Economics, Politics, Tech

Universal Basic Income and the Threat of Tyranny

Much praise has been heaped on the idea of a universal basic income in recent years. Experiments have begun in many countries, some mainstream politicians are starting to advocate it, and if we listen to many thinkers, especially among the Internet and tech crowds, it seems like our inevitable future. This is quite understandable, as the idea attempts to solve a real problem: with the advance of technology, fewer and fewer people are required to produce the amount of wealth required to sustain more and more people. Rather than invent more and more artificial jobs and scarcities, why not just accept the reality of this changing world, where not all people are needed for working, and instead release them to pursue their hobbies, studies, or charity?

There has been criticism of the idea, but so far the debate tends to focus on two issues: the economic reasoning behind a universal basic income, and the ethics of allowing a majority of non-workers to live off the fruits of the labour of a small minority. What is not discussed enough, however, are the political implications–what would a universal basic income do to the relations between citizens and government. Because when we examine historical trends in politics and economics, we can spot a basic pattern: political rights are strongly correlated with economic participation. Societies where the state economy depends on small inputs from many different citizens tend to give their citizens significantly more rights, including the right of participation in the government itself. Societies where the state economy comes from natural resources, or other sources that require only a small, fixed number of people to defend or maintain them, tend to develop autocratic regimes with little concern for the welfare of their citizens.

This is far from a new observation. Already in classical Greece, Plato reached the same conclusion about the Greek city-states, though in his time the main factor was military more than economic. He observed that city-states with a military based on hoplites (elite infantry who came from the upper classes of society, mostly through the requirement that they finance the expensive armor and equipment for themselves, meaning poor people could not be included) tend to develop an oligarchic government; city-states whose army was based on warships (which in those days required a great number of rowers, a job which did not require much equipment or training, therefore was available for the lower classes) would develop democracy.

Similar trends continue wherever we look: European feudalism developed in fertile lands, where mostly independent farmers grew their crops and needed nothing but protection from violence, which they got from their decentralized states, led by weak kings who depended heavily on more and more layers of nobles and professionals who could assert their rights; to the East, meanwhile, the dry lands of Mesopotamia and Egypt required large-scale irrigation projects to cultivate, which could not be done by single families – they depended on the state to create them, and those states developed centralized, absolute monarchies.

We don’t have to go back to ancient history to see this trend – these days we have many countries in the world whose incomes are based on extracting resources from the ground, requiring little to no participation from the common people. Which countries are functioning democracies, and which are autocracies? The World Bank gives us a list of countries ordered by what percentage of their merchandise exports comes from fuels. At 50% or more we find, in this order: Iraq, Angola, Algeria, Brunei, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Oman, Norway, Colombia, Bolivia and Bahrain. Can we notice a trend? How many of these countries provide a good set of political rights for their citizens?

This should not be surprising. This pattern is not often discussed, as it conflicts the image we like to have of political rights as being the result of enlightenment and struggle, of the heroes of our past who overthrew despotic regimes and created a better world for everyone. But reality, unfortunately, seems more cynical than that. We do not get our rights because we deserve them, or even because we fight for them – we get our rights because the government needs us. It is a common hope that countries that escape poverty will move on to adopt democracy, and this indeed happened in some notable cases, like South Korea or Taiwan. But South Korea and Taiwan became rich from industry, which means their wealth came from the work of their citizens; meanwhile, Qatar or Angola became rich from natural resources, and their political situation became no better. A country that generates its wealth from its citizens has no choice but to keep those citizens happy, at least to some degree; a country that generates its wealth from oil wells, only needs to keep a handful of mercenaries happy as they guard the access to those wells.

And this is the real danger of a universal basic income – it makes the citizens unnecessary to the government. In the suggested world of universal basic income, what puts pressure on the government to maintain democracy and political rights? Will they be afraid of a popular uprising? The people have nothing to threaten them with. A person who does not pay taxes cannot threaten to stop paying them. Violent revolution? History shows that governments tend to be significantly better than common people in using violence. All the citizens have left is the good will of the people in power, which can last for one or two generations, but past examples give little reason to be optimistic about long term sustainability. We have no shortage of examples from recent years – how much of the “Arab Spring” was made of people demanding political rights from governments who had no need for them? If tens of thousands of people in an industrial country start an uprising, it can paralyze the national economy and create serious problems for the government. If millions of people start an uprising in an oil state, what can they do? Unless they have support from some external force, as in some examples we have seen in recent years, they will be no more than a nuisance for a heartless regime. We might wish that were not the case, but the world is full of dead protesters and revolutionaries who say otherwise.

This problem is not necessarily impossible to solve, but it does need to be acknowledged and addressed. If we are going to go down the path of a universal basic income, it will not be enough to plan our economic models for it – we need to think about the political implications. We need to develop new ideas about government and the relationship between the government and its citizens. What is the value of a non-working citizen in such a society? This might sound like a cynical question to ask, but the people who do the work to finance those non-working citizens will certainly ask it, and in this scenario, they will have the power over the life and death of those citizens. What motivation do the people in power have to keep supporting these citizens? How many children will people have when they don’t need to work to provide for them? It has often been taken for granted that as societies advance, fertility drops, but this has only been happening for a short time and in societies where having children requires hard work to provide for them. Will the working minority agree to support non-workers with ten or twenty children per family? Will that be sustainable?

If we cannot imagine a government that decides to abuse its power against the non-working people, let’s also think a bit more about the nature of those non-working people. Commentators love to imagine society after universal basic income as full of people studying, working on crafts and hobbies, and generally living happy and fulfilling lives. But we need to prepare for other eventualities as well. There is no shortage of people who use their spare time to practice hatred and violence, and not always out of some competition for resources. What happens if people use their new free time to organize in gangs, militias, or cults that despise the workers and promulgate hateful ideas? Will the workers still be happy to finance them? How many working people would vote against taking universal basic income rights away from Nazis and terrorists? And once that is done, can we be sure they will not get an appetite to take them away from more and more people they dislike?

And finally, we need to think more about the issue of the vote. So far we’ve taken for granted that government lies in the hands of the working people. But when they truly become a minority, can democracy even still work? Will working people accept a vote by non-working people to increase their universal basic income? If so, what stops them from increasing it indefinitely? In such a world where working people are a minority, it seems quite possible that not only they will be able to take away the political rights of the non-workers, they might even have to. If the non-workers not only live without working, but also get to set the rules for the working people, we would truly have to be utopian fantasists to imagine a good relationship between the two groups, certainly in the long run. More resources are not going to be enough to compensate people for working – they will also need a privileged political status. And that is definitely something we need to prepare for and think about.

