basic income

Basic income: from bullshit jobs to meaningful lives

It’s one of the most often heard objections in the debate around basic income: people will work less and nothing will get done. Our researcher and reporter Daniela Atenasova makes a case for the opposite. According to her, a basic income would help us to stop stressing about making ends meet or sitting around in an office playing candycrush. Instead it would give us the chance to lead meaningful lives.

In the first article of our basic income series, I considered broad evidence from social cash transfer programmes that supports the case for a universal basic income (UBI). Here I address one of the most frequent objections that come up in discussions of the universal basic income. Will a guaranteed basic income make people work less and when yes, how would that affect society?

To begin with, much will depend on the size of the basic income. Money is certainly one of the main reasons why people work, and if the basic income grant is sufficient to live on comfortably, some people may well choose to work fewer hours. Realistically though, the basic income is not likely to meet more than basic needs, at least initially.
And in the higher income brackets it will be offset by increasing taxes, so beyond a certain threshold, people will not actually be getting any additional income. Most of the working people who already have a higher standard of living before the UBI (the middle classes and higher) are likely to continue working to sustain that.

It could be argued of course that the higher taxes levied on higher earnings may in themselves constitute a disincentive to work. The expert lawyer or innovative entrepreneur might not see the point of putting so much effort into acquiring specialized knowledge or taking risks if their reward is then funnelled away to finance other people’s groceries. But if the tax rate increases slowly with the earnings and is distributed in such a way that most of the burden is borne by the wealthiest (whose working habits no one seems too concerned about), this shouldn’t be an issue either.

Besides, people in specialized and highly valued professions are rarely in it only for the money. Social status and recognition account for some of the motivation too. In fact, our society would benefit from revising its values and tipping the balance more towards nonmonetary rewards. Currently we are arbitrarily putting exorbitant price tags on some work, while chronically devaluing other. There is simply no good reason why the income gap between the office janitor and Bill Gates should measure in billions, no matter how sophisticated and world-changing work the latter may be doing.

Most commonly, however, the worry over turning into a society of idlers boils down to concern about the productivity of the poor. People in the lowest income groups who form today’s precarious class do stand to benefit the most from a universal basic income. They are the most likely to change their work behaviour as well, but hardly for the “worse”.

Imagine Anna, a single mother of two. At 36, she lives in a small social housing apartment at the outskirts of Vienna. She scrapes a living together washing dishes at a neighbouring restaurant and cleaning homes. Working long hours, she doesn’t get to see her children much. Anna would like to be able to work as a nurse, but she doesn’t have the time or money to get the required education. A generous basic income would be a gamechanger for her. It would alleviate her family’s day-to-day hardships and release her from the pressure to accept the most exploitative and insecure jobs. She would have more time to take care of her children as well as to start taking nursing courses and build a better future for her family.

It must not be forgotten that many people in the low-income groups already do work that is not compensated or recognized as such, due to narrow definitions of work that equate it with paid labour. An individualized basic income grant will rightfully compensate and relieve of insecurity those (mostly women) caring for children, the sick and the elderly, as well as people engaged in creative labour and other socially useful work.

It is incredible how resilient the myth about the ungrateful poor living off the honest labour of others still is, despite the reality of ever growing unemployment. In modern-day capitalism, there are no jobs waiting around to be filled by the reluctant poor. Formal jobs are increasingly scarce and in most poor countries have been so for decades. And with the progress in automation, more and more jobs will become obsolete. The UBI is thus, in part, just a pragmatic response to a reality where what humanity needs can be produced by fewer people than ever. What is the point in insisting that everyone should work for their basic necessities when all this leads to is more bullshit jobs and workfare programmes that are not worth the cost? We need to build a system of just distribution of work opportunities and resources that reflects this reality, eliminates poverty, is more in tune with our environment and gives people the chance to replace toil with imaginative living.

This does not mean that we have to give up on wage labour altogether. The fight for decent jobs as well as job sharing through shorter working hours is most worthwhile and should be pursued in parallel with campaigns for a universal basic income (and for free and universal health care, education and other public services).

Remember Anna? After getting her nursing qualifications with the help of the basic income, she could still work for only 20 hours a week and devote the rest of her time to playing with her children, or making a small business out of her jewellery making hobby. She could also volunteer at the neighbourhood food cooperative, take walks with elderly neighbours, or go to local assembly meetings and become more politically active. The universal basic income and job sharing will not necessarily make people like Anna work less or more, but will enable them to do different work, work that is more humanizing and meaningful, and truly useful to the others around them.

Finally, let us assume that when a UBI is introduced, there will be a group of people who choose to just enjoy their time and not do anything useful. Would these people be violating a duty of reciprocity and is this a big enough reason to abandon the whole UBI scheme?

The idea that everything we receive from society is a reward proportional to our individual contribution starts making less sense when we realise that so much of what we have now is the fruit of past generations’ joint effort and a gift from “our” planet. Everyone should be entitled to an equal share of that inheritance, including people who do not wish to work. Even if we do not accept this argument, seeing how much unjust suffering the UBI can eliminate should make it worthwhile to support a handful of slackers. With all the wealth in the world, we can certainly afford it.

By: Daniela Atanasova

References/Further reading:
Van Parijs, P. (2004). Basic income: a simple and powerful idea for the twenty-first century. Politics & Society, 32(1), 7-39.
White, S. (2006). Reconsidering the exploitation objection to basic income. Basic Income Studies, 1(2).
Ferguson, J. (2015). Give a man a fish: Reflections on the new politics of distribution. Duke University Press.