A Citizen’s Basic Income (BI) is an idea I’ve believed in for many years, without necessarily ever knowing of any particular name for it – but believing in the principle of having a minimum quality of life made possible through the application of a basic income; until during the Scottish Indyref when I learned about it as a well defined concept through The Common Weal and Scottish Greens.
As the world changes on a seemingly daily basis so the conversation around BI shifts its focus, today much of the debate concerns automation: the suggestion being that the automation of jobs has a negative impact on the jobs market, particularly as it pertains to low wage / low skill jobs, thus leading to mass unemployment in the near future; a BI it is argued would go someway to minimising that impact given that the low wage / low employment economy driven by increasing automation is exacerbated by neoliberal government policy that doesn’t look like addressing its vast shortcomings anytime soon.
BI was briefly discussed in an interview with Elon Musk (CEO SpaceX & Tesla) in November of last year, Musk is a CEO who embraces automation but who, by all accounts takes it as an opportunity to move workers into “more interesting” roles as an alternative to making them unemployed; this however is not a typical experience of the average worker, the actions or intentions of typical CEOs, nor is it even a possibility in many companies; therefore we have to take responsibility as a society where none is accepted (generally speaking) in the corporate world.
However, to get to my point and while I acknowledge large scale automation as an inevitable product of technological advancement – I do not see it as a negative but as an opportunity; automation itself isn’t the threat, it’s the fight against it, the unwillingness to embrace a changing world and the lack of ability and adaptability with regards to our current economic and political systems to deal with it that’s the problem. There’s a serious lack of ideas and in many cases any acknowledgment at all of the need for radical new ideas at a government level required to enact the changes which would enable us to allow automation to work to its full potential, whilst freeing ourselves up to do more worthwhile, interesting things: obtain better paid, high skilled, fulfilling employment for instance and to generally enjoy our lives without the worries inherent in our monetary based neoliberal, capitalist system.
A world of full employment is no longer a realistic prospect and anyway why should we cling onto a world where we work unfulfilling, low wage, precarious jobs? Who are we trying to please and who is benefiting from having us believe that inherent inequality is an unfortunate circumstance / necessity of existence, that value placed on us depending on our job is an essential and / or inevitable aspect of having the aim of being a respected participant in society and not merely an indicator of the inadequacies of this version of society? Moreover, why should we continue to create inferior products and limit the true potential of technology to enhance all our lives in order to perpetuate the use of a system that has us competing for jobs that don’t so much define us but distract us from being able to fully realise who we truly are?
It is argued that a BI will encourage people to be / become idle, in fact quite the opposite is true; people are intrinsically motivated to work, particularly if that work (paid / voluntary) is meaningful – we are extrinsically motivated to make more and more money which at a certain point no longer benefits us but in fact adversely affects others, such is evidenced by the ever growing inequality we see in this country as well as across the world.
The same argument is made against a Resource Based Economy, that people will simply not work without payment (in the form of money) – but what actually gets stuff done? Is it money or is it human need, want and endeavour? Regardless of its original intention, a financial transaction is a mechanism not used for the simple purpose of making possible the transfer of goods and services but manipulated to create division and therefore power / lack of power; fairness is an impossibility in a system which bases value on nothing more than perceived worth determined evermore by a privileged few. However, a BI would breed confidence in a social security support system which unlike our current benefits system will genuinely and instantaneously support when the worst happens, increase quality of life by giving all recipients (everyone) peace of mind that they’ll never be without, the ability to eat well / better, access better accommodation or indeed upgrade current accommodation, access leisure / entertainment facilities, participate in the arts etc thus increasing both physical and mental health. This would allow people to better engage with the wider world in
which they understand themselves to have importance; they may choose to do so by seeking employment that best suits their life, where they can work with others to achieve a shared goal that they are intrinsically motivated to achieve. For me, the idea of fully embracing technological advances, a BI and the eventual adoption of a resource based economy style model go hand in hand and in that order.
Short-term, I support a BI as it’s the only mechanism that can be incorporated into the current system by which we can bridge the gap between the low wage / zero hour contract jobs, growing scarcity of jobs / inevitability of large scale unemployment through a continuously expanding swathe of jobs and lack of determination to seek new ways of creating opportunities – and a move towards something like a resource based economy. In that regard, BI must come with or at the very least initiate a move towards a package of social reform; it must work hand in hand with a system of progressive taxation and investment in our future: the BI itself may also enable a minimum overall income for those in employment by having a break even point where taxes paid are reimbursed through BI, further establishing a principle of parity and a move away from the divisive nature of a profit driven society.
Therefore, to create a world free from the desire to hoard money, which holds equality as a fundamental principle you must first establish a universal equilibrium norm such as a BI would help achieve; a generally agreeable and easily implementable idea that everyone is entitled to a minimum quality of life and is therefore equal as an individual to everyone else in every respect. This idea of a minimum quality of life does currently exist of course, however, I would argue that there are no true examples of it in action here (UK) – in fact the government measures the success of our economy based on GDP growth and not quality of life; there’s certainly no universally agreed standard in action. The UK for example is a country where homelessness and use of food banks is increasing (overall levels of homelessness have fallen in Scotland, however there has been a rise in the number of children in temporary accommodation); if there is such a lower limit in action here it is so low as to be imperceptible and is without doubt one of the supreme embarrassments of our civilisation.
I believe that eventually profit over all else will become an idea we look back on with bemusement, if not disgust.
Individualism has had its day, it’s unsustainability is all too clear to see; Capitalism has outlived its usefulness (and you must concede it has been useful) – it’s about time we embraced Universalism. A Citizen’s Basic Income is a fundamental in the pursuit for ever greater equality, interconnectedness and ability of human-kind to work together for common good; it is a true projection of a desire to live in a world of shared responsibility for everyone and everything we live alongside; for me, it is upon this principle that I believe an Independent Scotland can be successfully built.
- Mark Anthony Burgoyne, @maburgoyne