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Tech

by

Shai Shapira is a computer programmer and writer. He writes in Hebrew and in English about global politics, economy and technology. Find him at shaishapira.com.

82 Comments

  1. but there are obvious counter-examples, such as Norway. The autocratic regimes of Arab monarchies existed long before the oil was found anyway. It seemed the author melded two articles into one: one about basic income and the other about the role of government, as if the latter implies the former. The last paragraph sorta torpedoes the entire thesis, as if he began writing a 3rd article that criticizes the one he originally began. Terrible article. the editor should have binned it

    • Melvin Backstrom says

      What a bad response to a good article. Norway is not a counter-example since its democratic culture developed over centuries, existing long before the discovery of oil that has made it so rich in the 1960s. And yes, autocratic Arab monarchies (though in many cases not the same ones in existence at present) existed long before oil was discovered. As the author points out, however, in the Middle East going back to ancient Sumer and Egypt, agriculture has been a highly organized state-controlled activity, very different than the feudalism of western Europe. As for your contention that the author mashes three different articles together, one could only come to such a conclusion if one lacks the ability to follow the thread of his argument. I certainly could. Maybe you should give it another read.

    • Sarka says

      That’s a bit harsh. The theme is worth exploring. I hadn’t thought about it before so I am grateful for the prompt. As far as I know, there are not all that many counter-examples…Norway is a rather partial one, because the country is now feverishly trying to diversify income sources because of the oil price problem (including fisheries, aluminium, health services) and only has an unemployment rate of 4 percent. The problem with the theory is, obviously, any independent role of political and economic culture, but the author is right that where people are unnecessary to wealth-generation they tend not – from low bottom lines – to acquire political rights easily…One good illustration of this is the situation of women – some analyst showed quite persuasively that countries where there is no necessity for women to join the work force (oil states, mostly) are very slow to improve legal and political rights for women. But of course they may still do so as a result of international cultural pressures, at least to some extent.

  2. Dammit man stop destroying my Utopian dream. This is certainly something we need to work on. A study I recall some time ago suggested that corporations have the greatest input in governmental policy decision so consumers may still have an impact using purchasing power. Though I suppose corporations could likely commandeer a certain amount of that through government as well. Democracy potentially faces a harsh test in the near future. Excellent article and foresight.

    • I think it’s almost certain that any basic income that was actually widely implemented would require the citizens to either work, be in school, or volunteer a certain number of hours to get it – depending on ability. Someone with a difficult condition might have to have a part time job or do at least 5 hours of volunteering a week while some would have no condition and the basic income cheque would either displace some of the government money already going to them or they wouldn’t get one since they are already being supported.

      Since the volunteer hours would be unpaid I don’t see a strong push for the average person to simply do minimum volunteer work and flood charity organizations with more volunteers than they could ever handle. (That would be a great problem to have) The kind of citizens in a volunteering required basic income country could very well be more attentive to the performance of the government than those who, as we should keep in mind, sometimes face the responsibility numbing choice between getting a job and losing welfare benefits for less of a financial gain than in self respect and potential future earning.

  3. Rick Stewart says

    A lot of interesting points, but they get lost in a fundamental misunderstanding of how a well designed UBI would actually work.

    Most importantly, a UBI does not mean people who receive it would not work. Everybody gets it! And everybody would be free to work, also, without losing their UBI.

    Second, just because you receive a UBI does not mean you don’t pay taxes. Everybody pays taxes! And gets the UBI!

    Third, no initial UBI would be very big. Think about $12,000 a year, maximum. At the margin there would be a few people who would say ‘that’s enough, to hell with working!’, but almost all of the rest of us would want a bit more to live on, and would go to work to get it.

    Fourth don’t listen to the tech guys, whose understanding of UBI is universally dismal. Read Charles Murray instead.

    Finally, UBI is completely different than the resource curse (oil). The resource curse arises only because the government owns the resource. The government doesn’t own the economy, and it is the economy that creates the wealth which the UBI redistributes. Of course a stupid government could always decide to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That’s called communism, or socialism.

    • biopower says

      I don’t understand what would be the point of getting UBI + paying tax. How is that not just makework? The money gets handed out by the government, then more government action is required to levy some of it back. How this is helpful for anyone other than those employed in the makework scheme escapes me. Help me out? (Ah, I think I get it. Rather than reducing the UBI of working people, you keep the UBI as it is and then just tax from their earned income.)

      We already have various kinds of food stamps and social security for people who are at the bottom of the barrel – so what is the point? Don’t answer that.

    • First, you can’t get the UBI and pay taxes, that is the fallacy of the car sales contract where you trade in your 10,000 car for a 30,000 car and finance 20,000, but they write it up as you bought a 50,000 car and they gave you 30,000 for your trade. If you get the UBI, you do not pay taxes. If you believe that, why not just say the UBI = 100,000/year and you pay an 88% tax so see! EVERYBODY pays a high tax rate!

      Second, if UBI = a living wage, then the “everybody would be free to work” assumes a behavior model that is empirically false. Read some of the recent postings here on the topic of rationality for references. Some individuals would work because they want more than the UBI provides, others might work for societal good, and still others would not work at all. What is very likely to happen is that those working for societal good would accept a lower wage (on top of UBI) which would then depress the +wage that those seeking >> UBI would be able to demand.

      Third, the position that “ubi isn’t big, it’s only X” is a strawman. Again, either UBI = livable wage, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, what’s the point. It simply becomes inflationary since you still have people needing to work so you have what, minimum wage on top of UBI? If it is a livable wage, then the # associated cannot be thought of as “not big.” In the < livable case, we already have that with tax credits, welfare, EBT, ACA benefits and free cell phones.

    • Sarka says

      I am not sure you have quite understood the article. I don’t think that the design of UBI, which could be better or worse, gets you round the problem that with a large part of the population basically being supported by the labour of a few, that population has very little leverage against the authorities-administrators of the system. I suppose though, that there have been real examples of societies in which many people have essentially done very unproductive, sometimes even “pretend” work in return for a secure living wage – these were the communist societies especially in their late phases, They turned out to be not very viable, however, because they could not compete with more market-based societies for delivering consumer goods, even if they were somewhat better at delivering basic life security for all (until the system broke down). Their experience at the end, though, suggests that even where a population doesn’t have a clear economic handle on its government/elites, it can bring that government down by mass direct action. And, perhaps, what happens next is not to be mechanically read out from economic dependences. The differences between the subsequent fates of East European states (post 89) and post “Arab Spring” states, have a lot to do with political culture and just social culture.

