Proposals for freedom in the economy: unconditional basic income, cooperative ownership of enterprise, socialized health care.

8 Mar

In a little over a week, one of the editors of this blog, Alex Gourevitch, will be speaking at the Left Forum with Corey Robin and Doug Henwood on a panel on freedom and the economy. The panel is one of three organized under the general theme ‘reclaiming freedom for the left,’ in part inspired by this excellent article by Corey Robin. In anticipation of the panel, we thought we would try out some of the ideas that we will discuss at the Left Forum itself.

The impetus for the economics panel was the economic tendencies of the Occupy happenings, which bounced between anti-Fed, goldbug Ron Paulism and a general attack on corporate personhood. But instead of continue to criticize those economic tendencies, we thought it worth presenting something more positive – not exactly a utopian image of a radically transformed future, but three major economic changes that we believe would significantly increase human freedom. In what follows, we discuss the first: an unconditional basic income.

The idea of an unconditional basic income has floated around policy circles for ages. It has such strange bedfellows as post-Marxist Socialist Andre Gorz, legal theorist Bruce Ackerman, and right-wing crank Charles Murray. It can claim a tradition reaching as far back as Thomas Paine and Thomas Skidmore’s proposals to give all persons a land grant or equivalent value upon reaching adulthood. It is an idea floated at different times by famous socialists like Oscar Lange, left-libertarians like Philippe Van Parijs, and aggressively defended by her Mavericky Maverickness, Sarah Palin.

That’s right, you read that last bit correctly. Lost in the hubbub of the 2008 right-wing debate about whether Obama was a socialists, a fascist, or something worse, was the fact that Sarah Palin, as governor of Alaska, ruled over the only socialist state in the United States. The State of Alaskaowns the major means of production – the Alaskan oil pipeline – and uses the surplus generated from that pipeline to grant, unconditionally, a basic income to all Alaskan citizens. It is called the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend and as governor, Palin not only happily presided over this economic arrangement, she voted to increase the basic income payout.

A basic income has multiple virtues. Unlike means-tested welfare payments, a basic income is extended to all citizens. This means that the horrible welfare bureaucracy would disappear, replaced by automatic monthly deposits in a bank account. That, in and of itself, would be a gain to human freedom. The USwelfare system can be unbelievably invasive – including unannounced searches of recipient apartments, which get as personal as checking underwear drawers for extra cash, and bathroom sinks for extra toothbrushes (if cohabitating with someone earning an income, you might be cheating the system.) Welfare recipients who need the income are dependent on the state, and must accept this sacrifice of personal freedom for welfare payments. The current welfare system serves more to regulate the poor and to create corrosive distinctions between the deserving  and undeserving poor, rather than deal with poverty itself. A basic income would eliminate that.

A further advantage of a basic income, especially if it were adequately large, would be the reduction of the economic dependence of workers on employers. Those afraid to resist crappy, overbearing, or downright mean employers, would find it much easier to leave a job, or contest conditions at work on equal terms. After all, no matter how ‘fair’ or reasonable a wage-contract is, they are still terms for the sale of one’s labor, and say little about the control one will have over one’s work. The virtue of a basic income is not just that a worker can leave work, but that the added bargaining power makes it harder to walk all over him or her in whatever job the worker happens to find. Here too, the basic income would reduce, if not eliminate, various relations of domination.

A basic income is no magic bullet, but it is more than just an anti-poverty measure. It is the best way to increase the actual and reasonable alternatives of most people, and thus their real freedom.

10 Responses to “Proposals for freedom in the economy: unconditional basic income, cooperative ownership of enterprise, socialized health care.”

  1. Arthur Goldhammer March 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

    You left out Milton Friedman, whose negative income tax was a basic income scheme.

    • Corey Robin March 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

      Though it’s not guaranteed, is it, Art? You have to be working in order to get it, or am I misremembering the proposal?

  2. Doug Henwood March 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    In the old classic days of Swedish social dem – I don’t know if this is still true – you had to work if you could. They’d find you a job, or make you one, but no just sitting back and collecting unless you were too weak to work. I think this active labor market policy cost about 2.5% of GDP – not cheap, but not a bundle either. But I do fear that free money would be a hard sell to the working masses.

    • thecurrentmoment March 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

      True, might very well be a hard sell. Though once sold, a universal entitlement is extremely difficult to take away. Also, it’s pretty clear that the shortage of jobs has nothing to do with willingness to work. You’d still be better off with a job, of course. I think fears that people would stop working are overblown. But the terms and nature of the work would change for sure. No way to know until it’s tried…

  3. sn March 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    The early experiments with the NIT suggest some general magnitudes for the fall in labor supply:

    In the real utopias book on basic income, somebody raised the point that basic income is only ok, because there are a lot of public goods and services that should be directly produced and distributed by the state (e.g. schools), instead of subsidized but provided by the market.

  4. Corey Robin March 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    But Doug does bring up a good point: is it possible or wise in the US of all places to advocate for something like this? I certainly like it as a point of argument — I especially like the possibility of arguing with someone who thinks that every citizens should not be entitled to money without working b/c they haven’t earned it, yet also believes people should be entitled to inherit money from their parents — but it does seem to me that it would require major hurdles to overcome. Perhaps we’re just talking here about a discussion among leftists, as a way of getting some basic arguments going, but of course we’re not: we want to be talking (at least I do, and I think you do as well) about ideas and arguments that would have some political traction, at least potentially.

    • sn March 8, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

      There might be a constituency in the US for eliminating bureaucracy, and an unconditional BI grant, sweeping away the humiliating and wasteful bureaucracy of means-testing and rationing according to state-determined “need” might have appeal outside of the left. But I did have this fight with a (generally left-liberal) economist last night, where I invoked Van Parijs’ “Surfers should be paid to surf” argument and got the knee-jerk predictable “but incentives matter!”. Getting over peoples’ resentment of perceived laziness is an uphill slog….

      • thecurrentmoment March 8, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

        I think sn is right that eliminating bureaucracy is always popular, and moreover, this has traction in a consumer economy, where people quite reasonably feel that the more disposable income they have, the more freedom they have. Beyond that, I am not sure how radical our concession to immediate, widespread agreement has to be. What proposal for changing the economy won’t experience significant resistance? True, there is an embedded culture of distinguishing between deserving and undeserving poor, the dividing line often coming down on the lazies v. hard-workers. But that is an element of our political culture that needs to be argued against and defeated, not conceded to.

  5. m March 12, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    I think there is a principled justice based case for a basic income sufficient for a decent life.

    But I think a key topic for investigation must be its feasibility in comparison to nordic style, partly work conditioned and partly targeted social programs (extensive parental benefits, funding support for civil societal organizations, universal public health care and education, subsidized daycare costs, et al).

    Partly conditioned programs have a feasibility advantage in terms of stronger support from unionized collective action.


  1. Stiftelsesmøte og åpent informasjonsmøte om borgerlønn « Nyheter for aktivister - October 5, 2012

    [...] Proposals for freedom in the economy: unconditional basic income [...]

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