Fairness and a ‘Job or Income Guarantee’

Of the various criticisms leveled at a combined ‘job or income guarantee‘, ones appealing to fairness usually go along the lines that it would be unfair for healthy individuals outside the workforce to receive an income while others are occupied in jobs. In considering this objection, a number of points come to mind:

1. the arbitrariness of exempting the wealthy from any expectation that income of the able-bodied be conditional on labor-force participation;

2. the range of options that would be available to all individuals under some kind of ‘job and/or income guarantee’;

3. the unfairness of work outside the labor force (most notably home parenting and housework) being performed without receipt of income simply because it is not codified within a waged or salaried occupation;

4. the relatively small ecological footprint of low-income individuals and the benefit that accrues to all when some people voluntarily eschew consumerism beyond the minimal level necessary for survival.

Here I mainly have in mind a combined ‘job or income guarantee’, which could be implemented in various ways. In lean form, the policy would give individuals without a job the option of either a job guarantee position or smaller basic income payment. In expansive form, universal basic income would be implemented alongside a job guarantee.

Although much the same arguments would apply to standalone basic income, a combined policy offers certain benefits that a standalone policy would not. In particular, it would ensure both that: (i) anybody wanting a job could obtain one; and (ii) survival would not depend on labor-force participation. In combination, the two policies would have inbuilt safeguards: the existence of basic income would make it difficult for enemies of the job guarantee to reduce it to workfare; the operation of the job guarantee would limit the possibility of basic income simply acting as a wage subsidy for employers.

To elaborate on the points listed above:

1. There are already able-bodied individuals who receive interest, dividends or other forms of profit income without being required to participate in the labor force. If it is unfair for income to be received without a labor-time commitment, then this should apply as a general rule. Either everyone should be given a right to minimal income without a labor-time commitment or nobody should. The fairness critique of basic income would hold more weight if the requirement for able-bodied individuals to participate in the labor force was made general, as might occur in a socialist society.

2. If everyone had the choice of opting out of the labor force, those who chose not to would be doing so voluntarily. If a particular person felt that the lot of a basic income recipient without employment was so desirable, they would need only take that option themselves. If, in the view of policymakers and the community at large, too many were choosing to do that, then: (i) the job guarantee provider and other employers would have to lift their game by either paying more or mechanizing roles, or (ii) the basic income payment would need to be reduced relative to the job guarantee wage to modify the relative appeal of the various options open to individuals.

3. The notion that basic income would be unfair due to individuals outside the workforce receiving an income “for nothing” does not take into account that: (i) much socially beneficial activity occurs outside the workforce (most obviously, home parenting and housework, but also other roles); and (ii) much unproductive or outright destructive activity occurs in jobs. A home parent or community volunteer receiving basic income while a factory worker earned a wage in preference to or as well as basic income would not represent an obviously more outlandish injustice than, say, an economist receiving a salary that is a multiple of the factory worker’s wage.

It can be countered that a better way to broaden society’s conception of productiveness is through a collective method such as a job guarantee rather than an individualistic one such as basic income or some combination of the two approaches. Certainly a job guarantee offers a vehicle for broadening social conceptions of productiveness and I would strongly support a development of the program in that direction.

But in terms of any debate that pits a job guarantee against basic income, taking this position raises its own issues. On the one hand, the more a job guarantee caters to individuals (such as home parents) who may have no intention of taking a job outside the program, the less it can be claimed that a job guarantee would be superior in its macro-stabilizing effects to a combined job or income guarantee. On the other hand, if roles such as home parenting are to be excluded from a job guarantee, then the fairness of denying income to people engaged in such obviously socially useful activities can be questioned.

4. In a world in which environmental limits are increasingly pressing, a person who voluntarily opts out of consumerism to the extent possible is doing the rest of us a favor. Even if it is felt that people in jobs are more “deserving”, and even in cases where workers are working in environmentally neutral or even positive roles, the higher income they receive compared with basic income recipients outside the labor force gives them more capacity to consume. Other factors remaining equal, higher income individuals will place more stress on the environment through their consumption than somebody getting by on a smaller income. The point is simply that work (even when of a socially useful kind) is not the only form of positive social contribution, especially at this particular juncture in history.

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