      • Sarka, I don’t know if you’re responding to me or to Rick. I got the point of the article and was highlighting how the “you don’t understand how UBI works” argument has some holes. Interestingly, Jared Diamond brings up a similar point when describing the amalgamation to larger social structures (tribes to chiefdoms to states, etc). When one group is absorbing another, there are 3 outcomes based upon the roles of the group members in relation to the whole. Hunter-gatherers killed the conquered, specialized & industrial would absorb as slaves, etc. In the case of the UBI/support argument, those content with the UBI are the top of the pyramid (those working to pay the taxes are the slaves) but with a weird quirk since the amalgamated additions to society fall into the UBI layer and not the worker layer. Trickle down of population — social security built backwards.

        Now, i’m not saying the UBI is completely flawed since I don’t have enough knowledge on the subject (I haven’t researched all there is on the economics) — but I do recognize that it is contrary to the open-borders concept since you would, by extension, be saying that the handful of workers would potentially be providing the UBI for the remainder of the world. Very Star-Trek utopia style. What is missed is that in the Star Trek universe there is an assumed lack of population pressure — the Federation has thousands of planets to populate. There is also the “replicator.” The replicator means limitless supply, so the supply-demand equation results in prices of 0.

      • The problem of “the many supporting the few” seems to be independent of UBI. Since it’s a problem of distribution of resources. IF the bottum has nothing, and the top continues on it’s happy way, because of income or wealth distribution disparities- whether they are the natural course of tech or crony capitalism doesn’t seem to matter… l there are three possibilities. The top subsidizes the bottum, the bottum revolts, and/or the top gets very reppressive.

    • rjmill says

      >The government doesn’t own the economy

      The point still stands then. Who owns the economy in this new environment? What’s to stop the government from abusing the people who don’t have any share in that golden goose?

    • Mr Stewart,

      As we used to say back in the Rugby playing days: with you! I would be curious to see what you think about UBI living with other programs. My own notion is to roll most of every social program into something like UBI, with almost no exceptions, except where we just take care of people who would otherwise blow up a risk pool from an actuarial perspective. Meaning, lump everything into a pool where it’s more or less market, and have a carve out for people who can’t make it in the market. No one should want to be in this latter category, but it should not be a death sentence. But, there should also never be perverse incentives against making the world a better place.

      As for the folks who don’t get the tax thing, it’s not a Ponzi scheme. If I am happy with my Mr Stuart allocated 12k, then well, no. It’s a wash. But! If I set up the Banana Stand and make an extra 12k, well, then I’ll be paying taxes on that. People don’t think incentives are real, but I actually know a retired millionaire who turned down extra hours at the grocery store he worked at to have something to do because it would affect his social security, which is less I know than his very conservative investment income. If you can make an extra buck, it shouldn’t cost you. This is the fundamental problem with social programs, at least in the US. And, I am *not* against social programs, only those who punish wanting to do something. I’ve been in those trenches, and they are not pretty. And it really, really sucks, because there is amazing talent there.

      With regards,

      Bill

    • Thank you for your opinion, absolutely agree with you!
      Great new to you, i think, we have already implemented UBI on blockchain!
      You can find our project here – http://big.foundation/! We are waiting for your feedback, join our telegram chat.
      Let’s make the future together!

  4. You’re missing a big chunk of analysis when you don’t take into account the design of the UBI. It is to be designed to give an incentive for good behavior and a disincentive for bad behavior.

    For example, regarding the number of children a woman has, if the UBI is explicitly designed to be constant regardless of how many children one has, it de-facto works as a disincentive to having children when one isn’t economically and emotionally ready for it. So the non-workers have every incentive to be very vigilant about using birth control when engaging in casual sex because the alternative is spending your UBI on diapers instead of the newest iPhone.

    The point I’m trying to make is that UBI, while not perfect, is the best idea in a world where perfect ideas don’t exist, IF it’s designed right – that is the incentives for social vices and goods need to be built into it.

    • Sam, but then you’re saying the UBI is not a “livable wage” so it is merely what we currently have — welfare & EBT only in the form of cash and not scaled to # of children. An odd position since the UBI is a socialist/Left spectrum concept — and they’re adamantly opposed to Right spectrum ideas like requiring work or limits to welfare based upon child-counts.

      • Actually the UBI was a pretty right wing idea at first. Hayek and Friedman were some of the first to tout the idea.

        • It was seen as a way to increase the freedom of the poor, without empowering the government to manipulate there behavior. It’s also really bureaucratically efficient compared to programs that involve means testing, and hoop jumping.

    • DiscoveredJoys says

      Even if UBI is designed well the political aspects still require attention. If UBI is truly universal what is to prevent an ‘Increase UBI’ political party starting up and being committed to increasing beyond the economic ability to deliver it? How many people would vote for ‘more free stuff’?

      Unless people claiming UBI (no longer Universal) surrendered their vote of course… but that is not democracy as we know it.

    • Olivia Stratton says

      So UBI is social engineering too. That’s really creepy and makes me want it even less. I don’t want some bureaucrat deciding which behaviors should be incentivized and which should be punished. That’s downright theocratic.

  5. As a diagnosis utilizing “past as predictor of future” this article is well written and has a valid point, however it does miss a significant part of the picture. UBI is only feasible in a near future where AI and automation take away a very large amount of potential work from humans. However that is not a trend where there will be an end to humans losing work/relevance — within a (historically) short timeframe humans will lose autonomy and willingly give up a large percentage of control over “government” to AI. So the concept of human government being corruptible is somewhat irrelevant in the long-run (40-50 years)… at that point we will be in truly uncharted territory where past cannot be used as predictor of future.

    This problem of prediction will also be made messier by rapid post-human development via genetic and cybernetic modification of ourselves — this could be at our discretion or even possibly mandated by the government to some degree (like vaccinations are today for school kids). This is going to serious warp the fabric of human societal norms and the gap between the “haves and the have-nots”.

    So the reality is: trying to get a grip on predicting the long-term impact of these rapidly approaching changes is much more complex than just slicing off the chunk of social ramifications you want to focus on, while assuming everything else will remain the same. To suss out any type of valid prediction you need to analyze the situation in a holistic way.

    • Jason, it isn’t AI taking away work potential. Unless/until there are no resource constraints, goods will always have a cost. This limits the bottom price of any good. UBI, by setting a demand, creates inflation. Why not set UBI at $1,000,000/year? If you set it at $12,000 “to buy steaks” then the price of steaks goes up because demand for steaks rise but supply. We’ve seen this with corn where there was a sudden high demand to receive the ethanol subsidies so we’re planting corn all over the place. End result? pollution. Give the UBI so there’s a big new demand for steaks over hamburgers/hotdogs? Lots of ranchers sprout up — money to be made! End result? Oh yeah, pollution.

