Universal Basic Income as the Foundation of Freedom

I favor a Universal Basic Income (UBI) because it offers financial security and predictability, which in turn provide freedom from necessity. This “freedom from” is required for any meaningful “freedom to“. By allowing people to effortlessly and foreseeably pay for the material resources that they need for a minimally decent life, a UBI liberates them to pursue the goals they have set for their lives – or even set these goals in the first place. Life’s pursuits all too often get pushed aside by urgencies, necessities and bouts of bad luck. The struggle to survive may even imply an incapacity to formulate goals.

What matters … is not only the protection of individual rights, but assurances of the real value of those rights: we need to be concerned not only with liberty, but, in John Rawls’s phrase, with the “worth of liberty.” At first approximation, the worth or real value of a person’s liberty depends on the resources the person has at her command to make use of her liberty. So it is therefore necessary that the distribution of opportunity – understood as access to the means that people need for doing what they might want to do – be designed to offer the greatest possible real opportunity to those with least opportunities, subject to everyone’s formal freedom being respected. Philippe Van Parijs (source)

There’s another type of “freedom from” that a UBI would achieve: it would liberate us from alienated labor (to use a strong term). I personally believe that the alienating characteristics of our current system of work are sadly ignored (read this and this). A basic income gives people the freedom to turn down unattractive work and to start cooperative ventures that are more rewarding, in the sense of more pleasant but also more in line with the goals people have set for their lives.

As a pleasant by-product, we would be able to shake off some recurrent criticisms of our existing welfare systems:

  • No more discussions about welfare queens, social security fraud, the undeserving poor, a culture of poverty, etc.
  • No more government intrusion in the private lives of welfare beneficiaries, no more means testing, fraud investigations, social security inspections, income audits, family structure controls etc.
  • We would be able to implement drastic reductions in the level of regulation, legislation and government bloat inherent in our current social security systems. A smaller government, suitably defined, may also lead to an increase in the overall level of freedom.
  • Healthcare consumption would become more wise and efficient since people have to use their basic income to pay for all of their non-catastrophic health problems. (Perhaps this rationalization could offset some of the fiscal criticism leveled against a UBI).
  • Unemployment would no longer be a problem: the concept of unemployment would become meaningless.

Some additional advantages of a UBI:

  • We would no longer be fixated on economic growth since the main justification of growth is its perceived role in the reduction of unemployment. Hence we would perhaps be able to meet some environmental concerns.
  • Increased gender equality. Wives, often still the main caregivers within families, would be less economically dependent on husbands if they have a basic income. With less dependence comes more freedom and equality. Women – as well as caring men – could even use their basic income to start up cooperatives for the caring function, making use of advantages of scale and becoming more economically active outside of the home. That as well would increase their independence.

Cooperation and Excellence in Capitalism and Communism

An important and valuable aspect of work which has been lost in many activities is cooperation. The modern industrial production process is characterized by unconscious cooperation. The division of labor – within a factory or within the wider economy – is cooperation, but the workers in a factory or the baker and the butcher buying each other’s products, are unaware of it. The conscious cooperation of individuals producing something together is more valuable, educating and rewarding for the individuals than individual production or unconscious cooperation which, unfortunately, is the predominant type in capitalist production.

Cooperation also typically transcends the generations. It is important to build on the achievements of the past. So even when you can work alone in a meaningful way, for example as a craftsperson (which perhaps has become rather unlikely these days), you are not really alone because the past masters of the art are looking over your shoulder and guiding you. And maybe you have a pupil.

And here’s where another important aspect of work has to be rediscovered in our era of deskilled and atomized production: the standards of excellence. Absorbing the history and tradition of a practice makes us better persons and enables us to produce, be creative, express ourselves and develop our personalities. Without abilities taught to us by tradition this is impossible.

Excellence, as conscious cooperation, is often lacking in contemporary capitalist production. The atomization of workers resulting from the division of labor promotes ever more detailed and limited knowledge, rather than insight in and mastery over processes. Workers are also deskilled because of automation. Skill and knowledge are incorporated into machines and computers, and a worker is still, in many cases, a mere machine-appendix with no need to know how the machine works.

