The Ethics of Universal Basic Income
Not your usual kind of problems that UBI can address
By MARTIN REZNY
Finally, some constructive criticisms of universal basic income from someone who isn’t already determined to hate it. I could try to counter the objections directly, but Simon Sarris is essentially correct — UBI has to be hope-based to some extent, rather than fear-based like more discriminative and punitive systems; any system can be gamed (which however doesn’t make any system inherently better or worse); there will be many people who will choose to produce nothing of value to other people; and finally, contingencies need to be put in place and alternatives should exist.
To me, this just sounds like “let’s not do this stupidly”. Fair enough, and we’ll see how specific UBI experiments end up, I guess. I wouldn’t worry about global fragility too much, since only a few smaller countries are likely to adopt UBI first, with the others following later only if/when the kinks get worked out, and likely never all of the countries, or regions within countries. What I’d like to look at instead are the qualitative reasons why something like UBI should be adopted and our current model abandoned.
It may sound like a theoretical, abstract, impractical thing to discuss, but that’s the beginning of the problem — economists keep underestimating the fact that the success or failure of economic or political systems in large part depend on the quality of the states of minds of the citizens. Economies don’t work essentially the same when they have the same financial or legal system, but the people believe different things and see things differently.
Just take the example of the role that press plays in keeping politicians accountable. That function hasn’t changed recently, but what has changed is the citizens’ acceptance of politicians blatantly lying and cheating and breaking laws. All of a sudden, reporting on this doesn’t matter, the same system has no effect. Assuming it suddenly started being important in the minds of the people again, the system would again begin to function. Whether or not people want to do what kind of work is even more like this.
The Crime of Not Wanting to Work
Look, I understand where all the hate toward people who’d rather not work comes from. The further back you go into the past, the more deadly it was to the society when individuals wouldn’t do work, when they’d eat more than their share. UBI is not something that can be implemented when actual work is massively needed, UBI is a response to work massively not being needed. Initially, agriculture alone required about 50% of the population, but even without computers, that number dropped to about 1% in developed modern countries. Manufacturing is already overstaying.
The ethical question that UBI is addressing is when you don’t need everyone to do anything essential for human survival or even tangibly productive, what’s the justification for demanding everyone to work, or else they will be left to die, or at least be shamed by having to subsist on meager money-substitutes? Most work done today is, as David Graeber puts it, bullshit work. At best pointless busywork, at worst aiding the wealthiest in further wealth extraction, scamming the suckers and/or killing the planet.
Why would anyone want this kind of work, under other conditions than essentially a death threat or being a bit of an idiot? In many cases, it’s actively immoral to do work available today on the job market anywhere. And yet, capitalism where everyone must work rewards these bad choices, bad for the individuals and the society. These days, people not working increasingly means people not doing harm. I’d rather have more people smoking weed playing games rather than cutting down rain forests.
I know I shouldn’t measure others by me and what I would have done, but there are cases when it does highlight how bad things are now. I’m a university-educated, artistically talented, and relatively good-looking perfectionist who enjoys hard work, and the number of needed, constructive, ethical jobs that I can do in my country for money is about one, which I’m doing right now. Under no circumstance do I want to do nothing or harm, but doing paid work would almost always mean just that.
True Cultural Antifragility
Sure, you don’t want centralized farming or manufacturing, but that’s a matter of who owns the means of production, which can be purchased from UBI by anyone. Near-fully automated means, let’s not forget that. People living only on stamps cannot purchase a 3D printer or build a hydroponics farm, but people on UBI can. Future isn’t about people knowing how to grow their food and make things, it’s about who owns and controls the autonomous systems that grow the food and make things.
If anything, UBI should significantly increase the pooled resources of any local community, allowing it to produce things locally if need be. Other forms of government support give decisive power to the government, just like relying on jobs gives decisive power to the corporations. The main overlooked problem with the modern economic systems is how they’re atomizing people or nuclear families, making people envy each other and compete rather than cooperate. UBI should by all means be the opposite.
While some suckers can always be cheated out of their income and while some individuals will have higher survival costs, UBI should give everyone in their social circle the unconditional economic power to help them out. I do agree that landlords are always a problem, but strengthening communities financially should make it completely doable to deal with housing communally through cooperatives, or any form of housing regulation, like setting rent ceilings in any given municipality. The important qualitative change brought by UBI should be the shift toward communal cooperation.