      I’m being a bit extreme, but why not consider the counter argument — why doesn’t the government tax at 100% the first $12,000 worth of income from everyone. That would have the same behavior driving/social engineering outcomes wouldn’t it? Since tax is no longer for paying for government services but for social engineering?

    • It is possible that AI and other future technologies will create such different political conditions in the next few decades that these discussions will become irrelevant, but I would not recommend counting on it. Humans do not have a good record of predicting future technological advancements, so I’d recommend preparing for all options.

  6. Randy says

    “In the suggested world of universal basic income, what puts pressure on the government to maintain democracy and political rights?”

    What puts pressure on government NOW? Surely not its ability to demand taxes from us with the threat of imprisonment (and therefore the gun) for non-payment… We don’t pay these taxes willingly, and we have no additional power after paying them than before we paid.

    • It is true that the government forces us to pay taxes, but it does that at a cost – you can put anyone in jail for not paying taxes, but that would not make them pay taxes. From an economic point of view, it only hurts the government because not only this person is no longer working, but they are costing the government money. On a large scale, if you have a large population that hates the government and spends their time either in prison or in rebellion, this can cripple the economy of an industrial state, while being no more than a nuisance for an autocratic regime.

  7. AndreiA says

    The author misses couple of points
    First, UBI would provide minimum income that would give everyone access to food and shelter. Not fancy food or a good house. We have houses in the city one could buy for $10K, but believe me, you don’t want to live in those houses. So there still will be a very good incentive for the majority of people to earn additional income, and I don’t buy the argument that big chunk of the population would stop working completely.
    Second, the UBI is supposed to replace all government social programs, as the bureaucracy must be gobbling up big portion of the funds allocated to these programs. It’s about more efficient use of taxpayers money.

    • The author addressed your first point:
      Will working people accept a vote by non-working people to increase their universal basic
      income? If so, what stops them from increasing it indefinitely?
      One of the issues with ‘living standards’ arguments for things like taxpayer-funded social welfare schemes, minimum wage laws etc is that what is considered an acceptable minimum standard of living changes. As far as I’m aware this standard never decreases only increases and become more expensive.

      Another issue is that economic growth is reduced when people can simply vote themselves more wealth rather than earn it through industry.

  8. Eduardo says

    Why, oh, why is the assumption that people on basic income will stop working always made and in such absolute terms? No middle ground for part-time jobs or whatever… but what irks me the most is how there’s a trend towards more and more consumption of stuff like gadgets and weekend get-a-ways and we pretend that the majority of people would finally reject earthly possessions and become frugal monks.
    It goes “the carrot and the stick”, not “the stick and the stick”.
    But of course in ten years we won’t be wanting the latest VR headsets nor kitchen appliances that could automatically make awesome meals for us. Remember when all the poor people went “pffft, spending money on a microwave… me? not a chance!”?.
    I don’t think people will feel the urge to beat others down with riot police when they can still go “enjoy looking at my yacht 😉 yeah, I know, it’s pretty dope”. Why would they resent the idle just because they’re not hungry, homeless nor sick?

    • They don’t have to resent the idle, just consider them undeserving of political rights. I don’t think oil state leaders resent their populations, they just patronize them. They don’t send riot police because the idle are not hungry, they send riot police when those idles demand political rights.

  9. People seem to be forgetting that paying a mere $12,000 to every adult in the United States comes out to around $3.6 trillion, which is more than the federal government received in tax revenue last year.

    Unfortunately, the productive labor in biggest economy in the world is still not productive enough to support such a scheme. Adding an additional $3.6 trillion in debt every year would have completely absurd consequences, and very quickly lead to hyperinflation and currency collapse. It’s simply an unrealistic concept, we do not live in a post scarcity, Star Trek utopia yet.

    What I am most surprised about, is how many people seem to take the concept seriously. Is it just mass numerical or economic illiteracy? To me, it would be more interesting to study the people who are advocating for UBI.

    • Caroline Charlese Scott says

      No one seems to mention economic migration, immigration (legal and illegal), and the vast economic differences between the developed and developing nations that would create almost unimaginable problems in administering an equitable UBI. A UBI in only the US or a few developed nations would bring unstoppable global migration; look at the current economic immigration into Europe from Africa and the Middle East and multiply by 10, 100, 1000X?

    • IIRC Milton Friedman proposed UBI in a form that would not mean the money is received by every adult. Basically the idea was for everyone to have at least, say $12K. If someone’s income was below $12K it would be topped up. Concomitantly taxpayer-funded welfare and medical programs and their bureaucracies were to be ended.

      Of course it would discourage people from taking jobs of a similar salary, so it would be somewhat inflationary. However UBI would not be as expensive as $3.6T or even the welfare/public healthcare spending which is why Friedman proposed it.

  10. Moot point as 1) we already live in an almost tyranny of the rich 2) we already live in a system where a small number of people hoard almost all of the wealth in the ecosystem and 3) policies already revolve around the small number of people who control this wealth.

  11. If the political power of working people is based on their ability to withhold work, then we are already in the nightmare scenario the author posits – they have no power at already since in the vent of a strike they will starve before the boss runs out of money. Having UBI to fall back on would make it easier, not harder, for them to strike, therefore increasing their leverage, not decreasing it. The author has it exactly backwards.

    • “Having UBI to fall back on would make it easier, not harder, for them to strike” – the “them” in your argument are working people, whereas my article refers to people who already do not work and live off UBI. The warning in my article refers to the view of UBI as a way to end our expectation of every person to work.

      • Justin says

        I think it’s a bit facile to divide the population into those that work and those that don’t. If automation will create larger structural unemployment in the long-run (and I don’t think it’s obvious that this is true, but am sympathetic to the argument), this means that people will be unemployed more frequently and for longer durations. It doesn’t mean that you will develop a large underclass of the permanently non-working. In fact the current U.S. method of welfare is MORE likely to create this than a UBI would be for any level of automation.

        And this gets to the crux of my issue with your article (though there are many great points throughout). A UBI does not create the expectation that one should not work. You are conflating the effects of a UBI with the problem it is being proposed as a solution for. If, as you claim, a future is coming in which an entire class of people will exist who have no value to society, these people will simply starve without a safety net. But it is this loss in societal value, not the UBI, which creates the underclass. If you are worried about the political ramifications of how the working class will respond to this underclass, you should be even more worried about what will happen to this underclass if there is no income for them.

        • Indeed, I recognize in the article that UBI is a way to solve a real and important problem, I’m not advocating a simple continuation of the present situation. All I’m saying is that the discussion on how to solve this problem (with UBI or with another solution) should take this political issue into consideration.