Communism has rightly accused capitalism of neglecting the need for conscious cooperation and excellence, but it has failed, even theoretically, to offer an alternative. The alternative for unconscious cooperation is real corporate democracy, something that is only hinted at in communist theory and not likely to follow from the simple abolition of private property. Likewise, the communist solution to the problem of excellence – the end of division of labor – isn’t satisfactory. Excellence or skill require education institutions and encouraging and supporting communities, which are often lacking or underperforming in industrial societies. The days of the atomized workers in anonymous industrial cities and extremely compartmented factories may be gone (in the West at least), but capitalism still isn’t known for its ability to foster supporting communities. And neither is communism. Only with supporting educational institutions and communities can individuals become someone, learn something and transform themselves through the activity of work.

It is obvious that corporate democracy is not enough to achieve this focus on excellence. And neither is the abolition of the division of labor. On the contrary. Excellence and skill require some modicum of division of labor. It is an illusion to believe in a future society where anyone can engage in or change into any activity he or she wishes, like Marx unfortunately did. This kind of variety and polyvalence is incompatible with excellence and skill. People are finite beings with limited time and abilities. One has to choose one’s “trade”, try to become skillful and hopefully lead a life of learning and growth, of productive and creative self-development and of self-expression within this “trade”. Some changes of heart are of course possible and desirable, but not limitless. But the word “trade” implies division of labor. Communism’s hope that automation would reduces the necessity for skills and trades is unrealistic and undesirable as well, given the benefits of excellence (i.e. education, community, belonging, support etc.). But this division between “trades” is rather different from the highly atomized world of divided labor in current industrial processes.

Excellence is not only incompatible with the complete abolition of division of labor. It also requires giving up the demand for total worker equality. The capitalist ideology of managerial expertise is groundless and oppressive. It reduces the workers to executors of the managers’ plans. It is obvious that the knowledge necessary to plan is not acquired through theoretical thinking but rather through working practice. So the division between workers and managers is artificial and will not hold.

But, on the other hand, complete worker equality will not hold either. Achieving standards of excellence leads, by definition, to differences between people, and it requires dependence (often temporary) on teachers, “masters” and tradition. One can see such a relationship as a form of domination to be combated, and it certainly is in many capitalist companies where it is often even undone of its original educational aspects. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be viewed as transformative for the “pupil”. Excellence leads to a good product and to a better producer as well, to someone who can become somebody and who expresses and develops his or her personality through production. This personal transformation through learning and production goes way beyond the transformation of skills. It touches the entire personality.

The Fable of An Randy’s Libertism

Once upon a time, An Randy made her life. She wrote stories and became famous and wealthy. She attributed her success to her talent, effort and intelligence, and to the near total freedom she enjoyed in her beloved country of residence. Her freedom-loving philosophy permeates her writing, inspires her readers, and has become a social movement with a smallish yet enthusiastic following. Called “libertism”, the philosophy champions heroic individualism, productive and creative achievement, and near total liberty and self-centeredness as preconditions for this achievement. It requires a minimal government, minimal taxation, no redistribution and no welfare. Freedom from government is necessary for creative achievement, and redistribution implies theft of resources that are the product of solitary and well-deserved achievement.

Randy did not believe that her success or the success of similarly talented and disciplined creators is dependent on the receptiveness of an audience. The success of the talented depends merely on their talent, not on fashion, audience preferences, cooperation, marketing, being in the right place at the right time etc. Hence, because there’s no luck or cooperation involved in success, the fruits of this success are the product only of talent and effort. An individual therefore deserves his or her success, and should not be forced to share its fruits.

Libertism views success as an individual achievement rather than the product of a combination of individual achievement, talent, luck and social cooperation. In other words, there’s no real division of labor or joint production. The creators are Robinson Crusoes, producing everything by themselves. Libertism denounces the “socialist” vision in which everything is jointly created, in which every creator depends on a large web of support and in which no creator can do anything without a vast army of teachers, parents, food producers, road workers, bus drivers, doctors, police officers, book printers, librarians, internet providers, etc. Libertism believes the members of the creative class produce their work and achievements only by themselves and by their own efforts alone. Division of labor is necessary only for menial production.

The moral of An Randy’s story: were it not for the silly preferences of a part of the general audience, the feverish cooperation of a number of fanatic devotees and a suitable working environment, she would have had no success at all. Double irony: because she proved, unwittingly, that achievement is essentially a cooperative effort, she also showed that the fruits of achievement should be distributed across all participants; hence, that taxation, redistribution and reductions of income inequality are justified.

