, like Catharina Bruns has written in her workisnotajob manifesto. But how does that work? What is our work? Loads of smart self-help books try to answer this question, but many of them are hands down useless. To find our work, we need to question ourselves and try out new things. We need to ask ourselves what we can share with the world instead of asking why life gives us so little. We need to produce our own stuff rather than just consume, and we need to develop solutions by ourselves rather than just buying them. Only if we put something personal in our work we create permanent sense for us and benefits for society.
Work and making a living should not be synonyms
The chances of finding such work have never been as good for individuals as they are today. Many people already do a work they love every single day. At the same time many employees complain about evil bosses, annoying colleagues, terrible customers, long working hours, meaningless tasks, stress and heavy workload. Many have mentally resigned, burned out or gotten sick. And then there are those well-known escape fantasies that rarely work out in reality: Not everyone should plunk down everything at age forty to open up a surf school or produce vegan jewelry. Apart from the fact that no job in the world is always fun: Why do so few people change something about their situation — whether in their existing job or a new one?
In many cases the answer is existential angst, whether it is justified or not. Many people could make a living even if they made less money for some time. In return they might gain valuable experience, create something truly great and even make more money in the long run. Yet many feel that they cannot change their professional situation: How would this look on their CV? The fear gets real when we have to provide for our partners, children or parents. This fear keeps us from regularly scrutinizing ourselves and drawing conclusions where necessary.
And this is precisely the problem of our concept of work: We have to work to meet our basic needs. Work and making a living coincide. “We want to provide work for as many people as possible“ is a statement politicians from all parties have made for decades. But is it really desirable to create jobs for as many people as possible, without considering the quality of work? Is there no alternative to the principle of full employment?
Capitalism is facing a reputational crisis
The Western world generates considerable wealth. Germany, for example, is doing better than ever, at least at first sight. We are regarded as Europe’s engine of growth, almost all people have got a job and we practice the questionable religion of “Schwarze Null“ (balanced budget), at the expense of other European states. Almost no one has to starve, almost everyone has a roof over his head. But what about (perceived) distributive justice?
Given the poor distribution of our prosperity capitalism is facing a reputational crisis that could jeopardize our democratic system in the long term: Many people feel left behind, and justifiably so. The aims of their social envy are refugees, immigrants, minorities, “gender lunatics“ or “left-wing do-gooders.“ They fall for populists who promise radical solutions for the “man in the street“ and do not take democratic principles all too seriously. Through AfD and Pegida, antidemocratic ideology is creeping into our political debate. Why is the political center just watching helplessly instead of presenting a solution? And what about a modern form of liberalism which could save capitalism and democracy throughout the twenty-first century?
State distribution policy is inefficient and ineffective
In the past, the state has proven to be an inefficient and ineffective regulator of markets. The chaos consisting of state transfers, tax laws and incentives, which has been built up over the past decades, is inefficient because it involves considerable bureaucracy. And it is ineffective and driven by lobby interests.
How else could you explain state interventions such as the subvention for electric cars or the bail-out of HRE? What do we make of arbitrary measures such as a minimum wage? Who really benefits from Hartz IV? Why is valuable work such as bringing up children or elderly care paid so badly, if at all? After all, this work is the glue that holds together our society.
Almost all political reforms in recent years are limited to cosmetic fixes to an ailing system, while also taking their toll on our freedom. Unemployment is too high? If we cut social assistance, even the lazy people will return to work! State pensions are not secure anymore? Make people work up to the age of 70 and build up their own, private retirement funds!
Existential angst is a competitive distortion we need to fix
To sum up: If we use our personals strengths in accordance with our interests, we will lead a better life and multiply overall economic welfare. But we can only experiment if we no longer need to fear the loss of our existence. Existential angst (be it justified or not) distorts labor prices downward and therefore nourishes social unrest. And in the status quo, the state is not able to fix this competitive distortion — neither in terms of efficiency nor in terms of effectivity.
Why don’t we liberate labor markets from the competitive distortion of existential angst? Why don’t we free ourselves from the jungle of government interventions and instead introduce a basic income of e.g. 1,000 euros per month, which is unconditionally paid to every adult German citizen to meet his most basic needs (food, shelter, and basic social security)? By the way, children and young people would be given a reduced rate. I am surprised that social democratic and liberal parties do not even consider proposing a basic income. In fact, I do know why. For at this point in the discussion, there are some usual objections, although they can be refuted easily:
- Who would keep on working if he or she got paid money by the state on a monthly basis? May I ask another question: Who wouldn’t? People need a task, and most employees would keep on working even if they won the lottery. Almost nobody would be satisfied with a basic coverage that is just backing survival. On the contrary, I maintain that the competition would even increase in labor markets — which means that creative, valuable work would become even more important.
- But who would do the dirty work then? This question reflects a strange conception of humankind. Are you really trying to say that we need to enslave poor people to carry away our rubbish? The wages for jobs “no-one“ wants to do would be renegotiated. After all, who wants to do without clean streets? „Dirty work“ would be performed by robots, which in fact is a good thing. Today, we shy away from this vision because we desperately need to keep as many jobs as possible. Digitization would proceed even faster if we no longer needed to preserve jobs a machine could perform more efficiently. This would make space for more human work, which takes courage, creativity and social skills.
- Isn’t ‘Hartz IV‘ already a basic income? No. First, I doubt that Hartz IV really covers all basic needs, especially since additional transfers such as child allowance or housing benefits come on top. Second, Hartz IV is not granted unconditionally, being subject to means testing and other requirements. In fact, that was the idea behind this reform: We have to force people back to work.
- But who will pay for that? This question usually comes when all other objections have already been refuted. I am convinced that an idea that is politically desirable can also be financed. There are loads of possible financing models for an unconditional basic income, and they are subject to discussions by economists.
The unconditional basic income represents the vision of a liberal world
The vision of an unconditional basic income is also the vision of a liberal world where individual freedom is the most important common value — which is not contrary to the concept of solidarity as we know it. It is the vision of a world where we trust anyone to make his or her individual contribution to society, thus to generate a total of more wealth. It is the vision of a world where work is not a job but a task, a world of social peace and fairer income distribution where in which we have no fear of technological progress. And it is the world that acknowledges that constraints kill creativity, whereas freedom enables creativity.
Fortunately, a lot of clever people are already fighting tirelessly to make this idea come to life, even if many people want to shelve it leading up to the failed Swiss referendum in June: In Berlin, early successes are already made by the initiative “Mein Grundeinkommen“ (“My basic income“), led by Michael Bohmeyer, who uses crowdfunding to raffle 1,000 euros of monthly basic income for one year at irregular intervals. Daniel Haeni and Philip Kovce, the initiators of the Swiss initiative for a basic income, reflect the current discussion in their book “Voting for Freedom: The 2016 Swiss Referendum on Basic Income: A Milestone in the Advancement of Democracy“. Even Goetz Werner, the founder of dm, strongly supports the model.
The time for an unconditional basic income has come. Visit Mein Grundeinkommen to learn more about it. And by the way, I welcome any discussion on this exciting topic.