Liberty, Equality, Fraternity — Guaranteed Income

The provision of a guaranteed income to every man, woman and child would give each individual a greater degree of independence and enhance real freedom. This would best be accomplished in combination with free universal access to various forms of real income, most notably decent housing, high-quality education, healthcare, and an expanded commons, including free internet access to all available written, musical, televisual and cinematic materials. The guarantee could take the form of a basic income, participation income, broadly defined job guarantee, or some combination (e.g. JIG).

A ‘basic income’ is unconditional, and so simplest to administer. Under such a scheme it might be anticipated, or at least hoped, that most individuals would seek voluntarily to use their free time in socially beneficial or productive ways, but this is not a formal requirement of such a scheme. A ‘participation income’, as the name suggests, requires some form of community participation. The requirement could be defined broadly to include paid employment, volunteering in a wide variety of forms, unpaid housework, childcare, aged care, participation in schooling, higher education and vocational training, and whatever else is deemed by a particular society to constitute suitable participation. A ‘job guarantee’ could serve a similar role provided participation in schooling and higher education counted as employment. A job guarantee, broadly defined, approaches a participation income, which in turn comes to approximate a basic income, if liberally implemented.

Any of these policies would be a step toward greater real freedom for all individuals. This would be reflected in many different facets of everyday life. Here, only a few of them are considered.

Relationships. A guaranteed income would promote greater equality and independence for each partner in a marriage or civil union. In particular, there would be less likelihood of an abused partner remaining in a bad relationship, much of the financial imperative of doing so being removed. In healthier relationships, the partial balancing of power between partners would encourage greater openness and honesty. The emotional risks of communicating home truths would remain, but the financial cost limited. Any relationship that fails to withstand honesty is not heading anywhere positive, either for the partners involved or their potential children.

Inequalities between single-parent and two-parent families would also be partially redressed by a guaranteed income. At the moment, being a stay-at-home mom or dad is considered to be a legitimate choice, provided this is financed out of the earnings of the other partner. But a single parent who has not married or cohabited so lucratively is stigmatized. This encourages ill-matched couples to stay together, with detrimental long-term impacts on themselves and their children, as well as impoverishing those – usually single mothers – who are left to raise one or more children on their own. A basic income, being unconditional, would address this automatically, but a participation income or job guarantee could do so also if parenting were deemed to meet eligibility requirements.

Childhood and youth. Currently, the plight of children is appalling, even in rich countries. Across the income scale, children are at the whims of quite possibly bad parenting, which may include varying degrees of physical, psychological or intellectual damage and, probably in more cases than not, pressure to pursue a life severely at odds with their own inclinations, aspirations and talents. Adults should have no right to impose their own often ignorant or prejudiced attitudes on any child, including their own, or try to live their own unsatisfying lives through the accomplishments of their kids. A guaranteed income would not prevent these excesses during early childhood, since at a very early age the income would need to be entrusted with the parent or parents. But it would alter the dynamic, in the longer term, because children would be guaranteed the means to reject parental demands over how they choose to live their lives.

It would also end the injustice that children and youth are expected to do schoolwork or university study without remuneration. This is reprehensible. Many high school students would work more hours a week than adults at their studies alone, even disregarding part-time McJobs. Even for the least motivated student, the basic school week involves about thirty hours of classes. For any serious student, the hours extend far beyond that, in some cases double or greater, once weeknight and weekend study is included. Not only that, but most of them will never be required to think harder than they do at school and university. Many jobs could be easily picked up by a Year 8 graduate.

There is another difference between education and most jobs. School or university work is not done unless it’s done. Sitting and watching the clock, gazing blankly at a computer screen, taking a coffee break, surfing the internet, or chatting with colleagues is, within limits, paid just as well as time spent working, when a person is in a salaried position. In contrast, procrastination at school or university achieves precisely nothing in the way of a paycheck or a passing grade.

Aid to poor countries. A guaranteed income should be supplemented by full airfare and accommodation in the case of individuals who choose to do approved volunteer work in poor countries. Many places in the world still lack clean water and other basic amenities, or access to enough food and adequate housing. This should be unacceptable to any person living in a rich country. Apart from the homeless, unemployed and working poor, it is difficult to see how anybody in a so-called developed nation could feel justified in wanting more material possessions while most people elsewhere in the world do not even have the basics.

Voluntary participation in the building, in low-income countries, of housing and infrastructure, or the provision of food, basic health care and other necessities, should count as participation in the case of a conditional guaranteed income. Many youth might well be willing to help rectify the worst effects of global inequality if such a path were more open to them. For starters, many of the youth now enticed, through economic duress, into the military might prefer to engage in such constructive activities rather than take part in the oppression of the world’s poor.