PS: no prizes for guessing whom this is really about…

Religion and Human Rights (30): Religion, Charity and Cooperation

I’m often very critical of the role of religion in politics and of the harm it can do to human rights, I can see its benefits. One of the benefits is that religious people are more generous and give more to charity. However, the following quote tells another story:

This paper examines the supernatural punishment theory. The theory postulates that religion increases cooperation because religious people fear the retributions that may follow if they do not follow the rules and norms provided by the religion. We report results for a public goods experiment conducted in India, Mexico, and Sweden. By asking participants whether they are religious or not, we study whether religiosity has an effect on voluntary cooperation in the public goods game. We found no significant behavioral differences between religious and nonreligious participants in the experiment. …

In a dictator game, Eckel and Grossman (2004) examined differences in the amount and pattern of giving to secular charities in response to subsidies by self-identified religious and nonreligious participants. The results indicate no significant difference in either the amount or pattern of giving. Tan (2006) used the dictator game and the ultimatum game and similar to Eckel and Grossman (2004) he found that religiosity as a whole yields no significant influence in the experiments. Second, one paper has focused on whether religiosity affects cooperation. Orbell et al. (1992) used the prisoner’s dilemma game to test the hypothesis that religious people are more cooperative. They conducted their experiment in what was considered more religious and less religious towns. They found no general relationship between religious affiliation and cooperation. …

We arrive at the following observations. There are no significant differences between religious and nonreligious participants regardless of what country we are studying. Hence, in line with previous experimental results, we found no supporting evidence for the hypothesis that religiosity enhances cooperation. (source)

What is Democracy? (1): International Democracy

Is democracy possible at a level that is higher than that of the state? A number of problems can only be solved at a transnational level. If democracy is important, then it is important that transnational decisions and organizations are democratic and based on the agreement of the people.

But is it possible ? Democracy is not at its best on a large scale. Efficient participation is difficult in very large groups. On the other hand, international cooperation can stop events taking place without the agreement of the people. If we have international cooperation, we can avoid the situation in which one country takes a decision that has a negative effect in another country (for example, the decision to build a nuclear plant just at the border with another country, without involving the people of this other country; or the decision of one country to start destroying its rain forests, irrespective of the consequence for the global climate). International cooperation in the sense of defense cooperation in institutions like NATO can protect the national sovereignty of individual states and therefore also the right to self-government of the people of these individual states. And finally, international cooperation allows a nation to solve problems which it cannot solve on its own (pollution for example). In everyone of these three cases do we see that international cooperation has a positive influence on self-government.

It is obvious that international organizations, set up to solve international problems and hence to give control to the people, must be democratic, at least when we remember that self-government is among the reasons for solving international problems. Some of these problems inhibit self-government because an individual nation is not able to deal with them. International organizations are set up to recreate self-government by solving problems that inhibit self-government. Therefore, one should not create an undemocratic international institution, because the purpose of such an institution is precisely self-government.

How can we make international organizations more democratic than they currently are? There are not many examples to inspire us. In any case, the people of the different states have to be represented in these organizations and not only in their own states. Direct democracy is also a possibility. Perhaps we can presume that we have a democratic decision from the moment that democratic states, in their position of members of the organization, take a common decision. These states represent the people and hence the people are indirectly involved in the decision. However, do these states have to decide unanimously? Or can we also apply the system of majority rule at an international level? In the latter case, we put aside entire nations. Is this acceptable? It is certainly not acceptable for the nations concerned. The reason why these nations joined the organization in the first place, was to solve problems that escaped their power and to recapture their sovereignty. They will never accept to be outvoted.

The fact that international organizations take away a part of the sovereignty of states in order to be able to solve certain problems, does not have to imply a weakening of democracy. On the contrary, it can imply the rescue of democracy, on the condition of course that these organizations are governed democratically. The people of every individual state have less democratic power because they are minorities in a larger entity, but the “people” of the whole have more democracy because they are now able to solve problems they were not able to solve when they were still divided.

International cooperation can also promote democracy because it implies mutual influence. A state that needs other states in order to solve environmental problems for example will find it more difficult to ignore demands from these other states aimed at an improvement of the human rights situation. The shield of sovereignty loses its strength and can no longer be used to counter criticism of human rights violations, because it is precisely the lack of sovereignty or self-government which forced the states to cooperate.