Basic income is something for nothing – why does anyone deserve that?

basic income series
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One of the (many) criticisms levelled at the concept of basic income is that no one deserves something for nothing. And yet an unconditional basic income is precisely that – something for everyone without anything in return.

Why would we want to do that? Wouldn’t it mean that people didn’t bother working? Why do people who give nothing to society deserve anything anyway?

All of this assumes that we are only of value as producers and consumers. That if we aren’t moving money around the system, there isn’t much point to us. And it also is based on the understanding that our economic system requires constant growth.

And yet it’s obvious (or it should be) that we can’t have constant growth that depends on stuff. Because the stuff is limited – by resources, by space, by how much anyone can consume in one life time. So the economic model that depends on production will have to change at some point. And as technology improves, it reduces the need for much of the labour that we’ve needed in the past – robots in factories replacing people, industrialised processes taking physical effort out of the equation. The holy grail of total employment is steadily receding, and instead we need to look for other ways to build a society.

Our current situation doesn’t recognise the input of volunteers and carers either. It’s somehow more valid to set up as a childminder and look after other people’s children for pay than it is to look after your own for no money. Which doesn’t make a great deal of sense when you think about it logically.

All of this of course, tends to only apply to people at the bottom end of the financial spectrum. There’s any number of people getting something for nothing at the other end. How else would you describe inheritance? It all looks well and good in today’s world, what we don’t tend to recognise is how the families with the most got to that situation. It was rarely by hard work, more often that not it was down to being bigger and meaner than other people. Have a think about land ownership. There used to be common rights all over this country for people to graze their animals and make their own living from the land. These rights were gradually removed in a process that displaced people from the land, and made them easy labour for the industrial revolution. Look up enclosure, if you never have before, it’s illuminating. Once you own land, there are all sorts of ways to make money out of it. And not owning, or having access to land, makes it very difficult to be self sufficient. One of the reasons that I find Land Value Tax an interesting idea for funding basic income.

The current system (in the UK) actually relies on the imbalance of power across society. People work in awful conditions often, to get hardly enough money to get by on. The previous governmental answer of supplementing low wages with tax credits increases control over the workforce as people feel guilty for needing government assistance. It never seems to be the people setting pay rates that feel guilty about it :/ And as mentioned above, there is less and less requirement for labour any way, opening people up to other types of exploitation, like zero hours contracts and so on.

I think it’s time to consider an alternative.

What effect would it have on society if everyone were entitled to the same basic income? There would be no mileage in the scroungers v strivers rhetoric that we here so much of at the moment. People would be freed up from the anxiety of chasing low paying jobs, though entirely at liberty to take on work to top up their income. (It’s called basic, it’s not designed to be luxurious.) Previous trials imply that people do still work even when the basics are covered, there’s a very low decrease in hours, and I suspect that that slack might well be taken up by people currently in a welfare trap. The labour force as it is would be far more flexible.

But what of people’s work ethic? I’ve heard a lot of people worried about this. I’ve got to say, I don’t think there’s much ethical about forcing people to take work that doesn’t pay enough to survive on. But maybe that’s just me?

About Jax Blunt

I'm the original user, Jax Blunt I've been blogging for 14 years, give or take, and if you want to know me, read me :)

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  1. Yep, and if people were not so busy fighting tooth and nail to stay alive, they’d probably be more able and have more energy to do, make, design, imagine and bring to life things that improve life for everyone. xx

  2. Spot on. A basic income would enable us to value people for what they are and appreciate the many contributions everyone makes to the world. Our current narrow focus on individuals as consumers and earners excludes large tracts of life and I think is responsible for many mental health problems. Reduce a person to a cash value and you will always come up short. We’re worth more than that. Everyone contributes to the world, and enriches it in their own way. I think a basic income would massively improve society across the board.

  3. The Hebrew word for charity is Tzedaka, which literally means justice. Because everyone is entitled to shelter, food and heat – this is just. Your entitlement to live as a human being is not dependent on your contribution to society – where would that put people who are disabled or sick and cannot contribute? No one asked to be born.
    That everyone who can should contribute to society is basic in my book, but this is a different subject. That those who give an enormous amount in financial terms should reap bigger rewards is fine by me. And as you say, volunteers and carers contribute hugely without reward.

  4. I think the work ethic idea is a tbrow back to protestant times and so is, imo, a completely outmoded idea in this secular day and age. It is a old fashioned tool of control and terribly devisive. This idea of only being of value when you contribute economically is why people like LB can die without a second thought being given by those in positions of power/authority. Immoral, disgustng and damn well needs to change, and a citizen’s income would be a good place to start from.

  5. Really interesting stuff. I’m enjoying your series on Basic Income, thank you.

    Totally agree that our current model, valuing only one kind of contribution and systematically devaluing even that for many people by state subsidy, is flawed.

  6. I previously agreed with this but now I’m not so sure. After having to leave my partner and home rather suddenly I’m now in what you’d call a “welfare trap” – going to work would cost me more in childcare fees than my earning potential. Under basic income childcare would still cost more but I’d have less money to live with than I would now – leaving life completely unsustainable. Which leaves me asking – what about the people who are unable to work regardless of basic income?

