Regular readers will be aware that I would support either a basic income guarantee (BIG) or job guarantee (JG) as standalone programs, whichever happened to be on the policy agenda, but ideally would prefer a program that combined the positive elements of both into some form of ‘job or income guarantee‘. Much of my reasoning to date has been outlined in previous posts archived under the category Job & Income Guarantee. I won’t revisit those considerations in this post. The present focus is instead on which of the two programs — a BIG or JG — should be seen as primary.
To the extent JG advocates are open to some form of combined program — and my impression is that there is little such support — they clearly regard the JG as primary and any BIG component as secondary. Conversely, if BIG advocates are open at all to an option of guaranteed employment alongside a BIG — and my impression is that they don’t seem to be — they would clearly regard a BIG as primary and JG as the secondary component. My own view is that a BIG would be primary, but a JG nonetheless worthwhile, albeit as a component that probably would become increasingly minor over time. One reason for this is the trend in technology and its social and economic implications. (For more on the opportunities opened up by technological progress, see Approaches to the Reduction of Aggregate Labor Time and Unearned Income and its Distribution.)
The policy debate is taking place in the context of ongoing mechanization. One recent study suggests 45% of American jobs could be computerized within the next twenty years. To propose a JG as the primary policy response to these developments is akin to trying to wind the clock back three quarters of a century. It requires employing some people to oversee the activities of other people who may or may not want to participate in the program to begin with, and who may or may not contribute more to society than they could if provided with a basic income and the freedom to spend their time as they saw fit. To the extent a JG would require capital equipment and raw materials in excess of what a BIG recipient would employ in individual or cooperative productive activity, there would be an additional use of real resources for purposes that may or may not be more socially beneficial than activities individuals could decide upon for themselves.
But that is not to say that there should be no place for a JG. It seems to me that the main case for a JG has nothing to do with how socially productive it is. Personally, I would not care if the JG position was completely useless provided the individual, in spite of the availability of a BIG, actually *wanted* the job (and the job itself, even if useless, was at least not socially harmful). The most important justification, in my view, for providing such individuals with a JG position is so that they can participate in society in a manner nearest to their preference. JG advocates point out that the poor themselves often claim to prefer a job to cash benefits. That’s perfectly fine. They should be given that option, irrespective of productiveness of the actual role. If they want a job — even a useless one — we are wealthy enough as a society to provide them with it.
There are many reasons such individuals might want a JG position even alongside the availability of a BIG. They might, correctly or otherwise, believe that they personally will be of greater service to the community by taking such a position. Or they might dislike the social stigma they feel goes with non-participation in formal employment. Whatever their motive, we can afford to enable their preferred mode of activity.
But it would be absurd to keep creating such jobs in cases where the individuals affected would be happier without them if given a guaranteed basic income or at least a guaranteed option to one. Technological development is creating the potential for free time without preventing continued high-paid employment for those able to obtain it or the creation of JG roles for those who can’t otherwise find a job but want one. The more people begin to opt for free time, the less the social stigma of opting out of the labor force will persist in any case, and the less need there will be to employ some people to manage other people who, for now, would not feel comfortable opting out of the labor force.
A BIG is a simple, administratively efficient — I would say, elegant — response to the historical and technological trajectory that we have created for ourselves. A JG, by comparison, is a reactionary response seeking to turn back time and withhold the potential benefits of progress.
In response to BIG proposals, JG advocates sometimes appeal to “politics” or “popularity”. A BIG, in this view, is supposedly impossibly unpopular compared with a JG. I don’t see at all where this confidence derives from when it comes to a JG. Right-libertarians hate the JG, yet are somewhat open to a BIG. Left-libertarians mostly hate a JG and probably would prefer a BIG. Support amongst liberals is not obviously stronger for a JG than a BIG, though it might be. Unions hate the JG, but also hate the BIG.
The natural ally of JG advocates would appear to be some (though certainly not all) conservatives. But to a conservative of this bent, some countries already have the ideal JG. In Australia, it’s referred to as “work for the dole”. And, yes, some conservatives favor that policy, but they already have it in the form they want it. They have no desire — and would undoubtedly strongly oppose — the implementation of a genuine JG program, just as they would oppose a BIG.
Some appeal to “resentment” in support of a JG. The idea, here, appears to be that people will refuse to recognize the legitimacy of individuals receiving a BIG when not in the labor force. It is far from obvious that this factor will be the decisive one. For starters, it doesn’t seem to be decisive for the aforementioned groups (right-libertarians, left-libertarians, some liberals) who favor a BIG over a JG. And it doesn’t seem to work decisively in favor of a JG in the case of groups typically opposed to both policies (unionists, some conservatives). It may well be decisive in the case of a subset of conservatives, but it has already been acknowledged that this group seems to be the natural ally of JG advocates. If some of the poor who claim to prefer a job to cash payments have absorbed the mindset of these conservatives, they also would fall into this category.
Arguments to the effect, for example, that existing welfare programs are under attack and this therefore, supposedly, proves that support for a BIG is impossible, may as well be applied to public education, publicly provided healthcare, public infrastructure and so on, all of which are under attack, proving, by this logic, that support for further improvements in these areas is “impossible”.
Clearly, there is opposition to a BIG. Formidable opposition. There was also formidable opposition to ending slavery, to universal suffrage, to the eight-hour work day. There is also formidable opposition to a JG. What’s new?
Even for those prone to “resentment”, there are other factors working the other way. For instance, Scott Santens notes in a recent post that a BIG of $12,000 per annum in the US if introduced alongside a 40% flat tax rate would, in net effect, leave 80% of Americans with a smaller tax bill than at present. So for eighty percent of potential “resenters”, the lure of more nominal income might soften their resistance. Santens also mentions other tax options that could leave income taxes untouched and probably leave more than 80% of Americans with more in their pocket than at present.
The likelihood that some support for a JG would come from the right, including “resenters”, is not a mark against the policy. It means the policy finds some common ground across the political spectrum. But the same can be said — I would say more so — for a BIG, support for which also seems to cut across the political spectrum. No doubt, there is a considerable danger of right-libertarians getting small government as quid pro quo for a BIG. But this danger is not obviously greater than the risk that conservatives will succeed in reducing a JG to “work for the dole”.
In all likelihood, a combined job or income guarantee would help to safeguard both the basic income and guaranteed job components against such right-wing attack. But I won’t labor that point because I’ve discussed it in the past (here and here).
In themselves, a BIG or a JG would be steps forward. Ensuring an overall step forward will take social and political struggle, as always. But, over time, circumstances will increasingly favor a BIG rather than a JG. In my view, that’s a good thing.