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.