Thoughts on Guaranteed Basic Income

What would you do if a rich aunt promised to provide you with enough money to comfortably pay your rent (this is a dream with landlords), food, wine, cinema tickets and possibly also that internet flatrate?

This is the question posed by the guaranteed basic income – debated among French, English and more recently German young Greens: Your aunt (aka the state) guarantees you a basic income, regardless of other sources of income or need. The important aspect is the lack of conditionality – your aunt pays you whatever you do. Some proponents claim that – by reducing means-tested benefits and bureaucracy – the scheme would not be very expensive. The proposal raises the issue of the role of work in our society. I here attempt not to criticise this proposal but to raise some questions and contribute to the ongoing debate.

Many Greens share the belief that the traditional model of paid employment is overvalued in society and that alternative forms of work – caring for family members, artistic activities, unpaid political and NGO work should be encouraged. The basic income provides a potential policy instrument here. When your aunt makes her promise, you think: Great, I’ll take the money, quit my job in the supermarket and spend more time saving whales, visiting my grandpa in hospital and writing articles for ecosprinter. It is hoped that the citizen income may liberate potential for other worthwhile activities. Who determines what is worthwhile?

Your aunt does not check what you do with your money and time. This is a fundamentally emancipator project: Providing individuals with the freedom not to engage in paid employment may make people more responsible, self-determined beings and lead them to more fulfilling lives. The idea that individuals should be free to choose whether to work or not contrasts starkly with the current neoliberal policies. The neoliberal project involves forcing people to work by making it difficult to be unemployed. The basic income scheme is thus truly radical.

A first criticism of the scheme is simple: The basic income is only affordable by reducing means-tested benefits, but is this fair? Should not people who need help have a higher priority than those who do not? Current social payments are based on need, for example, unemployment benefits, support for families with children or for people incapable of engaging in paid employment. One way of thinking about this criticism is to say that it is only democratic that the society ought to determine who is worthy of state support and who is not. In states with social welfare, criteria for worthiness are based on need. Bureaucracy is necessary to implement the rules that society establishes. The basic income scheme differs from a traditionally left value of taking into account differing needs.

A second criticism asks: What if people stop working altogether, sit on the couch and watch TV? On the one hand, the financial calculations that indicate that the basic income is affordable must make assumptions about how many people would continue paid employment: A theory is needed that explains how many people will work for paid employment and pay taxes if they all receive cash from their rich auntie.

Leaving aside financial considerations of feasibility, might it be bad to leave people on the couch? Don’t we all know times when we needed to be pushed to move, but that moving was healthy? Don’t we know people who exaggerate the celebration of laziness and who would benefit from the structure that paid employment implies? Don’t we all wonder how many artists and activists a citizen income would produce, as compared to couch potatoes? Psychological evidence suggests that people who do not have a job are significantly less happy. A psychological argument can be made for forcing people to work. People do not realise to what extent their self-esteem and social standing is dependent on having a job. Not having a job often creates social exclusion, and people may not be able to recover on their own. This criticism needs to be taken seriously.

A first response to this is that some people may start to work if they receive money from their aunt rather than benefits that are cut when they start earning income (the poverty trap). So the basic income scheme may get people off the couch.

A second response to this argues that a paradigm shift is required to reduce the symbolic importance of work: People overvalue paid employment – people feel that working at home or in a club is not “real” work. Not having a job need not create unhappiness and social exclusion – but it does now. The citizen income might contribute to a change in attitude towards work.

I have suggested that the current neoliberal project of pushing people into work is paternalistic, whereas the citizen income is potentially emancipatory. It allows emancipation from the market determining the value of people’s value by employee’s wages, but also emancipation from a social welfare state which determines the value by assessing need.

Individuals decide themselves of the use they want to make of their time. I think this is the most important aspect of the basic income scheme. However, other means of empowering individuals exist: Participatory structures need to be furthered in families, schools and paid employment. Models of less authoritarian (and, especially, patriarchical) family relations, alternative forms of schools and cooperative models of firms might all be elements of a Green politics that tries to increase individuals potential to take decisions autonomously. Such structures may make people more responsible in considering how to spend their rich aunt’s cash.

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