    • Hi Lauren. The figures I’m using for basic income are plucked out of the air at the moment, and no one should be in the situation you describe. I’m trying to work out at the moment how I think children/people with extra expenses such as disabilities should fit in to the system. I think my next post will be on that.

      • Hi Jax. One possible solution to the ‘extra expenses’ situation is to leave some of the existing benefits in place, rather than replacing them all with Basic Income (e.g. Disability Living Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, etc.). As long as the Basic Income amount is high enough, no one would ever be in the situation that Lauren describes.

        This might raise further doubt as to whether we could afford to give everyone a Basic Income in addition to some of the existing benefits, but I would say that’s it’s more than possible. For example, if Land Value Tax were introduced (and it definitely should be), that alone would go a long way towards funding Basic Income. We could also introduce a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on financial transactions which would generate billions annually. We could also re-structure VAT to be 50% for most things, especially ‘luxury’ items, which would bring in a few hundred billion a year. Business Rates and Corporation Tax could also be increased, though I doubt we’d need to. As I said, LVT on its own could (and should) fund Basic Income. If LVT isn’t high enough to fund it on its own, then we have many other options at our disposal.

    • Basic Income doesn’t require giving up all other government programs. Many countries provide free childcare and universal health care.

  7. I think my conversion to basic income was complete when I realised that my severely disabled daughter would never be an ‘economic unit’, or able to support herself in any way. In fact she will always need a lot of resources and time devoted to her. So she will always need ‘something for nothing’ . I do NOT believe that that makes her less of a human being xx
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  8. Joseph Lloyd Brutal Truths says:

    What’s that saying? Everyone knows the price of everything and the value of nothing or something like that. I think we’re all idiots. It costs the same amount to print a £5 note and a £50 note and have assigned values to this worthless piece of paper. There is something seriously wrong in this style of thinking across all areas of our lives in my opinion

  9. Moggy Paw Lore says:

    My Group on Facebook used to be called Nothing4Something. The statement about the group is still the same which I thought might be of interest:

    We are sick. Sick of the ‘something for nothing rhetoric’ when we are in fact people who receive nothing for something. We give something and expect nothing or very little in return. This is a group to celebrate the creative diversity and art forms of the long term sick and disabled, and those with long term health problems be they mental, physical or both, visible or invisible, fluctuating or chronic. We create not only for the health and benefit of ourselves but for the wider community. Our expression is through our writing, our art, music, satire, film, photography, video, radio, poetry, crafts, song, novels, blogs, diverse thought….

    If we make any money at all, it is not enough to live on. Successive governments don’t value the arts unless they are economically productive. They only value us as economic units, hence all the talk of ‘something for nothing’. We are all nothing to them unless we are economically self-reliant. When they refer to hard-working people, when did you last hear this in relation to artists? In an aggressive Capitalist society, we are dispensable if we can’t be self-reliant, even though our health problems prevent us from being self-reliant. The arts is precarious, our health is precarious.

    Article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says that: “States Parties shall take appropriate measures to enable persons with disabilities to have the opportunity to develop and utilize their creative, artistic and intellectual potential, not only for their own benefit, but also for the enrichment of society.”

    This group is also to acknowledge those who give their time and expertise to others freely out of kindness and altruism, those who care for others, family members and animals, who help others get legal or benefits advice, or help others get access to justice. Many of these people offering such expertise are unwell or disabled themselves.

    The Big Society is alive and kicking on the internet. People give and share their creative endeavours for free or for little remuneration. A government that really cared about the creative talent of its people would invest in its artists. They would encourage the long term sick and disabled who spend their time creatively and beneficially, instead of seeing them as only economic units to be bullied, controlled and disempowered.

    We resist.

    We won’t have our arts broken. ‘Or as one member suggested ‘Don’t Go Breakin’ Our Arts (for those of us old enough to remember!)

  10. You write “Wouldn’t it mean that people didn’t bother working?” A question everyone asks, and it deserves an answer.

    You give one legitimate answer: It is not a big disaster if not everyone works. People have no social duty to work; leisure, arts, volunteering have value too. We already have too much stuff. I have no quarrel with this line of thinking.

    The other answer is the one I would give as an economist: It is more likely that a UBI would increase work rather than reduce it, especially if it were put in place of the existing welfare system, which discourages work by withdrawing benefits when you earn a little money. Evidence from things like lottery winnings and inheritance suggests that just giving someone a windfall of money doesn’t affect the amount they work very much, but giving them welfare which is withdrawn at a fast rate when they start earning on their own discourages work greatly. The latter effect outweighs the former. For a lot more on the economists’ point of view, check out this series of blog posts:

  11. The short answer to the title of this post: Inheritance is something for nothing—why does anyone deserve that?

    I think Basic Income is consistent with many religions and philosophies. For Christians, it’s especially simple: it’s part of the poor inheriting the earth.

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