Sometimes supporters of a basic income guarantee (BIG) argue for the policy on the grounds that it would increase “incentives to work”. This conclusion follows from standard neoclassical labor-supply analysis. Irrespective of the correctness or otherwise of the argument – and, if correct, it probably does have some utility as a negator of frequent neoliberal claims to the contrary – it is important to keep in mind obvious limitations of the argument and to go well beyond it. Two limitations, in particular, spring to mind.
First, in making this argument, advocates of a BIG are not actually showing that the program would increase incentives to *work* but rather that it would increase incentives to *get a job*. In other words, they are implicitly accepting the neoliberal frame that work equals job and no work occurs outside a job. They are accepting this frame even if only for the sake of argument.
Going along with this framing involves an implicit acceptance, for example, that we should actively incentivize parents to take a job rather than be home parents, and indirectly incentivize expanded commodification of child rearing. After all, parenting, unless carried out in a childcare center or as part of a paid position, is not a job. So, according to the logic of many BIG opponents, it can’t be real work. Maybe, on balance, a trend away from home parenting is a good thing. Or maybe not. But, either way, it’s not clear that we need a policy actively working to that end. Or, at the very least, it is not clear that commodification of child rearing is the overriding motive for a BIG.
Parenting, of course, is just one example of work that occurs outside a job, albeit one with wide applicability across the community. There are many other activities outside the workplace that are socially productive and, indeed, take a lot of work, even though not within a job. There are also potential individual or small-enterprise productive undertakings that might go ahead once people were assured of a basic income in the event of setbacks or failure.
The insistence that work does not equal job – and that free time does not equal leisure but rather a combination of productiveness and leisure – might well face resistance from many, but it is not as if it would face universal opposition, or more opposition than the incentives argument for a BIG. The incentives argument probably runs counter to the intuition of most people, other than economists. (Not that this counts against its possible correctness.) Nor is the argument that work is broader than a job without a potentially receptive audience. It is likely to be palatable, for starters, to anyone outside the labor force who nonetheless happens to be directly engaged in socially beneficial work. Some among their partners, friends and families might also be receptive.
Second, even if the incentives argument were directed at incentivizing work, not jobs, it is not clear that supporters of a BIG should necessarily want to incentivize work over leisure. For many people, an increase in leisure and reduction in work would be highly desirable, and would become more of an option under a BIG, just as there are some who would greatly benefit from the opportunity to work more and spend less time in leisure.
Above all, what a BIG promises is the option of more free time. This time could be employed partly productively and partly in leisure. At times, leisure is at the same time productive. It is not clear that we need to incentivize more work or more leisure but rather enable greater opportunity for individuals to shape their own lives, both in production and leisure, whether individually or in voluntary combination with others.
Regular readers will be aware that my own preference is for a combined ‘job or income guarantee‘ (JIG). Opportunity would be maximized by such a combination. Nobody would be denied a job if desired. And nobody would have to accept a job to survive. In a sense, all time would be free under these circumstances – certainly freer than is currently the case. Even if a person chose to accept a guaranteed job, this would be a decision made freely in preference to viable alternatives.