A Universal Basic Income: The Next Big Human Rights Challenge

Perhaps the most compelling challenge to the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) I’ve read so far comes from former X Prize designer Kacy Qua in her article Why Universal Basic Income Won’t Work. Qua sets aside economic arguments against UBI, choosing instead to question its feasibility on the grounds people simply aren’t ready for the kind of freedom a guaranteed income would afford them. To be fair, Kacy Qua makes clear in a subsequent post on Medium that she is a supporter of UBI. Her critique, if it can be called that, isn’t directed at UBI so much as it is at a society that’s potentially unprepared for the greater individual freedom it will offer.

For UBI to work, according to Qua, it will be necessary for “people to have an entirely different set of skills and motivation than what is available among our current workforce.” In a nutshell, she contends that at least since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution we’ve been training the critical thinking and “intrinsic motivation” out of people, leaving them unprepared for the kind of liberty UBI would provide. “We’ve been trained to be more like AI, the uncontested champion of rule following. We’ve had our intrinsic motivation programmed out and replaced with a top down, extrinsic rewards system.”

It’s hard to argue with her premise. With each passing year the education system seems more like an assembly line and less like a workshop. Turning out the largest number of kids capable of passing a standardized test has replaced more thoughtful (and necessarily less efficient) qualitative experiences that teach individuals how to think instead of what to think. Where I think Qua misses the mark isn’t her premise, but her conclusion. Many citizens, in spite of the education system rather than because of it, are prepared to receive and make the most of a universal basic income. Unfortunately, numerous intelligent and creative people that dream of more meaningful work are essentially forced into the mold of compliant worker bees because they lack the economic security necessary to do otherwise. The number of men and women I’ve met over the years holding university degrees, including graduate degrees, working in retail or loading trailers seems almost too numerous for me to count at this point. Before we can reasonably conclude there aren’t currently enough overqualified workers out there willing to take greater personal risks to make UBI truly feasible (or worthwhile), we have to provide a sufficient degree of economic security for at least a few of them to begin coming out of the closet without losing everything being the inevitable consequence of failure.

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

One does not need to walk far in any of America’s major cities or large towns these days to find someone for whom the Mahatma’s words ring true. The homeless can be found on practically every block. If they are invisible, it is sadly because they have become too familiar rather than too scarce.

But there is a large and growing segment of the American population that is substantially hidden from view. These people have a roof over their head and typically consume enough each day to meet the 2,000 or so calories recommended for long-term survival, though their diet consists mostly of processed foods rather than fruits and vegetables or fresh meat. These workers exist just one or two paychecks from a life on the streets, but because they are “getting by” theirs is the life of quiet anonymous desperation that enables those more fortunate to deny, or at least ignore, their existence. As long as these people remain hidden from view we can maintain the myth that we are a rich and prosperous nation.

These working poor do indeed spend 40 or more hours a week engaged in routine labor of the sort that capitalism is currently expending billions automizing out of existence and that our schools too often were satisfied preparing them for. These workers do accept, mostly without complaint, the kind of top down structure imposed upon them eight or more hours a day. However, they do so not because a kind of mindless robot obedience has been drilled into them for generations, but because for them God comes in the form of a paycheck barely large enough to keep them and their families clothed, fed, and sheltered. A sense of resignation is at least as much to blame as education or intellectual laziness. Saving for a healthcare emergency or a child’s college education is out of the question, while anything like the luxury to strike for better working conditions or dedicating weekends to lobbying representatives taking tens of thousands each campaign cycle from their employer and its trade association is seen largely as a waste of time. Retraining for a new career or quitting to follow their dreams borders on irresponsible in an economy as changeable and uncertain as ours has become, even if staying the course holds little more promise.

“If the only advantage of affluence were the ability to buy yachts, sports cars, and fancy vacations, inequalities of income and wealth would not matter very much. But as money comes to buy more and more — political influence, good medical care, a home in a safe neighborhood rather than a crime-ridden one, access to elite schools rather than failing ones — the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger. Where all good things are bought and sold, having money makes all the difference in the world.

“This explains why the last few decades have been especially hard on poor and middle-class families. Not only has the gap between rich and poor widened, the commodification of everything has sharpened the sting of inequality by making money matter more.” ~ Michael J. Sandel, ‘What Money Can’t Buy:The Moral Limits of Markets’

Ending the commodification of everything from speech to healthcare is Qua’s challenge to those of us championing a universal basic income. It simply will not be enough, she correctly argues, to throw a thousand or so dollars at everyone each month if we otherwise maintain the status quo. However, I believe she has put the proverbial cart before the causal horse. If we ever achieve anything like a universal basic income it will be because our values have dramatically changed, not in spite of our existing values. The growing attention and support UBI is receiving is a symptom, I think, of the kind of transformation she indicates will be necessary for it to work. When it arrives — if it arrives — it will be because her conditions for it working have already been met in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans and others around the world. A stay at home parent’s efforts will be seen as just as valuable as a worker’s on the assembly line. Eight hours volunteering for a local charity will be considered at least as worthy of recognition as time spent at the office.

Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell

A basic and unconditional universal income, if we get there, will come because we have again expanded our notion of rights. The arrival of UBI means food, clothing, shelter, education, healthcare and greater individual control over our own decisions regarding work/personal fulfillment will all have necessarily been added to our list of human rights, at least implicitly. We will have finally internalized Franklin D. Roosevelt’s recognition that freedom from want is essential to the long-term survival of the other freedoms we already hold dear. Hopefully that day is closer than any of us realize.

Written by

US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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