Photo by Tico Bassie / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A Fundamentally American Idea

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.
The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.
~ Martin Luther King Jr.

A basic income is an interesting proposition. It is also a fundamentally American idea.

In the form of a citizen’s dividend, it goes back to Thomas Paine through his recognition of the significance of the loss of the Commons to the average person. The founders understood the value of land and having (equal) access to it, and they realized it was upon land that economies and lives were built. The early government lacked an income tax for the reason the federal government was able to gain so much money from the sale and taxation of land. Paine’s insight was that financial gain from public resources, especially when given away and privatized, should be shared to some minimal degree with the citizens that the government constitutionally represents.

Later American thinkers such as the 19th century Henry George had related ideas. Like Paine, he supported free markets and the private use of land. Also, like Paine, he saw land taxes as a way of dealing with the social problems related to the loss of access to land and its value.

All wealth originates from land. The reason for this is because everything procured and made comes from natural resources, including human lives and communities (a close, entangled relationship existing between natural capital, economic capital, and social capital). All natural resources were public before they were private. All private gains made from natural resources is at least in part wealth removed not just from the public domain but also from future generations. This a touchy issue for Americans, as our country was founded on the notion of consent of the governed, which was understood by the founders to mean that one generation of citizens shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions for and force costs upon future generations of citizens. It’s the worst form of externalization, for those future generations don’t necessarily even get any of the benefits for what they end up paying.

Everything procured and made comes from natural resources, including human lives and communities.

Americans, in particular, have ignored these realities. We could do so, for in the early centuries of our country, Americans could fool themselves into thinking that land and natural resources were practically infinite. The government’s giving away of the Commons for free or below-market value seemed like a necessary incentive for growth, not a theft from the public good. In recent generations, this privatization of gains and externalization or rather socialization of costs has become more difficult to ignore.

The implementation of a basic income is a way of evening out a playing field that has, through past political policies (along with plutocratic maneuverings), been intentionally or unintentionally made uneven. A basic income doesn’t eliminate the faux meritocracy and rigid socioeconomic hierarchy, but it does lessen the sting of the harshest consequences. The challenge posed becomes an ever more present problem as increases are seen with the mechanization of jobs and the related rates of unemployment and underemployment.

Average wages have been stagnating. Median wages have been decreasing. Buying power for basic goods has taken a hit. Economic mobility has fallen. The middle class is shrinking. Economic inequality is growing… and on and on. An entire permanent underclass is forming in this new economy.

One solution made popular came from the Progressive Era. Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed everyone had the right to work, with government as the employer of last resort. This was understandable during a time of growing industrialization. It makes less sense under present conditions. Neither the job market nor welfare is keeping up with the economic problems facing so many Americans. If real work isn’t available, creating pointless busy work doesn’t seem all that productive or inspiring of a solution, not to argue that public service can’t be a worthy form of work.

The point is: What end is work supposed to serve, if and when it no longer serves a market purpose? Real work or not, the government as an employer of last resort could end up being more expensive than present welfare and almost certainly would be more expensive than a basic income. How much would we be willing to pay for employment for its own sake?

This line of thought could explain why a basic income has gained support from across the political spectrum. Even many libertarians are getting on board, as they see it as an attractive and viable alternative to a growing welfare state and the bureaucracy that goes along with it. Also, many people in general see as a failure such things as the call for raising the minimum wage, either a failure on practical grounds or a failure of imagination. A minimum wage just shifts the costs around. It doesn’t alter the fundamental conditions and solve the fundamental problem.

Sometimes shifting costs around is a necessary evil, as someone has to pay the costs (both financial and social), and at least the minimum wage is an acknowledgement of the problem itself. But maybe we should look to the systemic causes that go beyond any particular segment of the economy, even if one thinks raising the minimum wage is a partial or temporary solution. Basic income can exist with or without a minimum wage, for if the basic income is high enough a minimum wage simply becomes irrelevant and so would become useless as a political football.

Basic income pushes the debate back to first principles and questions upon what basis should our economy be built.

A basic income obviously goes much further than present mainstream solutions. It turns a probing eye toward how public resources get allocated in the first place. It pushes the debate back to first principles and it questions upon what basis should our economy be built (not just the basis of politics and markets, but also that of the social values and moral vision). Also, it puts public costs and benefits squarely in the realm of public decisions to be made, not shifting the responsibility to the private sphere. A basic income could be designed in many ways, but it doesn’t even require an increase of taxes or any other form of altering the cost equation in the private sphere. It could be fully financed either through a redirecting of present welfare funds or through ensuring that the economic value of natural resources is used toward this public good (or a combination of the two). I’m sure that diverse other funding possibilities are available as well.

As many realize, our present economic situation isn’t stable or necessarily even sustainable. We too often forget that this arrangement of capitalist employment is only a few centuries old, feudalism having had just come to an end as the US was being founded (and slavery extending feudal-like conditions well into the capitalist era). Traditional forms of economics existed for millennia prior to modern economics. Even within recent centuries, capitalism has changed drastically. Further changes are inevitable. We will have to deal with this, one way or another. The loss of jobs through better technology and more efficient markets could be seen as a sad fate, but it could also be seen as an opportunity to build a new kind of society.

Anyway, there is never a lack of work that could be done. Most of the work people already do is unofficial and unpaid, from raising children to community-building, from church activities to volunteerism, along with endless other wanted and unwanted activities that whittle away one’s time. Having more freedom and leisure could mean more time spent with family, community, and church; more time growing fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking healthy meals; more time building social capital, participating in democracy, and implementing social innovations; even more time to seek education and training to find better and more satisfying employment.

Basic income is an issue of what kind of society we want to live in, not just for some of us but for all of us.

The problem for Americans has never been laziness. If anything, we’ve been obsessed with work to an unhealthy degree. America is the land of the Protestant work ethic. The question is how do we turn this drive to work toward ends that are economically sustainable, socially beneficial, personally satisfying, and politically liberating. How do we increase opportunities and access for people to have better lives, for themselves, their families, and their communities? Even during this time of increasing un-/underemployment and economic inequality, the economy is growing. The problem is obviously not a lack of resources and productivity. Rather, it is an issue of what kind of society we want to live in, not just for some of us but for all of us.

Don’t forget the alternative. We could always choose to live in a society with a mass population of a permanent underclass. Instead of something like a basic income, we could have increasing rates of poverty, welfare, ghettoization, crime, gangs, black markets, and imprisonment. That is the choice we are making at present by default. There is no indication that these problems are going to inevitably lessen through natural forces, market mechanisms, or somehow otherwise solve themselves.

Whether or not we do so consciously and intentionally, we are always making choices. Changing conditions means both new problems and new opportunities, and hence new potential choices.

(Originally posted at Marmalade blog.)

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” — Thomas Paine