    • Olivia Stratton says

      You seem to think “bosses” are the worst kind of tyranny. What about when the government says: “stop expressing X political opinion or we cut off your UBI”?

  12. Jason says

    There is a basic flaw in your assumption that UBI implies that the recipient is unnecessary
    and/or not incentivized to produce or consume. This need not nor should not be the case.

  13. Your last paragraph reminded me of this quote, misattributed to Alexis de Tocquerville.

    “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.”

  14. aaronvanderpoel says

    Very interesting perspective you’re coming from here. I had never thought about the relationship between the primary source of wealth and the system of government.

    But I don’t know how you claim some jobs and scarcities are artificial. What are the criteria for artificial in this case? Isn’t that what the free-market decides; it figures out the real jobs and scarcities from the artificial ones? People lived before electricity and indoor-plumbing, is a plumber an “artificial job” because we lived without them, or real because the market has proved their value?

    • I admit there is no clear definition of what is an artificial scarcity and what is not, but I’d use this basic rule of thumb – if someone’s job is to convince people they need a certain product, I’d definte that product as depending on artificial scarcity. I don’t think anyone needs to be convinced of the need for indoor plumbing; you might need to convince people to buy specifically from you, but the general need for indoor plumbing, I believe, was quite obvious even before the actual technology existed. On the other hand, I strongly suspect that a product such as a watch that connects to the Internet and makes phone calls, for example, is a product that could never exist without a strong marketing department.

      Of course, I could be wrong, perhaps these scarcities are real, or perhaps artificial scarcity could prove to be a sustainable model. But it definitely seems like many people have been questioning this idea, and this the basis of the modern UBI discussion.

  15. SARATH DAVALA says

    In this current Rentier Capitalism, we are living through a relationship between the working and non working population. Why do you need to wait for the implementation of universal basic income? Why don’t you analyse it now?

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  17. Pedro says

    Fewer and fewer people will be necessary to cover everybody’s needs regardless of the existence of a universal basic income. The Future here presented could happen anyway without a basic income. But billions of people without any income might be a bit problematic.

  18. Cassandra Wept says

    Good, thought-provoking article. The hope of John Maynard Keynes and many current UBI supporters is that people will simply be able to work fewer hours, and remain part of contributor class. As technological and unemployment increases there will inevitably be people who work less or don’t work at all.
    At this point, it’s anyone’s guess where our democratic institutions will be in 10 or 20 years.
    Re: inflation fears. It is not going to make anyone rich, just a little less poor, so, while a few more steaks might be sold, demand will rise to meet the supply and the price will stabilize. In high rent areas such as San Francisco, a little more money in the pockets of the working-class will result in somewhat higher rents, and an increased incentive to build affordable housing, again leading to some price stabilization.

  19. Koken says

    In a world where a reasonable level of UBI can be paid for with only a small percentage of the population working, it isn’t UBI that made the rest of the population redundant, it’s the techonological (or whatever) changes that made that economy possible. UBI is far more of a possible political response to that world than it is a cause of it.

    Of course, most near-term proposals rest on the idea that most people will work with UBI. If this is correct, the article’s premise is untrue (the economy still relies on a mass working population), and if it is incorrect the programs will not last long if implemented beyond a trial scheme at all, as this is the only way they are designed to be viable to pay for.

  20. Carl Sageman says

    This was a thought provoking article. Many of the points in it are valid observations.

    Based on other comments, the central issue is UBI. This is probably because the author didn’t define the term, although he did elude to the intent.

    I suspect the job market will decline, fairly rapidly. For example, drivers are a large source of employment. As driverless vehicles come online, anyone from taxi drivers to truck drivers may be out of a job. There are quite a few articles in the topic of job creation (which isn’t happening enough, compared to losses through automation in the last decade).

    Will we see a decline in populations? Birth rates are down in the entire western world. How do you keep an adequate workforce while lowering the population? Do we need to lower the population?

    Growing economic inequality is pointing to a small powebase, a concentration of wealth. This could play as a significant determinant to the future.

    Quillette is an excellent site for opening up robust discussion. Thank you for another thought provoking article.

  21. I think several assumptions here are wrong. Why assume people who receive a UBI will stop working? Experiments have shows work participation has hardly gone down at all, and in the event of big institutions leaving a local society behind and taking away job opportunities, experiments have shown that a UBI makes people create their own jobs in their local society, thus increasing work participation and getting engaged in the economy.

  22. Thank you all for the comments. I’ve responded to some specific issues, but some issues were raised by several commenters (also in other platforms) so I’d like to respond to them together here:

    – Several people have understood the article as an attack on UBI, which was not my intention and I regret not making that clearer in the article. As the aricle says: “This problem is not necessarily impossible to solve, but it does need to be acknowledged and addressed”. My view is not necessarily to avoid UBI, but to consider the political issues in planning how to do it. This debate is exactly what I was hoping to encourage with this article.

    – Several comments have suggested that UBI recepients will not necessarily stop working. The commenter Bill basically answered that: these comments are true, but the idea that many people will stop working is exactly the feature of UBI that makes it different than other social welfare systems, and the reason why it’s being promoted as a solution to our post-scarcity future. If it’s too low to get significant numbers of people to stop working, then it’s not really a significant change in our economy and does not deserve the dramatic headlines it’s been getting. Otherwise, my warning is relevant.

    – Regarding the idea that if less work is needed, this can be achieved by people working less rather than by less people working: If that could work, it would basically be the opposite direction of UBI – the novelty of UBI is in accepting the existence of permanently non-working people. To encourage part-time working, we need a different model. Either way, the kind of work needed to produce in the technology-driven world is not easily divided between more people, so I’m a bit skeptical about this direction. But it is definitely still an option worth exploring.

  23. augustine says

    Fascinating article, thank you.

    “Incentivize” is an egalitarian sounding word bandied about this issue yet it seems more likely these payouts would harm any social equality we may currently have rather than increase it. Do we really need more universal social (UBI is far more social than economic) schemes that empower the state and risk weakening (or eliminating) our sovereignty? Imagine UBI dovetailing with a unified global government, possibly the end dream of some of its exponents.

    An extension of the Tocqueville misattribution (Alexander Tytler):

    “The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.”

  24. “…city-states with a military based on hoplites (elite infantry who came from the upper classes of society, mostly through the requirement that they finance the expensive armor and equipment for themselves, meaning poor people could not be included) tend to develop an oligarchic government; city-states whose army was based on warships (which in those days required a great number of rowers, a job which did not require much equipment or training, therefore was available for the lower classes) would develop democracy.”

