An important aspect of a Basic Income Guarantee, whether implemented in isolation or alongside a Job Guarantee, is the freedom it would give all people to make ethical life choices if they were so inclined. In the absence of an unconditional basic income, anyone who lacks independent means is essentially compelled to seek employment on terms set by employers. Private-sector employers, in turn, cannot be concerned with ethics or morality to the extent that this compromises profit. To indulge in ethical behavior not dictated by law or profit considerations would only see the enterprise lose out to others willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead of the competition. The provision of an unconditional basic income to all would free people to take employment only when, in their view, it served a socially beneficial purpose. This alteration in relative bargaining power could then be expected to encourage more ethical behavior by employers to the extent that workers were attracted to more fulfilling and socially beneficial roles, even when at lower pay than the alternatives.
The compulsion to seek wage or salary employment is a double compulsion for many people. Not only must they be willing to take a job in order to survive, but their choice of job is often extremely limited. Somebody opposed to the fast food industry might have little option but to work in it. A person concerned about the environment might have to work for a big polluter or risk being cut off from benefit payments. A sales person might be required to sell products of dubious value. A pacifist might find that a job in a munitions factory is the only opportunity in the area. A left-wing economist might find neo-liberal roles at the Treasury or Central Bank the only options. (!)
The conditions of the job also have social consequences. Parents may spend more time away from their partners and children on weekends than they would prefer because of little choice over working hours or schedules (referred to euphemistically as “labor market flexibility”). Issues of housing affordability often make it necessary for people – especially parents of young families – to live far from work, requiring a long commute.
With an unconditional basic income, people could reject jobs that were part of socially harmful activities in favor of working for enterprises – small or large – doing something they believed in. In doing so, they would at the same time be freeing employers to make more socially beneficial choices over what to produce and how to produce it, because enterprises pursuing socially beneficial activities would be able to attract workers at lower wages than enterprises undertaking activities that were widely perceived as socially harmful or destructive.
By freeing people to opt for more fulfilling roles, the quality of life would be enhanced. There would be more joy for all in work. There would be more commitment to the aims of the enterprises for which people worked. There would also be greater scope for individuals in voluntary association to start up small businesses or cooperatives, or to innovate, invent and create in socially beneficial and personally fulfilling ways.
None of this is to suggest that an unconditional basic income is the answer to everything. In one sense, it would be only a small step on the path to a freer society in which people were provided with every opportunity to act in accordance with their best motives rather than narrow self-interest. There would still be many, at least initially, who remained completely driven by material rewards to the exclusion of all else. But, at the very least, an unconditional basic income would seem to create the preconditions for more socially motivated behavior. It could also be expected to set off a dynamic in which, over time, individuals increasingly opted for socially beneficial and fulfilling roles, and enterprises prospered most when responding to those signals.
Already, of course, there are some people who have a wide range of employment options and significant bargaining power in their negotiations with prospective employers. They are free – even in the absence of an unconditional basic income – to base their employment choices on ethical considerations. Some choose to do so, some probably do not. However, at the moment, most people are not so fortunate. It is difficult for a person to make the right choice when the alternatives are a socially harmful job or starvation. The introduction of an unconditional basic income would extend the freedom to lead an ethical life to all individuals.