Universal Unconditional Basic Income (Part 2 of 2)
Ivan Illich in his pamphlet titled: The Right to Useful Unemployment reminds us that there is important work to be done in our communities, which is of profound value, indeed so much so, that if we were to lose it, it’s loss would do huge harm to the social fabric and collective wellbeing of populations. His prophesy may well be materialising today in the form of chronic loneliness, the opioid crisis and a range of other public health challenges.
The consumer mindset holds that the Good Life is to be found in the market place, but you’ve got to work to earn your share. Within this belief system, work means paid work. Yet historically this is quite a new perspective. For most of human history one’s Good Life was interdependent with the wellbeing of your neighbours and work was primarily about what you contributed to your family and community. Work was handmade, homemade and homespun – not a bullshit job in sight.
These two perspectives: work as paid, where one’s salary is spent on private property, and work as gift exchange where one’s gains are invested into the commons toward the wellbeing of one’s neighbours and oneself, are clearly divergent perspectives, these competing beliefs are lurking behind the modern ‘Basic Universal Income’ conversation, and they need to be outed. Which is to say I believe we need to draw these viewpoints out into public discourse and to do so well before we even get into debates about Basic Income. My concern is that if we don’t do so it will create even greater divides than are currently apparent not just in relation to the Basic Income debate, but also in relation to a range of other policy issues that deeply affect us all; most of all those who are most economically isolated and most devalued.
While I’ve previously argued that ‘value’ is a tricky starting point, because it pulls the conversation back into a paradigm of measurements and monetizing, notwithstanding, government policies tend to revolve around the concept of ‘value’. That being the case, let’s consider how policies might value people, in better ways, than are currently in place. Perhaps in modern economies then the best we can do is to ensure that when we truly value others we start our encounters by seeking to reveal their intrinsic human capacity, not their market “value”. And from there support them to be seen as of value to others, and support others to value them. Personally I see that as the core attraction of Basic Universal Income.
When governments value people they find creative ways of making people even more valuable in their local economies and communities. In turn, people return the compliment by contributing to the building of stronger local economies.
When governments do not value people they inadvertently create systems that stifle inventiveness and trap people in cycles of state dependency and long-term unemployment.
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known informally as the G.I. Bill, is widely (across all political spectrums; around the world) considered one of the most successful pieces of legislation ever passed. It made provisions that effectively created ‘bonds’ to enable low-cost mortgages, low-interest business start-up loans, cash payments for educational return at all entry points, as well as one year of unemployment benefit for returning servicemen. Canada saw similar results for its programs of support for Second World War veterans. Few would argue that this investment in the human capital of service men and women in turn contributed enormously to the overall wealth of both nations to this day.
At the core of both pieces of legislation was the recognition that citizens are the primary inventors of a better tomorrow. Veterans were valued, and so the way benefits were given to them made them of value to their local economies and communities. In turn, veterans were able to contribute to growing the future economies of the U.S and Canada at their own pace and in their own way.
The central role of a democratic government is to support citizen-led invention, most certainly not to stifle or do harm to it. That support can come in many forms, and wealth re-distribution is by far the most important.
The GI Bill was far from perfect, anymore than Mincome introduced in the 70s in Manitoba, Canada. What they provide though is evidence and lots of it, of what happens when you take a different approach, whereby the state act as an extension of us, not a replacement for us.
In the meantime while we wait for that moral epoch to arrive, in our communities we can do even better again and much sooner, by creating the conditions where no one’s gifts are considered surplus to demand and where everybody’s contribution matters, in the shared effort to create communities where everyone matters.
There is a important paradox to draw out here. In the marketplace fallibility and human fragility are rarely embraced. Leave your problems at home or take sick leave if must, but don’t let them affect your performance. The implication is that to do so is to reduce your market value. In the vernacular it’s to risk being seen as ‘damaged goods’, and thrown on the trash heap.
Family and community are intended as spaces where we can bring our fallibilities and fragilities, as well our frivolities, joy, creativity, sexuality and spirituality. Work (paid work) despite what the hipsters may say is not so open to such things, indeed for the most part paid employment is about the ethos of the factory not family, it is organised to ensure the few can control the many. This doesn’t mean places of work are bad or malign, they just are not as soft and fuzzy as organization like Google might have us believe. Fail to hit your targets and you’ll soon find which side of the factory / family line you’re on.
I hear many say that they have their communities in their workplaces; when I hear this I can’t help wondering three things:
- How do those ‘at work communities’ contrast with those they experience outside of their work communities? Do they even recognise a difference?
- If they didn’t work for an income or to bestow on themselves a fundamental sense of ‘value’, what else might they love to do, and where would they love to do it?
- If they become unable to work for an income, what would become of them, their identify, income, source of community, what alternatives could they pursue?
The broader questions though, are:
- How do we create a society where gifts can be shared and the limits of humanness accepted?
To my mind this fourth question takes us beyond the realm of what salaried work can offer.
The last question is:
- What other ways can we re-distribute wealth as well as how we currently do so?
These questions alongside open dialogue about the way in which we think about salaried and non-salaried contributions will I feel open up space for more fruitful and honest conversations that do not alienate or polarise. In the final analysis issues such as basic income will not be won by stealth of argument, or weight of evidence but by collective judgement and that’s about getting better at being in community with each other and understanding how much we need the gifts of those we value least.
Or as Wendell Berry would say:
‘Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.’