Note: If you are not familiar with the idea of a guaranteed basic income and how popular the idea is becoming please check out the website basicincome.org for an introduction.
Universal basic income is a great idea — with one caveat.
Ok, maybe two caveats, but my first concern seems to be pretty widely understood and is already covered by the use of the term “universal.” This “lesser” concern is that the benefits never be means-tested. Everyone, rich or poor, must be eligible for the benefit.
It seems almost intuitive that this is not how the benefits should be distributed, after all why give the wealthy more money? This sentiment was echoed recently on the campaign trail by Hillary Clinton who, in response to rival Bernie Sander’s proposal of free college for everyone said, “I don’t want to pay for Donald Trump’s children to go to college.” This seems reasonable but it is dead, dead wrong. Here’s why.
The proposal of a basic income is becoming more and more popular because of the growing understanding that large swaths of the labor force are in danger of being mowed-down by automation. If eligibility for a basic income distribution is means-tested then displaced individuals will have to be reduced to some level of need before qualifying. Allowing nearly 50% of the population to be reduced to penury is absurd social policy and even worse economic practice. It also furthers the stigmatization of recipients and feelings of resentment among those who feel put-upon to support the “moochers”.
In the ongoing debate over which new social policies we should adopt to cope with emerging realities and how these policies should be structured we can surely agree not to make this mistake.
My “greater” caveat is even more crucial and much less commonly understood. It is the importance of understanding that the universal basic income must be a system of distribution and not a system of redistribution. The devil is in this detail and what a devil it is. This involves how we pay for all this.
There are already many proposals for how we should finance a basic income pay-out. Proponents of the various schemes each think their approach marginally more clever than the others, but most all suffer the same fatal flaw.
An excise tax on goods produced by automation, a tax on property (or capital) itself, or a tax specifically on the machines which replace human workers, all seem like good ideas.
I guess these approaches would work, but look carefully at what they do to society. Redistribution, by definition, broaches the subject of ownership. Under redistribution we allow the owners of capital to control everything then we “shake them down” after the fact to get our pittance.
Do we really want to formally institutionalize a society in which a small handful of obscenely wealthy individuals control all the means of production, while the rest of us hope to scrape by like dogs on the crumbs which fall from these masters’ tables? This perpetuates a system of class struggles.
A recent Oxfam International report states that right now 62 people — yes, just 62 people — own more wealth than the bottom 50% of all humanity combined. (Link to report here). What will happen when half the population is reduced to dependency on these elite owners and the ranks of the dispossessed continue to swell exponentially? Imagine the imbalance of political power; the destruction of functioning democracy. This future isn’t pretty. But, fortunately, we can do better.
Doing better involves striking at the root of the problem — ownership. The question becomes, “Who owns the robots?” or more precisely, “Who owns the means of production?” Yes, this vulgar old question rears its ugly head. And we can no longer avoid facing it directly.
Fortunately, we the people, have an indisputable moral, ethical, and even legal claim to said means. But this is a subject for a future post. All I hope to accomplish here is to get you to think about this question of redistribution versus distribution; this question of ownership, and ultimately, this question of democratic control.
If we do it correctly, a universal basic income is an intelligent solution to the problems facing post-capitalist society. If we get it wrong, it may take the struggle of many generations to extricate ourselves from our error.