Imagine if everybody received a regular “paycheck” just for being alive, a paycheck sufficient to support basic human needs, with no means-test nor any rules on how it could be used. The idea is known as Guaranteed Minimum Income, or Basic Income, or various other names. I first wrote about it in this article: Why the U.S. should implement basic income. That was in October of 2009. Since then, the need for basic income has only grown, and it will only continue to grow as time goes on. Consider the following ten reasons why Guaranteed Minimum Income is necessary.
The Economy Needs Basic IncomeWe inhabit a highly industrial society and industry depends on demand. It is necessary for industrial societies to stir up artificial demand to spur production on, and it only becomes more necessary as time goes on. There is a kind of prisoner’s dilemma when it comes to business: any particular business benefits by automating its workforce and reducing salaries, but if every business does this, then who will buy products? Technology is advancing in sophistication. You know IBM’s “Watson” robot, who just beat the world champions at Jeopardy? Within a decade or less, Watson’s going to be hitting the workforce. No job is safe from automation, nor should it be: it is below humans to do work a robot can do, and there is very little work that a robot cannot, in principle, do. So as time goes on, there is going to be less and less need for human labor. How, then, can the economy continue? Who will businesses sell things to, if nobody has a job? They will sell things to recipients of Guaranteed Minimum Income.
Crime Prevention Needs Basic IncomeExpanding on the above, what happens when peoples’ jobs are automated in a world where money is life? Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat, otherwise we get along. If every citizen were given an automatic stipend sufficient to support a modest life, thefts would plummet. You might complain about taxes or wealth redistribution, but mark my words, you are already taxed and your wealth is already redistributed: every time you shop, you pay a markup to offset theft, a highly inefficient and twisted dark-world version of basic income which rewards the unscrupulous.
Government Stability Needs Guaranteed Minimum IncomeWant to see the natural fate of a government whose people cannot get enough money for a modest life? Look to North Africa. I bet Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Moammar Gadhafi are starting to wish they’d thrown their people a bone when they had the chance. Once the protesters hit the streets, it’s too late (and frankly, to any leader who would only give their people a basic income to save their own hides, and not because they care about the peoples’ well-being, good riddance!)
Human Decency Needs Guaranteed Minimum IncomeWhat does the worker do when he feels he’s been told to do something unethical? He sucks it up and follows orders. He does not have much choice, knowing his boss can casually fling him to destitution. Guaranteed Minimum Income provides a safety net so that people can make the right choice instead of the financially forced choice. The current financial situation actively penalizes those who stand up for what’s right. That needs fixed. It needs Basic Income.
Innovation Needs Basic IncomeConventional laboratories and research provide incremental progress, but they suffer diminishing returns. Bound by the need to put food on the table, would-be innovators are forced to take the cautious road. Real innovation needs thinking outside the box, and it is inherently risky and dangerous. Basic Income is needed so that people can pursue their ideas without the horrible prospect of losing the game of capitalism. Sure, most ideas will lead nowhere, but the occasional idea will revolutionize everything. In our society, when an idea leads nowhere, it’s a financial disaster. As teachers are being laid off, universities are hiring fewer professors, and automated education looms troublingly on the far horizon, there are fewer and fewer fallback positions for the failed innovator, and without a guaranteed stipend, doing anything new or risky will become increasingly suicidal. We need to avoid that, and provide a fertile environment for innovation, by guaranteeing everybody we won’t let them go hungry if their idea doesn’t pan out.
Means-Testing Disincentivizes WorkExisting welfare is based on means-testing, and is a brutal disincentive for work. On one extreme, the government cuts you a very modest check, and on the other extreme, an employer cuts you a not-so-modest one, but the road between these extremes is littered with roadblocks and potholes. If you get a very basic job with low pay, that’s not worth giving up your welfare for! And the natural course of capitalism is for those crummy jobs to proliferate while higher-paying jobs get cut. In short: if a man wants more money, let him work for it, and let him have it in addition to the basic income he already had.
Welfare is InefficientOften if not always, it costs more to enforce means-testing and draconian rules telling welfare recipients how to spend their money, than it would cost to just give it to them no-questions-asked. I’ve heard horror stories where people go to court because they bought some trifling cheap luxury object that was deemed outside the rules. Judges and jurists deliberate, costing a huge amount of labor and effort, all over some trivial offending charge. Again, qualifying for a government handout often involves so much paperwork and interviewing. Social workers proliferate. It would be more efficient to just flat-out give the basic income to everyone, whether they be truly disabled or whether they be a billionaire. Yes, that’s right, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet need their guaranteed minimum income as much as anyone else, and part of that is because otherwise…
Welfare Offends Human DignityIn addition to the inefficiency and the work disincentivization, means-based welfare creates an implicit caste system. It is human nature that if something distinguishes the have-nots from the haves, it will become stigmatized. If everyone on welfare were required to wear an identifying badge, it would become a scarlet letter, no matter how noble the original intentions of the law. Whether we mean to or not, distinguishing the poor and giving them special treatment brands them and causes them to be outcast. If a man gets his government check and his friends don’t, how can he sleep at night? “Poor” will become a part of his identity. He’ll have no self-esteem, no self respect, and a vicious cycle will develop, preventing him from bettering himself. Screw that! Give everybody their basic income equally.
We Need Our Money To Reflect Human GenerosityThe whole point of money is to relieve us from having to manually keep track of who we should do things for. If your neighbor comes and asks to borrow something, of course you’ll let him, but suppose he shows up every day, always asking to borrow the same thing, and of course never giving you anything in return. Eventually, your patience would wear thin. But maybe that neighbor actually provides a lot of value to the world, say, by calibrating machinery in a warehouse. You wouldn’t know that, not being the warehouse owner, but if your neighbor has money to show for it, then presto, we have a way of conveying favors-earned. Your neighbor can give you a little money for your stuff, or better yet, go to the store himself! But the point of all this is, money or not, warehouse or not, you wouldn’t deny him the occasional request, as long as he isn’t abusing it. You’re a naturally generous person. But money doesn’t reflect that. We need money to reflect the basic generosity of neighbors, the fact that you wouldn’t let a man starve in front of you if you had any way to help it. We need a regular, guaranteed basic income.
We Need Our Money to Reflect the True Source of All WealthAll wealth ultimately traces its source to something no man can own, whether it be God or whether it be the thermal energy of the sun. The truly strict objectivist would pay his fair share of the Sun Fee, an expense so prohibitive that to pay it would require so much labor and energy that it would leave the Earth a cold, lifeless rock. (Can a helpless young child be expected to financially re-compensate his parents for their time, effort, and love?) Yes, all life on earth exists because of a basic income of sunlight, without which no feat of willpower or pulling-up-of-bootstraps would save us for long. A man might own the earthly means of production but he does not own the elements! To have all the wealth and deny a fellow man his basic income is to abuse the elemental generosity of the universe.
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