    Hate to challenge Plato on Greek history, but this seems like a really bad reading of the evidence. First of all, the city states whose militaries were based on warships tended to be the same ones whose economies were based on sea trade, as the military ships could escort traders. These were the city states of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Anatolian coast, whose proximity to Phoenicia naturally led to these Greeks taking up sea trading and building excellent ships that rivaled those of the Phoenicians themselves. That and their proximity to Lydia, Urartu, and Mesopotamia at large made them wealthy. This is the time and area that originated the phrase “rich as Croesus,” Croesus being a contemporary king of Lydia, a state known for its huge deposits of electrum, an alloy of gold in silver. In fact, this is the area of the world where coinage first came to widespread use.

    Maybe their elites were influenced by the high incentives of political takeover or military conquest in this context, perhaps coupled with autocratic influence from the Middle East; in any case, they tended to be the first to fall under the rule of tyrants. If their politics seemed more developed later on, it’s because they were on an earlier track, not to mention having a lot of wealth to allow for luxuries like public political discourse and the study of policy.

    Also, I dispute the notion that the number of oarsmen on a trireme means that there was anything egalitarian about it. The trireme his is an example of a highly restricted and centralized resource; the process of building a trireme was a military secret, and the actual construction was run by the state and funded by wealthy elites. The oarsmen were free men, sure, but the ship was commanded by a wealthy citizen. The oarsmen were often performing military service as a part of expected civic duty; this can ensure camaraderie among such a group, but doesn’t imply an egalitarian society at large. In many cities and times, social groups from which many oarsmen were drawn would have no political say in where the navy went and who they fought. Triremes also facilitated trade, but rowers usually wouldn’t have had any stake in it. If these cities tell us anything, it’s that it’s good to have more wealth, even if you don’t worry too much about equality.

    Couple side notes: first, Phillip II of Macedon provided equipment to his hoplites and Macedon was hardly an example of an egalitarian Greek state. Second, Athens had plenty of hoplites, they even beat the Persians on land! Though they did beat them at sea at well a short time later. So who knows what Plato would have said about his home city.

    Also, I’m going to nitpick here…
    “the dry lands of Mesopotamia and Egypt required large-scale irrigation projects to cultivate, which could not be done by single families – they depended on the state to create them, and those states developed centralized, absolute monarchies.”
    Wasn’t being resource-poor the way to become egalitarian, under this theory? Anyway, the fact that the irrigation system was built by many people does not necessitate autocracy. Originally this was organized by religious leaders, who paid for labor, creating the first common job opportunities not directly associated with food—stable state jobs, closer to basic income than anything the Greeks had, mind you. In any case, the irrigation system required diligent upkeep and careful operation, but was not nearly as monumental as many other state projects, such as the enormous aqueduct of Sennacherib which was built to water… wait for it… Nineveh’s royal gardens! It also rarely fell under the control of any individual ruler, and so there must have been a decentralized intra-city-state political system for water management across Mesopotamia.

    I’ve also never gotten the impression that Mesopotamian rulers held their power to a significant extent through control of food or public works. In Assyria particularly, the king’s job seems to have been primarily to build and lead a strong military, extort the neighbors, and bring the spoils back to Nineveh. Power came from the military, wealth, and renown. That, and swatting Babylon every once in a while. The political structure of Mesopotamia overall seems more derived from that of organized religion and that of nomadic tribes than by resource monopolization. It’s characterized by a strong central ruler, but not necessarily by mistreatment of the populace (at least not in the heartland of whatever current ruling group) nor class conflict (unlike many Greek city-states in some periods). Ethnic conflict took its place in some states, while a startling lack thereof distinguished others. And let’s not forget that the Hittites arguably developed the first legal system attempting to guarantee equality under the law, as well as that Cyrus the Great treated the varied subjects of his cosmopolitan empire likely much more fairly than the ethnocentric Greeks might have. Hell, the West might not have embraced cosmopolitanism without the influence of the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians.

    It’s easy to look at a list of autocratic countries and see a detrimental effect of valuable resources. There seems to be some sort of association but I don’t think it’s so easy to infer the dominant the causal relationships here. Seems more likely to me that states with valuable resources can just sort-of get away with not liberalizing its markets and social institutions or developing strong civic virtue.

    tl:dr this interpretation seems like a stretch, evidence doesn’t really fit

    • Also it’s worth mentioning that hoplite tactics seem designed exactly to instill a sense of civic oneness. It’s literally an exercise in which rich and poor stand side by side and face the enemy as one, and where the strength of the group’s formation directly translates to chance of survival and victory.

    • Er, meant “a decentralized intER-city-state political system” at the end of the third-last paragraph

    • I’ll avoid debating here about ancient Greek and Middle-Eastern history since you seem to be better educated about it than I am, but I think most of your points do not actually contradict my theory, even if I accept them fully.

      First of all, the idea that a state’s power comes from its citizens does not require egalitarianism in any way; there can be huge wealth disparities, but as long as the contribution of the lower classes is non-zero, they are needed; and the more significant this contribution is, the more interest the state has in keeping them content. The existance of Athenian hoplites and wealthy ship owners does not change the fact that oarsmen may have had (and Plato seems to think they did) a larger contribution to the state than the lower classes in oligarchic city-states.

      As for Phillip II, I don’t know enough about Macedon to comment about it. Where did he get the wealth to equip his army, that other states could not?

      “Wasn’t being resource-poor the way to become egalitarian”? No. The point is how much of the state’s power comes from the labour of its citizens. Some resources require plenty of labour to turn into wealth, such as fertile land. Other resources require relatively little labour, such as oil wells and gold mines. These two will lead to different amounts of citizen contribution to state power. How these projects started is not important for this matter, it’s how much labour was needed to keep them going. And if irrigation projects were not the only state projects that required upkeep, that does not take away from the main point – where the wealth comes from.

      An autocratic ruler usually holds power through building and leading a strong military, but the reason they are able to do that and others aren’t, is control of wealth. You are only supporting my claim by pointing out the role of plundering neighbours in Assyrian economy – just like irrigation, plundering Babylon is not a project that a single farmer can create; if this is a significant part of the economy, then this is one more reason why the common people depend on the state, therefore have little possibility of demanding rights from it.

      Also, do not confuse sharing political rights with just generally being a good person. I certainly prefer the cosmopolitanism of the Persian empire over the ethnocentrism of the Greek city states. But the issue on debate here is political rights, and treatment of people who are citizens of the state, not outsiders.

      As for hoplites, what you say about having “rich and poor stand side by side” strongly conflicts what I’ve heard about hoplites so far, do you have a source for that?