Activism. The guarantee of an income would enable like-minded individuals to build a stronger opposition to environmental destruction and the array of problems currently afflicting our societies. An unconditional basic income would be best, in this respect, because it would free individuals to engage, in greater numbers, in protest and activism. Such activity is critical to the health of any society. Without it there is little accountability or internal social criticism and a consequent neglect of pressing problems.

It is obvious at a glance that the world is in a terrible state. Apart from the 1 percent and a middle class in the rich nations that is fond of crying poor, most of humanity is oppressed, and in many cases brutally suppressed at our collective say-so. All this goes on while the environment goes to hell and other species are threatened. In such circumstances, nonviolent activism and protest is not only an utter necessity but an activity that is far more “productive” than anything currently produced by the FIRE sector, advertising and marketing, or any other industry concerned with capturing the social surplus or seizing control, murderously in the case of the military, of natural resources. None of these activities improve average living standards. When they are not actually reducing living standards through war and destruction, they are merely redistributing real wealth from the poor, especially in low-income countries, to the rich.

A guaranteed income is no panacea, but it would be a significant step toward giving a voice to the young, the marginalized, the impoverished, and the disaffected. The vast majority of the world’s people would be enabled to live in closer harmony with their desires and callings, with actions reflecting their own conscience and sense of community.


15 thoughts on “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity — Guaranteed Income

  1. As a vision statement, what would it look if we as a speciies considered the global economy as the closed economy it is and chose to set the goal of setting everyone really free to the degree that there are real resources available to do so?

    Then, is this doable, and if so how?

    R. Buckminster Fuller set this forth decades ago and created the World Game to demonstrate it.

  2. One aspect of all of this seems to be structural and to do with management?

    There are social structures that support management of a family and its product, although as peterc points out, under so much stress they often break down. There are corporate structures that support management of the corporation and its product; government structures etc. Conflict and greed tear away at these. I guess the closest social and organisational structure we have to management of our human species, real resources and the earth is the United Nations (which is severely hobbled); peace is meant to be the product. We have the human and physical sciences to tell us what we need to know. We also have an incredible energy; for some reason supremely important to us – which we do not understand, waste unconsciously having no idea of its true potential, leave lying around unused and nobody wants to talk about – love.

    Conflict and greed are its absence.

    In the simplest human sense embracing both social and organisational life, ’separation is the sin’. Conflicts are all about opportunity to remedy this, but are we smart enough? It means recognising our similarities, our humanity – not our differences.

    It took billions of years to evolve a unique environment to support and enable a human being. We were even given self-management. A basic income is absolutely essential and would be a very good place to start managing ourselves physically and emotionally! It could even mean we have finally understood something about how to respect a human being as a human being; let alone admit that people have to eat and have something useful to do.

    Architects sometimes start from the end product (peace) and work their way back. The reality of that is that peace already exists in every human heart, but needs to be uncovered (discovered).

    Besides love, the other great assets (potential) we have are the human will and intelligence. The Berlin ‘Wall’ came down one brick at a time so why not ‘Wall’ Street (am talking about concretised human separation here)! When the sun comes up!

    Trixie is up to something!!!

  3. Right, in the final analysis it’s all about management of real resources effectively and efficiently. Effectiveness depends on potential (opportunity and challenge) and priorities (constellation of preferences). See, for example, Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive, and Abraham Maslow, Eupsychian Management, subsequently reprinted as Maslow on Management. The contribution of MMT is showing that the constraint is availability of real resources rather than affordability of resources.

  4. Great comments. Thanks.

    Tom: Are there particular books or articles by R. Buckminster Fuller that you would especially recommend on this topic? I notice he wrote about thirty books.

  5. There’s lots of Fuller stuff available online.

    CJ Fearnley’s List of Buckminster Fuller Resources on the Internet…0.0…1ac.1.PyS80Tspd_w

    What he wrote and said is educational and inspiring, but what is more significant, as it true of all great teachers, is what he was, expressed in his attitude and approach to life. So one can jump in just about anywhere and get the feel of a visionary and creative genius.

    His fundamental message was the humankind is blest with unlimited metaphysical resources through consciousness that can be turned to the planet’s limited but extensive resources to create global prosperity through “design science” (doing more with less). Affordability in not the issue, and real resources are not the issue either. The only issue is recognizing that the use of knowledge is power and humanity as the power to create what it chooses — prosperity for all or competing war machines, but not both.

  6. Sounds good. Thanks for the links.

    (I borrowed Critical Path today, but haven’t starting reading it yet. Looks interesting.)

