For quite a while now I’ve been interested in the idea of detaching our livelihood from our work. What I mean by this is that a generous livelihood would be guaranteed to all citizens that was independent of the kind of jobs people had; indeed, it would be independent of them even holding a job. By generous I mean that it would be enough for a couple to raise a family in reasonable comfort no matter what their employment situation was. I’ll leave consideration of just what reasonable comfort means for another time, but for purposes of argument I’ll set an arbitrary figure of $2 000 a month as the guaranteed income.
When people first hear of this idea they just roll their eyes and think communism. But I’m not thinking communism. I’m no totalitarian, and I don’t advocate class war. I’m thinking of a society that is much like the one that we are in now, but a society that deals realistically with the actual situation, and not one driven by myths like our society is.
On a personal level the guaranteed income would work like this; each adult would automatically have $000 deposited in their bank accounts on the last Wednesday of the month. (Lets call this the stipend.) Now, say you are employed and earn $3000 a month - your employer would send the amount of your stipend to the government, and the government would just return that to you. Thus, your employment would only be offering you $1000 a month over your stipend.
Simple as this sounds, it would have fairly profound consequences. The most obvious has to do with those who now live in poverty because poverty as we know it wouldn’t exist. This would of course mean that a lot of very unpleasant minimum wage jobs would just disappear because the employers wouldn’t be able to find workers. This phenomenon might extend quite a ways above the stipend level and a lot of unpleasant work would just fall out of our economy. Fast food restaurants might disappear.
In fact a lot of menial service industries might disappear. That isn’t a bug, its a feature of this idea. Our society is one that has torment of the poor as an essential part of its incentive system - its time we recognized that as inhumane and unnecessary. Who would work at all under such a system? Why would anybody get off their butts to do anything? Isn’t it obvious? A lot of work is quite pleasant. Think of the work people put into mastering a sport - how hard they work to ‘make the team’? Or consider the work it takes to master an art - lots of people put in that work not because of a hope of monetary reward, but because being able to make good art is something that is very satisfying in itself. Lots of the productive work upon which our society depends is satisfying in that way. How would we pay for those who choose to be unproductive? This brings us to the distinction between money wealth and material wealth. We now have a technology that is fabulously productive - it produces way more material wealth than is needed to support the producers. We are now in an economy that doesn’t provide good paying jobs for all who want them; that is, a lot of people are forced to be unproductive - they don’t choose to be unproductive.
We don’t have a problem with producing material wealth - our problem is with money wealth. But money is mostly, even now, just a custom. The custom started at a time when it was hard to produce material wealth and when there was never enough material wealth. But we aren’t in that situation now. We haven’t been in for quite a while. In the past the misery of the poor couldn’t be avoided, there was never enough - but now it can be avoided because we produce far more than we need. Thats why I say that our society torments the poor - it artificially makes their existence miserable.
I admit that this idea depends on the government having huge productive capacity on its own. For this idea to work we need to cut out the middlemen. If society needs steel or molybdenum or timber or corn or or or . . . it needs to not be held hostage by rich people because of ancient customs. It is our society that produces all of those things now - we have now a set of customs that block us - we have to kowtow to the whims of those who now, by custom, own the means of production. But we can break out of that custom and just set up our own productive apparatus - that is what I mean by the government having a huge productive capacity of its own - if the government needs more steel it can just make more steel.
Yeah right sez the skeptic. Building steel production capacity is hugely expensive. Where will the money come from? I have two points to make about that. First - government is already a huge source of capital, especially for innovation. The recent rescue of failed car companies and abusive financiers shows that the government has lots of capital. The question must be asked, why rescue profit grabbers - why not just produce on our own for our own benefit? Second - we aren’t really talking about money when we talk about building productive capacity. Instead we are talking about how to support the builders. How do we provide the builders with a satisfying life that lets them build. Surely, a society that is fabulously productive like ours is can do that easily.
I’m not proposing a revolutionary change here. I’m just proposing a guaranteed income for all citizens as a right that would let them live comfortable lives whether they had jobs or not. It is conceivable that such a scheme would actually save society money. Last winter it was revealed that here in Vancouver each homeless person costs about $30,000 a year to pay for the social workers that work with them. My modest proposal would only cost $24,000 a year for each homeless person. Right now there are huge bureaucracies that administer our miserly welfare and unemployment insurance programs - its hard to find data about just what these bureaucracies cost, but it could well be that my proposal would save money setting up a computer that prints out cheques for each adult citizen. It wouldn’t be that simple of course - the stipend agency would have to have a bureaucracy, and there would be people who cheat who would need to be detected. But it is quite possible that my proposal would not only be more humane that the system we have now, but would also be cheaper.