      • I don’t outright reject the ‘resource curse’ nor your related point that politics can respect economic contribution. Instead I mean to convey that historical examples are numerous and nuanced. It’s not hard to find examples that fit a given interpretation, but it’s very hard to find an expansive rule that reliably accounts for the examples.

        “Egalitarianism” refers to whether rights and opportunities are widespread and not restricted to certain groups. I don’t believe it refers to equality of outcomes in and of itself, at least not originally, and that’s not my intended meaning. However, it’s a luxury that opportunity and outcome can be dissociated in our society, and one our ancestors rarely enjoyed. Also unlike the modern Western world with its representative governments, in the ancient world governments were often dominated by a distinct social (ethic or cultural) group (though the reins of power could change hands frequently), so authoritarianism was inherently tied to group conflict and inequality. Egyptian history has examples of this in the natives’ responses to the incursions of the Hyksos as well as the Nubians. In early archaic Greece, many city-states were dominated by, cultural/ethnic groups and even single clans, e.g. the Eupatridae in Athens and the Bacchiadae in Corinth.

        So it should be clear why cosmopolitanism (which refers to cultural relations within a state) was closely related to political rights: if your people weren’t on good terms with the tribe in power, you were likely to be enslaved, exiled, or worse. If you’re lucky like the Isrealites, a new tribe called the Persians might invade, expel the old order, free you, allow you to return home, send you all your stolen valuables, and even rebuild your temple for you, precisely because it was their policy to establish positive cultural and ethnic relations with their new subjects. Because of the empire’s cosmopolitanism, Achaemenid Persian subjects enjoyed remarkable across-the-board freedom and prosperity, regardless of culture or origin.

        Yet this singular beacon of enlightened quasi-liberalism in the Near/Middle East also reaped the rewards of many successful military campaigns and built itself up with huge public works (they constructed an entire city from the ground up for their capital), just like their predecessors. Their empire encompassed the territories and peoples of Neo-Assyria, so why were they so different? In your article you argue that political rights are granted by necessity according to economic contribution. In fact, this is exactly true in that Assyria depended on its subject and vassal states for income, and therefore *by necessity* employed a strategy of punishment and example-making to discourage rebellion. The Persians were faced with the same constraints (the Zagros mountains aren’t exactly lush gardens either) and employed an alternate, similarly successful, strategy. One can see that your account has merit in that it motivates both strategies (and I always appreciate a realpolitik perspective) but it doesn’t explain the variance.

        As for hoplite warfare, a couple (googlable) points explain:
        1) All Greek men of reasonable age were required to fight if called upon.
        2) The Greeks didn’t use chariots, nor even cavalry during the hoplite era, so there was no more privileged unit to be. On the other hand, this was not an elite cadre, they were the main body of the infantry.
        3) The Greeks didn’t have professional armies. Hoplite warfare and the phalanx formation were great because they were simple techniques you could teach your citizenry so you had a fighting force at a moment’s notice, while they also happened to work really well.
        4) As you know, one brought one’s own equipment, and bronze armor was expensive. However, equipment was usually passed down within families, so these weren’t costs to be borne on a moment’s notice, but multi-generational investments.
        5) Through much of the period lighter armor was favored, with many hoplites wearing a stitched cloth garment (linothorax) to protect their chest. Under these circumstances being a hoplite was possible for probably most men; peasant farmers were apparently well represented.
        6) The phalanx formation works because soldiers form a shield wall and protect each other. Acting independently, either out of aggression or fear for oneself, seriously compromises the formation and was heavily discouraged.

        You’re correct that a sizeable fraction of people could not have afforded hoplite equipment. Even so, this was a remarkably class-spanning phenomenon, with nobles and famous scholars literally next to peasant farmers, all working together in formation, all benefiting from the protection of their neighbors’ shields. Compare that to aristocrats on horseback running down peasants in much of the rest of the world, and you start to see how Athens would be the birthplace of democracy.

        • I think in total we can agree on the basics. I did not say the dependence of political rights on citizen contribution is a clear, ironclad rule; It is a general trend. And the most important thing is what you express in your point about the variance in strategies between the Persians and Assyrians: This trend does not necessarily lead to one place, we have a choice where to go with it. The point of my article was not to be a prophet of doom saying our democracy is gone, but rather to encourage debate that finds strategies for our democratic future that takes this trend into account, because I worry that a strategy that ignores this trend is very likely to fail. To take your example – if we don’t aim to become Persians, we might find ourselves forced to become Assyrians, even if we were hoping for something else.

          As for hoplites: Again, I was simply quoting Plato and I did not study the issue carefully; most of what I know about ancient Greece comes from Donald Kagan, I should probably re-listen to his lectures, but I can quote from one of them: “[…] there are light arm troops made up of those too poor to be in the phalanx […]”. This and other sources have suggested to me that the phalanx was only open to people of certain wealth (and, of course, Kagan himself is where I heard the Plato quote to begin with). I don’t think the representation of peasant farmers suggests representation for the poor, since my understanding of ancient Greek economy is that almost everyone were peasant farmers, sometimes together with other sources of wealth. Either way, I admit I don’t really have a strong capability to argue this. And if I understand your last paragraph well, we actually agree on the implications of ancient Greek warfare on my thesis.

          • Sure, I think we fundamentally agree. Worth considering, too, what the Persians gave back to the kingdoms that sustained them: rule of law, protection, tokens/favors, social inclusion, culture, and luxuries. Good ideas for a nonessential majority.

  25. “If the non-workers not only live without working, but also get to set the rules for the working people, we would truly have to be utopian fantasists to imagine a good relationship between the two groups, certainly in the long run.”

    Or complete realists, because there is no plausible account of voting where the time and effort of doing so are justified by the voter’s expected individual return of that vote, so we almost certainly vote for different reasons.

    Also, is the debate over already about whether there will actually be mass unemployment? Because it shouldn’t be.

    • I don’t understand your logic here. Are you saying there is no correlation between the way people vote and the way they want the country to be run?

      As for the debate, it’s not over, and I’d recommend preparing for both options. This article involves preparation for one of them.

      • No, I’m saying that there’s no way that someone’s expectation of the effect of his vote could motivate him to go to the polls. My guess is it just rides along with the group signaling behaviors at play elsewhere in politics, but I’m sure it’s more complicated.

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  27. “… Will the working minority agree to support non-workers with ten or twenty children per family? …” – Wow, that sounds like future Germany.. doesn’t it?

  28. Arundo Donax says

    Let’s try some rude arithmetic. Assume UBI of $12,000/year for all U.S. adults (75% of 325 million population). This would currently cost $2.9 trillion a year, which is almost as much as the $3.1 trillion the federal government now collects in personal and corporate income taxes and FICA (Social Security, Medicare,etc.) taxes combined.

