I think it’s wrong to tell people how to live their lives.
Beyond what is necessary to ensure the safety and security of those within a society, the state should not impinge on the liberty of individuals to live their lives as they see fit. There may have been a time when the need for social cohesiveness in a brutish world trumped the rights of the individual, a time when moralistic laws against certain lifestyles were justified, but that time is behind us.
Although the tension between social cohesiveness and individual freedoms is eternal and inescapable, I always find it encouraging that the ethic of the modern world seems to have slid so consistently towards liberty; advancing in the intensive bursts of societal change seen during the enlightenment, the American Revolution, and the civil rights movement, among others.
More recently, we have seen momentous shifts in the ethics of female empowerment and sexual freedoms. While societal progress often seems a frustratingly slow process, the past has shown us that change can crystallize around a strong moral argument. An idea who’s time has come can transition from ridiculous to obvious with surprising quickness.
I think we might be currently standing on the doorstep of a great new revolution in personal freedom; one in which will reexamine our ethic of work. I have already written extensively about the problems inherent in a highly automated society which also relies on the “job” for as a means of providing basic sustenance for people. The plain fact of technological job displacement provides ample argument that basic income will be a pragmatic necessity to avoid mass poverty following mass automation, but here I would like to make an argument that is equally important as such practical considerations.
Freedom in the 21st century should mean freedom from having to engage in productive work simply to meet your basic needs for comfort and dignity.
At one time, the ready availability of jobs amply filled the need for a basic access to a comfortable and dignified life, but precipitous technological and economic changes erode this dynamic further each day. The function of the economy has never been to provide gainful employment to people, but simply to provide material goods. As the economy manages to produce more with less human labor, we must create new mechanisms aimed specifically that maintaining and raising the minimum level of comfort and dignity to everyone in a society.
The first step, as for any change, will be to admit that we were wrong. The establishment of a basic income will require every inch of personal and societal soul searching we went through in previous epochs of tectonic social change. Social progress has too often been retarded by our inability to deal with our own fallibility. The abolishment of slavery and the establishment of civil rights was an agonizingly slow process because those in power were unwilling to deal with their own sins.
Similarly, even as wealthy years of technological and productivity gains have eroded the justification for the job-driven society, we remain unwilling to admit that we were wrong; it is ok that we let people starve because we have no choice, right? We maintain a facade of work ethic aimed at convincing ourselves that our draconian social constructions to compel people into productive work are necessary and morally just.
If we test this facade of work ethic, we can easily see that there is little real rationale for maintaining our current view of work. We can afford to have everything that the dramatically less productive economies of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s had; things like healthcare and education are not too expensive, and it is not acceptable to let people whither in poverty.
Worse than just being immoral, the desperate poverty of the lower classes is both immoral and useless. It is not a lack of money that compels the great successes of the modern age, but rather the availability of opportunities. It is because healthy, well-fed people were able to get a good education that allowed us to realize the great miracles of the modern age (eg, the internet, smart phones, Google, etc…).
We must rebalance the right of society to compel people into productive work with the obligation of society to support its citizens. It should be noted that basic income is not aimed at the unrealisitic and undesirable goal of unfettered access for all to every luxury of the world. Freedom from work does not mean the right to luxury; it simply sets a baseline below which no person should fall. Basic income seeks to strike a fair balance between allowing the benefit of work to coexist with a system aimed at delivering dignity and opportunity for all in a society.
Beyond just better enabling access to opportunities, basic income will also allow people the freedom to live as they choose; to explore unpaid work in the form of volunteering, participating in creative projects, or starting new business ventures. Some argue that there would be less incentive for people to start businesses and be productive, but it could just as easily be argued that it would remove the disincentive from the high-risk, high-reward ventures that are so valuable to modern society.
One exciting example might be the number of small startup companies which could be realized if people had the time and support to work on their interests without worrying about their basic needs or being accountable to investors. In my opinion, basic income opens much more opportunity in this way than what it closes by disincentivizing work. It would also provide a firmer platform for those bargaining with employers looking to fill unfulfilling, dangerous or otherwise undesirable jobs.
Requiring people to live so much of their life working simply to earn a basic income is a waste of human potential and bad for progress. By eliminating the obligation to work just for simple survival, basic income would allow a new dynamic expansion of human freedom and human potential.
A society compelled to perfect cohesion and homogeneity lacks the dynamism to compete in the modern world. New ideas can only come into being at the chaotic interface between contrasting worldviews and lifestyles. In a world where progress is completely reliant on our ability to innovate and create new ideas, we should be seeking to maximize the spectrum of lifestyles which can be expressed within the society. By removing the need to work just to live, we will let people explore their true potential, and we will realize the untold benefits of a new dynamism.
And this brings us to the real reason that I think basic income will happen soon, not only because it is morally the right thing to do (which it is), but because it makes good sense economically. Just as slavery ended when factories made the economic model of slavery obsolete, we will move towards basic income because it makes good economic sense for the modern innovation economy.
Dynamic, creative and competitive economies of today must seek to stretch the social fabric to its limits. Basic income will serve to reinforce this fabric and enable the risky ventures that will power us forward in the 21st century.
If you are interested in learning more about basic income, here is a link to the wikipedia article on the subject, or you can head over to http://www.reddit.com/r/BasicIncome for some more in depth discussion about why and how we could really make basic income happen.
Here is a link to a great info graphic on some of the merits of basic income