Andrew Dolan recently wrote a list of seven reasons to support a universal basic income. It has been well received and I agree with nearly all of it. Below are four more reasons to support the UBI.
1. We all have a right to the shared bounty of the land.
Wealth is made from a combination of three things: natural resources (known as ‘land’), machines for turning it into stuff (known as ‘capital’) and work done by people (‘labour’). Unless we’re slaves, we each own our own labour. Capitalists own the capital (for now, at least). Who owns the land?
Looking at the British economy in particular, who owns the rain that keeps crops alive? Or the wind that keeps turbines turning? Or the oil in the North Sea? Unless we still think that God gave it to the Queen, or some other archaic nonsense, then the answer, surely, is all of us.
And if that’s the case, then why aren’t we demanding our share of the earth’s bounty? This argument is why there is a basic income in Alaska – they all get a share of the value of their oil. But every country is rich in natural resources of different kinds. So why doesn’t everyone get a share of the wealth from selling them? That’s what a basic income would be.
2.Wealth is created by society – and that means all of us.
Our economy is built on the back of care work. Without people looking after children, there would be no future labour force. Without care work reproducing the labour power of, well, labour, the economy would collapse in a moment. Is this work easy? No. Is it fun? Not always. So our civilisation depends entirely on huge amounts of unpaid, difficult, sometimes miserable labour. And who gets the economic reward for this labour? Well, not the people doing it, that’s for sure.
In fact, if we think about it, it’s not just unpaid care work and cleaning work which the economy depends on. Without human culture, social norms, without co-operation, our economy would fall apart in a moment. We have a word for this vast collective collaboration: civilisation. And who is it who builds civilisation? All of us.
Of course, we do it in different ways. Some people look out for their siblings, or parents. Some make music, or are good at bringing together groups of friends. These things may seem basic, and to have nothing to do with the economy. But the fact that they are the absolute fundamentals of humanity tell us something important: we couldn’t have any kind of economy without them. Neoliberalism may seem to be designed to make us all lonely miserable selfish automatons. But if we were, then the whole system would fall apart. Capitalism as a system subordinates the naturalness of cooperation, which creates absolutely everything, to its own ends.
And so there is at least an extent to which the whole economy is built on the back of a civilisation which we all create and re-create every day. Is it possible to measure our different kinds of contributions to civilisation? Well, no. But I think this does tell us something important: the economy only rewards some kinds of work. But it depends on all kinds of work – and on thousands of things you wouldn’t even think of as work. And if someone else is profiting from your very existence as a social being – if someone else is cashing the cheque from the time you spend cleaning up after your kids or allowing your friend to cry on your shoulder or contributing to the ongoing artistic projects that are human languages, don’t you deserve a share of their profits?
3. It closes the benefits trap.
Okay, so maybe those points are both kind of abstract. So here’s one from the opposite end of the spectrum. Politicians are very fond of saying that we should ‘make work pay‘. Usually, this is an excuse to cut social security. But the problem they are talking about is a real one. If your benefits are slashed when you start doing a little too much work, then often it isn’t really worth it. And this can be really depressing for people who would like to do some paid work, but can’t find or can’t do a full time job.
Basic income is a really simple solution to this, which doesn’t require throwing people into destitution. Rather than cutting payment as soon as you start earning more than a certain small amount, pay the money to everyone, then collect it back off the rich through progressive taxation.
4. Means testing means divide and rule.
Try cutting social security and they will call you a hero. Try switching to fortnightly bin collections and they will drown you in vitriol.
There’s a simple reason for this. It’s the same reason why the NHS was made for everyone, not just the most vulnerable. Public services for the poor make for poor public services. In Alaska, even right-wingers like Sarah Palin defend their basic income, because everyone gets it. Attacking it would be political suicide. If you only give something to one group, then it’s easy for the powerful to divide some against others through a language of sectional interests. If you give the thing to everyone, it’s much harder.
Means testing has always been a tool to break social solidarity. It’s also, as it happens, always been pretty rubbish at accurately determining who really needs help and who doesn’t. Paying social security to everyone, rather than just those most in need is a great way to ensure that everyone will defend the system, and it’s a great way to make sure that everyone who needs it really gets it.