The Transition to a Freer Society: BIG or JG?

One issue that arises, when thinking about the possibility of a transition to a freer society, is the challenge of adjusting to a future in which there might be far less compulsion to work in the formal economy and an increasing separation of income and employment. This is not inevitable but is one possible response to the widespread mechanization of production that is likely to occur in coming decades. A dramatic rise in productivity can open the way for people largely to be freed from formal employment to pursue their preferred vocations either individually or in voluntary association with like-minded individuals. But since the experiences of many have not necessarily prepared them for this transition, it raises challenges. It might be worth discussing this issue in relation to the main policy options that seem to present themselves; namely, basic income or a job guarantee.

The potentially liberating effects of mechanization are summed up nicely in a recent comment by Tom Hickey in a thread at Mike Norman Economics:

With a different mindset, humanity could step forward to a new level of distributed prosperity, including the option of greater distributed leisure. However, I suspect that most people would not opt for greater recreation but more creative endeavor.

Most people can’t lie around on the beach for too long before they get antsy. And most people also find that their creative juices flow better when working in cooperation and coordination with others.

Then the difference between work and play would become the difference between process and result. Pure play is only concerned with process, and pure work is only concerned with results. The meeting point is in creative endeavor freely engaged in. Then leisure and work get combined, so that process and result are served simultaneously.

Really the only thing inhibiting this now is a collective mindset that is obsolete.

In such a state of affairs, it would still be neessary to provide scope for people to occupy themselves in socially productive ways to the extent that this is their desire. In connection to this, Neil Wilson made an important observation:

Yes. But you have to realise that many people find that very hard to do and end up depressed because of it.

Once you lose the external motivation of starvation you have to find some internal motivation to do something else. And our school systems are designed to churn out robotic mass production workers not people who routinely explore their inner motivations and then work out how they can act on that to fulfil their desires while considering the needs of others.

So we have a society full of worker bees with a smaller and smaller hive to maintain.

It seems that this social transition could be a happier one if accompanied by intelligently designed policies, but could easily cause suffering and go haywire if managed poorly.

Basic income unaccompanied by the creation of opportunities to participate voluntarily in organized productive activities of various kinds would not provide sufficient support to individuals who might struggle to adjust from formal employment, in which motivation is external, to a life dominated by free time in which it is up to each individual to determine his or her own activities and find their own internal motivation.

There are also dangers that a job guarantee could be reduced, contrary to the intentions of its proponents, into a minimalist or even draconian, corrupted form (e.g. workfare, or worse, conscription). A job guarantee that operated as little more than punishment for being a victim of deficient aggregate demand not only would provide little improvement over the current system as a safety net, but would in some ways be a backward step in terms of empowering people to learn self-motivation and self-discovery of what really interests and fulfills them. It is true that even a minimalist job guarantee would keep people in the habit of turning up each day and, for some, help to ward off feelings of emptiness, but this is no preparation for a future in which we could be free from such external motivations if only we can make the transition.

In contrast to these negative scenarios, well designed versions of the same policies could do much to empower people and raise consciousness over time.

Basic income that was combined with active policies to create outlets for voluntary productive activity could accommodate not only people who were already happy to make use of their own time without further assistance (and so felt no need to participate in externally organized activities) but also those who needed additional assistance in keeping themselves occupied or socially connected. Even in cases where individuals were already comfortable with forging their own paths, access to productive resources would be an important question requiring intelligently designed policy.

A job guarantee introduced along the lines intended by its advocates would admittedly entail somewhat less freedom for the individual initially, because it would entail a degree of compulsion for anyone without access to an independent income. However, there would be considerable scope to broaden, over time, the types of activities considered to be socially productive. The broader the accepted activities became, the closer the job guarantee would come to resemble volunteering alongside basic income, because eventually people would be able to choose activities they would have chosen even in the absence of the job guarantee mechanism.

In either case, an important aspect of policy would be providing outlets for socially productive activity. One significant advantage of the job guarantee over basic income, in this respect, is that the broadening of the definition of socially productive activity occurs at the pace societal attitudes are developing. This might be expected to generate less resistance and resentment amongst those in regular employment, although decades of mass unemployment may well have enabled the development of a more tolerant and progressive attitude on this issue.