Under the conditional forms of welfare, entire poor communities can get effectively dispossessed and segregated, while simultaneously fueling the resentment of those who work (shitty jobs most likely), but get no welfare. Believe me, I’ve got front row seat to that one — my sister and aunt work at the unemployment bureau, in a poor region with probably the highest Roma population in the country. The best thing the working poor in the area have to say about them is that at least they’re not Muslim terrorists.
When The Traumatized Workforce Strikes Back
But all that are just technicalities. The core insanity of the current economic model is that modern dehumanized labor, whether as a manufacturing machine or a paper pushing machine, is essentially a form of psychological (and in many cases physical) torture. Unlike the ancient times, we can now work longer hours (even when the sun doesn’t shine), be monitored every second of every day, and are often deprived of any sense of true community at work, meaningful work, or personal value.
One can see something like toiling in the field as worse than modern jobs, and nowadays it mostly is the worst, but historically, you would at least mostly toil in the field with your family to feed your family. In that scenario, your work supremely matters. Making a machine to do the toiling and freeing the man from it is of course the better solution here, but only as long as you don’t treat the man as a machine also. Why is anyone still surprised that people don’t want to work like this? Why should they?
When you subject the majority of people to prolonged dehumanizing work for insufficient pay under insulting and health-wrecking conditions, how can you be surprised that they’re uninformed, hateful, fearful, and envious? When would they be able to get properly informed? Why shouldn’t they hate people who escaped the torture? Why shouldn’t they fear for their future? Why shouldn’t they envy each other’s stuff? This is a perfect way how to make any system fail and eradicate all benevolence.
UBI’s main value is in how it should change the nature of work, for those who want to do the minor amount of work that is truly needed, and the extent to which various kinds of work will get done. Assuming people are not mostly evil by nature, destructive jobs will become less attractive without the threat of poverty. Assuming people aren’t complete idiots, working conditions will dramatically improve to attract people who have the option to not work at all. The working people will no longer have good reasons to envy the income of the jobless. I work in HR in IT and I can already see this happen in a field where workers have negotiation power.
Putting the World in Idle Hands
What’s up with the fear of people deciding to not work, anyway? On one hand, as a popular English saying goes, “idle hands are the devil’s playthings”, but I myself prefer a popular Czech saying which goes “he who’s playing is doing no mischief”. People playing games or otherwise following their fancy are not causing wars, exploiting other ethnic groups or classes of people, damaging ecosystems, or doing other productive and effective acts of destruction or corruption. If yes, then less than workers.
People who have their basic needs met who are not harassed and have time to learn about things should by all accounts be more active and informed and less scared and hateful citizens. Sure, boredom will be the new big thing, but one obvious solution to it is to do work that would be chosen by any given person. It has to mean much greater production in all creative fields like art or science, more NGOs and community initiatives, and better ability to care for one’s own family properly in more than just financial sense. How can’t it have healthy and constructive cultural effects?
In one fell swoop, you will at the very least eradicate existential anxiety, homelessness, and overworking of a substantial segment of the population. No system will ever bring about a perfect world, but I can’t help but think that a world filled with healthier and less oppressed people with stronger families and communities will function better under any systemic conditions. It may be a hope-based sentiment, but who are the better stewards of the Earth? Pissed off workaholics, or unabused healthy people?
This doesn’t mean that work never has any value, and there will always be driven people who will want to do better for themselves through hard work, but unless people have a real choice to not work, the free market isn’t truly deciding what work actually needs doing. A work that destroys isn’t valuable and shouldn’t be valued, and it sure as hell doesn’t ennoble man. In a UBI-like economy, you’ll have to persuade people to work, show them that it makes sense doing. What a radical concept, I know. This is the key gain that mandatory work-based economic systems can never bring.
In any case, the true lasting effect of a UBI-like economy isn’t how the people now used to work will fare under it, but what kind of generation of people will grow up under it. No test performed right now can determine that. Testing whether people want to work now is not comparable to an economy with entirely qualitatively different job opportunities, anyway. If the postmaterial economies of developed EU countries are any indication, it should be a highly educated generation of activists that want to help things.
Among the people of my generation that I know, the ideological divide is between the educated people with good jobs and the manual workers with shit jobs. Guess which group is more tolerant and hope-driven and which is more hateful and fear-driven, which would do more good works without having to work for money and which would do nothing productive without having to work for money (because they feel like they’ve already done more than enough and are spiteful about it, justifiably). The Universal Basic Income (not done stupidly) is the only system I know that can fix that.
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