  7. Universal basic income fails to address:

    1) Structural and cyclical unemployment
    2) Desire to work and avoid the stigma of not doing something
    3) Inevitable downward pressure on wages as a result of implementation
    4) Privatization of the social wage (welfare being substituted)
    5) Class origins of political advocacy and beneficiaries (working-class vs. lumpen)

  8. Thanks for your thoughts, Jacob. To give my reaction to each point in turn:

    1) It’s true that a basic income would not address structural or cyclical unemployment, although it does maintain a floor under aggregate demand during economic downturns.

    2) The way I see it, the choice is not between work and leisure, but between selling labor power to a capitalist or capitalist government versus pursuing productive and leisure activities individually or in voluntary combination with others. The stigma associated with non-engagement with the capitalist wage-labor relation needs to be undermined, in my opinion.

    3) I think a basic income would be more likely to tilt the balance a little back towards workers in bargaining over wages and working conditions. The cost of losing a job is reduced when income is guaranteed, and this gives workers a bit more leverage.

    4) There should be a real-income component to a basic income as well as the monetary component, in the form of free, publicly provided education, healthcare, housing, expanded commons, etc.

    5) As far as I’m concerned, the most marginalized members of the community should have a greater voice. A basic income would help in this respect. But I don’t think this need come at the expense of workers, if, as suggested above, their bargaining power is enhanced by the basic income. Hopefully there would be a shift in power from the 1% to the rest of us.

  9. Peter, the key word there, though, is “productive.” There needs to be incentives to engage in productive labour, and that involves selling one’s labour power, whether it’s to a private capitalist, to one’s cooperative, to a commonly defined capitalist government, or to a intermediate public order beyond. I agree that the stigma needs to be undermined, but it needs to be done the right way, like stressing shorter working week hours for greater civic participation (without loss of pay or benefits, of course), not the wrong way.

    Leverage is achieved not through BI, but through the ELR (which I’m fully supportive of), especially when there are pay differentials in the program. Here I’m very much to the left of Wray and co, since those pay differentials should indeed compete with the private-sector job market for skilled labour. The opposite occurs with BI, in effect what Paul Cockshott recently called “a subsidy to low wage employers and a subsidy that other workers pay out of their taxes”

    The privatization component I referred to is Friedman’s support for BI. Every right-winger who supports BI supports it because of this, at the very least.

    At best, I see BI as a top-up program to be implemented after ELR has been around for quite a while.

  10. Thanks for elaborating on the kind of program you have in mind. Clearly we differ on the BIG, but leaving that aside (at least in this comment), I think the kind of JG you envisage is interesting,. I’ll need to reflect on it some more.

    My understanding of the MMT view is that if the JG provider competes against employers in the regular economy, this would take away the nominal-wage anchoring effect of the program. They want the employers in the broader economy to bid up wages to attract workers back out of the JG program during an upturn.

    I can see that if the JG pay differentials are in place to begin with, and then they are not bid up during the upturn, there would still be a nominal-wage anchoring effect. I suppose the wage rises in the JG would need to be instituted counter-cyclically during the downturn, when demand-side inflationary pressure is absent.

    Do you have thoughts on that?

    I also wonder about the pay differentials. Are these just going to reflect prevailing differentials in the broader economy that partly reflect current power differences, or be recast through some other mechanism (e.g. democratically)? The latter could be quite an effective way to improve pay for categories of workers esteemed by the general community but underpaid.

    Anyway, you’ve got me intrigued.

  11. Pay differentials in the Job Guarantee are called public sector jobs. The public sector ‘bids’ people off the JG programme.

    You wouldn’t expect a policeman to get the JG wage and hopefully the unions wouldn’t let you.

  12. Jacob Richter: “Peter, the key word there, though, is “productive.” There needs to be incentives to engage in productive labour, and that involves selling one’s labour power, whether it’s to a private capitalist, to one’s cooperative, to a commonly defined capitalist government, or to a intermediate public order beyond.”

    Is this something “everyone knows” or is there some research on it you are thinking of? Lars Syll asserts that the research is not compelling in “Is employment all a question of incentives?” Lars Syll asserts that the research is far from compelling.

    Moreover, the role of incentives in motivation and action theory is a psychological and sociological issue rather than chiefly an economic one. Economists assume incentives, whereas psychologists and sociologists generate and test hypotheses about motivation and action theory. See, for example, management theories of Dennis McGregor on theory x and y and Abraham Maslow on theory z.

  13. Just noting that comments in this thread directly relating to Jacob’s five-point comment of 16 February 2013 have been reproduced in an earlier thread, where the same points were raised. This is just to keep further discussion of the topic in the one place. Cheers.

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