Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Basic income, human nature and freedom


I thought about this basic income idea - it sounds, as these things do, wonderfully Utopian:

A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.

And, for it to make any sort of sense, it has to be big enough for people not to have to work so as to live. According to some this is a good thing but I'm not so sure - it does rather depend on the nature of the choices made by individuals whose only options are low paid work at a level slightly above the basic income.

I recall a lecture on crime and social conditions during my masters degree study. The lecturer (I'm afraid I forget his name) began by asking us: "would you work 35 hours a week for £7?" That was - give or take a few pence - the difference then between what we might get on benefits and what we might earn in a low paid job. The response was mixed - some said 'yes' arguing that this might lead to opportunities for still more lucrative work while others said 'no' since there is no real prospect of advancement (and we could earn a little on the black).

The idea of basic income makes this even more stark. That £7 a week job is now gone since the basic income is far in excess of the previous level of benefits. And because that income is enough to live on (that's the whole point after all), the number of people who become drones - living off the efforts of others - increases and is not tolerated. It may seem cute to say this:

Jobs are scarce, so it's better for workers if some are subsidized not to seek them, leaving more opportunities for those who do want to work.

...but that little tic of common sense suggests that those idling their lives away on basic income will be resented by those working and paying for their idleness. And that more and more people would seek such a life - after all most people see their job as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. So if the reason for working - providing for self and family - is removed, these people will stop working. And will be resented by those who are working.

All this is wrapped up in the view that there are too many people - or rather, too many workers. And that this problem will increase as technology finds more ways to do things without people that now require people to do them. Hence we need to either find things for the surplus to do ("the government must create jobs") or else we pay them to sit around doing nothing.

In the end, if we pay people to do nothing (in the mistaken belief that there's nothing productive for them to do) what we'll end up with is the corvée. The workers (assuming there's a sufficiency of them) will expect those idling around on a basic income to do something. And government will find that something. The drones stop being an escape valve for supposed excess labour and become a slave resource for the wealthy governors.

Welcome to the new slave state, the 21st century oikos society!

So a glimpse at the possible future. In his monumental “History of Government”, Finer used the Greek word oikos to describe ancient world governments. Oikos means “the household” which for the Greeks meant family under a male head including slaves and other dependents. We are headed back towards such a polity – where we are free in our daily actions within the constraints placed on that freedom by the government and its advisors. And the product of our labour belongs not to us but to the group and to the state – not through confiscation but through a combination of taxation and benefit dependency. It may even be the case that those out of work will be directed toward “socially useful” labour – a precursor of which we see in Labour’s “Future Jobs Fund”. Future jobs are not wealth creating but have a social purpose paid for either through taxation or (less likely) through philanthropy.
It may be "efficient" but it won't be free.

I prefer free.


Anonymous said...

For a libertarian perspective on basic income, see

Sort makes sence when you imagine what basic income replaces.

Anonymous said...

You've misunderstood BCI.

You keep the income no matter how much you earn. In your example the person not working gets BCI, the person working gets 35h of work + BCI.

It therefore makes low paid work worthwhile and solves one of the problems of the current system: every single minute of work pays.