    So, to pay for a UBI that isn’t enough to live on, we’d have to all but double everyone’s income and FICA taxes or raise that much money some other way. For example, if the feds could somehow confiscate 100% of the existing wealth of the top 1% of Americans (roughly $40 trillion), that could pay for the UBI for 13 years or so… after which new sources of revenue would be needed…

    • The Pentagon could afford to misplace $6.5 trillion, which through your arithmetic would give everybody $24,000 a year. Maybe if they just started lifting up some rugs to see where that money went, it would magically become affordable?

    • Solid point. I still think UBI is worth exploring though. There’s a theory that UBI could lead to unrealized innovations, local businesses and etc due to people exploring their true passions, rather than working 40 hours a week to make ends meet.

      Hoping to explore this subject more at https://www.thedigitalabstract.com

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  30. Presumably, to the lower-middle class up to those barred from receiving it, the UBI would be a windfall – extra Pass-Go money. To those at or below the poverty level, who already receive a set amount of monthly aid, their UBI has to be in addition to, and not instead of, what they already receive. Otherwise, it’d be the cruelest Good news/Bad news joke ever. Regardless, I reject all feasibility comparisons using nations like Norway, whose 5.5m population is less than Wisconsin’s.

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  32. Hi Mr Shapira,

    Congratulations on a great article and an engaged commentary! I’m eager to hear you jump down into the next level of implementation… you’ve obviously put some thought into this!

    With regards,

    Bill

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  34. This is all a discussion of a fantasy land where it is possible to finance UBI so high that it is alone enough for “dignified comfortable existence”. That’s completely wrong approach. What is interesting is our current welfare systems vs UBI (and for USA this UBI would be below 800USD per month, after taking away ALL social programs and transferring that money to UBI). This is nowhere near enough for the recipient to be happy to just live on that. It is mostly a move of money from supposedly most needy to those poor but functional as everybody would get the same amt (- taxes). Currently welfare queen can have 4 children and not worry about 5th, as with that child there is extra money promised. In UBI she’d have the same UBI alone so there is no incentive to become more needy. Also there are no welfare cliffs as you are not loosing programs as your income increases (though you do increase your tax burden). At the lowest point, from 0 to part time job, you keep all of the earnings from that + UBI. Then gradually it goes down to about 0 on the net at 50k yearly income.

    Including UBI in this article is spurious. It can be just as well, that with increased wealth and automation governments will ramp up size of current myriad of social programs and provide comfortable existence to those unfit to take care of themselves and those who pose as needy. In fact this is already happening since 50s. All the while vote is not being stripped from the unproductives, it’s exactly the reverse, governments want to incentivize them to vote and even bring in unproductive migrants and grant those franchise. Govt is perfectly happy to have the input of the mouths-to-feed in the decision making process as long as they are voting more power to the govt. Having productives revolt (either openly, or by no longer working, or even by working less) is just the same risk on current welfare system as on UBI, as they are already milked to provide for unproductives.

  35. Very nice article, but I think you got one thing backwards: what you’re describing aren’t so much the effects of a Universal Basic Income, but of automation. The automation of jobs is what may lead to a society where workers are in the minority. Universal Basic Income is just one idea that has been proposed as a reaction to that, it’s a possible result, not the cause.
    In that vein I also kind of dislike the dichotomy of “workers” vs. “non-workers” because it implies that people will have much of a choice in that matter. What I fear might happen, is that the people who control automation will also be in control of the jobs, so the more important distinction will be between machine owners and non-owners.

    What I think needs to be done, is to distribute the means of automation among the population in order to maintain some kind of power balance.

    • sestamibi says

      Yes, precisely. While this article makes some persuasive points, such as that of the disposition of non-workers to engage in criminal or destructive activity rather than “self-enlightenment”, it fails to recognize that the composition of the working and non-working classes is quite fluid. Even now the best marker for that is age: the youngest among us are non-workers, for obvious reasons; the oldest in retirement; those in between comprise the bulk of the working class. And needless to say, we all pass through all those age groups. The article also implies that “working” is an all or nothing proposition, either full-time or nothing, when in fact it is a sliding scale. Some individuals work part-time, some work part-year, and there are numerous gradations in between.

      Still, distributing “the means of automation”, better known as “capital”, is not a bad idea, since we all make our living one of three ways: transfer payments to the poor, labor income to the middle class, and capital income (interest, dividends, rent) to the upper classes. However, forcible redistribution along Marxist lines will only result in increased conflict, so here’s a suggestion how this might be done more peacefully:

      Exempt interest, dividends, net rents, and capital gains from income taxes. Tax labor at high rates, provided that all savings from labor income are exempt. This will provide incentive for individuals to save aggressively and ramp down their labor efforts over time as more of their income will be non-taxable.

      Over time the reduction of the labor force will bring balance with the reduced demand for labor, and provide more opportunity for those at the entry level of the cycle. The Ph.D driving a cab gets to have an academic job, and the unemployed get to drive cabs (at least the ones that aren’t self-driving).

  36. A bit of a strawman argument here. If a universal basic income was indeed what many lived off in totality, your argument would be correct. But the real problem we face today is that there are many jobs worth doing that don’t pay very much. If we had a UBI, then today’s welfare recipients would have positive motivation to work at least part of the time.

    And we could *increase* government accountability with a UBI. If we eliminated aid to the states and municipalities, but gave all citizens a dividend, then the residents of these localities would be deciding with their own money whether to fund city bus lines, etc. Likewise, local funding of public schools becomes possible again as all districts have a base of local taxpayers.

  37. elcaracoli says

    The author depicts a situation in which there are some working citizens and some non-working citizens, and the former provide for the latter.

    I disagree with this depiction of the future. There will be mostly working-robots, providing different kind of services products, very few working citizens, and a lot of non-working citizens.

    Or, let me put it in marx-picketty’s terms: the share of the capital in the economy will outgrow the share of the work-force by several orders of magnitude.

    Therefore, even without UBI, there will be very few people holding the machines.

    And I didn’t even started on robot armies…

    • Or people will reallocate into previously unimagined occupations for which humans are preferred and which are now economically viable due to increased buying power. Why not expect the same as with every other new productive technology ever?

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  39. Alexander says

    Okey, lets turn this around: What is about a future with a great part of the economy automated without a basic income? The problems you described seem much bigger in such a scenario. We will loose many many jobs that are now handled by people, and the BI is for giving those the possibility to live their live without going hungry after their job was automated. I see the problems you describe coming at us either way, so the BI is not the cause of those problems.

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