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The Flawed Arguments That Claim Basic Income is Unethical

If you’ve been on social media sites and argued in support of Basic Income, you may well have found that nearly all of the most vehement opposition to Basic Income comes from people who are themselves relatively wealthy.

Now, it doesn’t usually take much reading between the lines to appreciate where their opposition to the idea most likely comes from.

They probably see themselves as taxpayers and as people who’ve worked hard to get where they are today. They may have a very nice house and a nice car and a decent amount of money in shares and in various savings accounts, but they believe they fully deserve their wealth. They earned it, they say.

And what these people are worried about is the prospect of paying more tax. They’re at the wealthier end of the income distribution spectrum and they fear that the Basic Income they’ll receive will be significantly less than the extra taxes they’ll be paying, if a Basic Income system is introduced.

And this is all perfectly understandable. Basic Income may be good for society as a whole, but if anyone feels their personal financial position might worsen if Basic Income is introduced, it’s no surprise that they might then harbour a certain amount of negativity towards the idea.

We’ll leave aside, for now, the fact that Basic Income does not intrinsically require that the rich will pay more in extra tax than they receive in Basic Income. How redistributive a Basic Income system is will depend on the level it is set at and the particular tax changes that are made in order to balance the books.

It is perfectly reasonable, however, to expect that Basic Income will involve some sort of increase in net tax contributions from the wealthiest sections of society. And, naturally, wealthy people are concerned about how much extra tax they’ll have to pay — although they may end up pleasantly surprised that only quite modest tax changes are likely to be required in most cases.

But what are the objections to Basic Income that these relatively wealthy people actually raise?

Hardly ever do any of them say, “Frankly, I’m wealthy and rather selfish and I don’t want to pay any more in tax just so that poor people can be assured of having enough to eat and some basic shelter. If other people insist that we should stop people starving or freezing to death in the streets, then they can damn well pay for it, because I certainly don’t want to.”

Such honesty is rare.

No, instead, they often try to make out that a Basic Income system is somehow unethical — immoral.

“It’s my money,” they say. “I earned every cent of it entirely through my own hard work and I should be able to spend it exactly as I please. The government shouldn’t be allowed to take my money from me and give it to someone else.”

They may even add that “taxation is theft.”

In reality, this supposedly ethical objection is usually just a cover story to allow them to justify being selfish, but let’s be generous and let’s take it at face value — and patiently point out why it doesn’t hold water as an argument.

The idea that wealthy people today became wealthy all by themselves, entirely by their own efforts, is patently absurd.

Consider, for example, someone who started a successful business and has become wealthy as a result.

They probably wouldn’t have gotten very far without the help of their employees.

They may not have got very far without supportive parents or other relatives.

They may not have got very far without the help of a state-provided, tax-funded education system.

And which businesses are not in some way reliant on the state-provided, tax-funded road network, that enables employees to get to work, customers to get to the stores and delivery drivers to deliver products ordered online?

This business owner may have themselves received welfare payments at some stage in their lives. And even if they haven’t, many of their customers probably have. So, to some degree, welfare payments are, in effect, helping to subsidise their business.

And what businesses don’t depend on our state-provided, tax-funded law and order system?

And what about our common heritage of scientific, technological and cultural advances? Without that common heritage, our wealthy business owner might be lucky not to be just barely scraping by in some mud hut somewhere, no matter how hard they worked.

So, no, wealthy people today did not become wealthy on their own. It was not entirely due to their own efforts — and only a very arrogant and delusional person would believe that it was.

Our modern, advanced societies are built upon the hard work of many, many people from previous generations — most of whom we will never be able to repay, other than by striving to build a better society for future generations to enjoy.

We’re lucky enough to have a rich heritage and many state-provided assets and services that we rely upon to make our modern lives possible. And some people — the wealthiest people — derive far greater benefits from that inheritance and those assets than others.

And it seems only reasonable to me that the people who benefit the most from those assets, should contribute more than others to help maintain those assets, to share the benefits of those assets, to help maintain the society that has enabled them to become wealthy and to assist those who have not been so fortunate as themselves.

Some people, of course, will continue to insist that it’s a fundamental point of principle that it is ethically wrong to tax the rich to help the poor.

And the first thing that crops up in my mind in response to such claims is: Really? By which I mean; Is that really a point of principle or is that just something it suits you to believe because you personally happen to be quite well off?

If you were poor, hungry and homeless, can you really claim, in all honesty, that you would be against the idea of the state using tax proceeds to help you have the essentials you need merely to survive?

Would you really turn down all offers of help from the state, on the basis that you are, as a matter of principle, against the state taxing the rich to help the poor?

Would you really be prepared to starve to death in the streets in order to stick to that ‘point of principle’?

I somehow don’t believe that.

And I don’t seriously think you do either.

Robert Jameson is the author of The Case for a Basic Income.