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OPINION: The One Minute Case for a Basic Income

“What?  You think the government should just give everybody money?!  Regardless of whether they worked for it or not?  Regardless of whether they even need it or not?  Why do you think *that* would be a good idea?”

You are out in public.  It just came up that you support a basic income guarantee, and someone just hit you with the above incredulous questions.  Unless you are on a college campus or at an academic conference, you can probably expect your listeners’ attention to last roughly one minute before they are either intrigued and ask more questions, or they tune you out completely.  What do you say?

Well, obviously there are a lot of different reasons why people support a basic income, and so your answer will depend in part on why you personally support a basic income.  And it will also depend in part on what you think your listeners’ core beliefs are, and what may therefor persuade them.  So there cannot be just one right answer.

With that in mind, I offer the following eleven suggestions.

All of the following arguments are my own derivative summaries and reinterpretations of other people’s ideas.  The Keynesian and Georgist arguments are derived from the writings of their namesakes.  The market utilitarian case is derived from the ideas of Milton Friedman, and the independentarian case is derived from the ideas of Karl Widerquist.  I am also particularly indebted to Widerquist for inspiring the fairness case.  None of the other arguments are original, but I have sadly forgotten the individuals from whom they are borrowed.

So please feel free to use any or all of them as you see fit to promote the abolition of poverty.  They can be used in person or in speeches, in blog posts or comments, in Congressional hearings or your Facebook status, or anywhere else you see fit.  Also feel free to modify them as necessary.

And yes, I have timed myself speaking all of them, and I was able to speak each of them at a normal speaking pace in one minute or less.

The one minute fairness case for a basic income guarantee:

Property is a social construct legally enforced by the government. If all people are considered equal, then absent any other considerations, each person should have an equal amount of property. So material equality should be the default. In a free market economy with a basic income at or below the highest sustainable rate, those who choose to live off of the basic income are not living off of the work of others. Rather, they are living off of less than their “fair share” of property and allowing the extra to be used by those who choose to work.

The one minute market utilitarian case for a basic income:

The free market is the greatest generator of wealth ever devised. Money is the most effective means of socially producing utility, as it allows each individual to obtain whatever needs and wants they subjectively require. However, one dollar in the hands of a poorer person produces greater utility than a dollar in the hands of a richer person, because the richer person can fulfill more of their more important needs and wants with the rest of their money than the poorer person can. So the transfer of money from a richer person to a poorer person increases overall utility. The government is incompetent at running people’s lives or regulating the economy, but the one thing it can do effectively is mail out checks. A basic income is most effective means of transferring money from the richer to the poorer with the least government interference and the least work disincentive. The natural limit on the amount of the basic income is the point where the work disincentive from the required taxes reduces wealth the point where the basic income would have to be reduced.

The one minute Keynesian case for a basic income:

Keynesian economics works when implemented correctly. But properly implementing Keynesian economics is politically very difficult. It requires politicians who are willing to spend a lot of money on stimulus when the government appears broke, and then turn around and become deficit hawks when the government is rolling in cash and everyone wants a piece of the pie. A basic income funded primarily from an income tax would become a massive institutionalized entitlement expected by the population whose cost would automatically increase and decrease in direct opposition to the economy. As unemployment rises, the number of net receivers goes up, and as unemployment falls, so will the number of net receivers. Keynes once famously said that the government should pay people to dig holes and fill them back up again. But why waste people’s time? Anyone who sits on the couch and watches TV while living off of a basic income will contribute as much to society as the hole diggers. And anyone who does anything more productive will create a net good for society.

The one minute human rights case for a basic income:

Poverty is not a natural tragedy like cancer or earthquakes. Poverty is a human caused tragedy like slavery or government oppression. Slavery is caused by societal recognition of humans as property. Government oppression is caused by governments punishing people for their beliefs or characteristics, and without due process of law. Poverty is caused by property laws that deny some people access to necessities. These types of tragedies can be ended by recognizing that humans have the right not to be subjected to tortuous conditions imposed by other humans. Humans have a right not to live in slavery. Humans have a right to be free of government oppression. And humans have a right not to live in poverty. A basic income is not a strategy for dealing with poverty; it it the elimination of poverty. The campaign for a basic income is a campaign for the abolition of poverty. It is the abolitionist movement of the 21st century.

The one minute Georgist case for a basic income:

Property is a product of creation, not of mere use. “I made this.” confers property rights, “Tag! It’s mine!” does not. Things that exist as a product of your labor must be yours, and for anyone else to appropriate them is to make you their slave. Land and natural resources, however, are not the products of people, but of nature or God. They are gifts to all of humanity. Individual property in land and natural resources may be practical or useful, but it is still theft. Utility might justify this theft, but compensation is still required. As the appropriation was done without consent, the compensation must be in the form that offers the greatest choice of use to the victims. That form is cash. The most efficient arrangement for payment is for the takers to pay the full rental or use value to a single entity which can then divide the proceeds equally among the population. Taxes are the tribute I pay to you for displacing you from land, the basic income is your dividend.

The one minute transhumanist case for a basic income:

Two hundred thousand years ago humans lived in hunter-gather societies. About 10 thousand years ago, humans began to live in agricultural societies, and then about 300 years ago, humans began to live in industrial societies. Since 30 to 50 years ago, we have lived in a service society. Theoretically, the last economic stage of society is a leisure society, where most people either work in the artistic or scientific fields, or do not work at all. So far, each phase has lasted only a small fraction of the time of the previous phase. If that pattern holds, service societies should last less than two generations, a time period nearing its end. Right now, worker productivity is advancing faster than the need for workers, and robots are inhabiting labs in research hospitals and at DARPA. It is time to prepare for a society in which we simply do not need everyone to work. A basic income will be needed to provide a living for people, and to provide customers for business.

The one minute conservative case for a basic income:

The welfare state may not be the society we would have created, but it has been here for 4 generations, people have come to expect and rely on it, and it would be extremely disruptive to society to get rid of it. But while we may not be able to get rid of the welfare state, we can reform it. The current welfare state necessitates an immense and expensive bureaucracy, it is prohibitively complicated for some of its intended beneficiaries to navigate, it puts bureaucrats in charge of the lives of the poor, it creates perverse incentives for people to avoid work and to remain poor, and it arbitrarily allows some people to fall through the cracks. A basic income would correct all of these problems. A basic income is simple to administer, treats all people equally, retains all rewards for hard work, savings, and entrepreneurship, and trusts the poor to make their own decisions about what to do with their money, taking these decisions out of the hands of paternalistic elitist politicians.

The one minute feminist case for a basic income:

Patriarchy has put the world’s wealth in the hands of men, prevented women from being professionals and entreprenuers, forced poor women into dead-end second-class labor jobs, and forced all women to become unpaid domestic servants and caretakers of the young, elderly, and disabled of their families. Women have been forced to be financially dependent on fathers or husbands who are often abusive. A basic income would change all of this. A basic income would be a massive transfer of wealth from men to women. Women would be free of financial dependence on any man, and the young, elderly, and disabled would all be fully supported. Women could afford to leave abusive husbands, those who chose to be caretakers would be fully compensated, and no woman would be forced into a dead-end job, and would instead be able to pursue her own financial goals as she saw fit.

The one minute (right) libertarian case for a basic income:

While it may have been theoretically possible to acquire property in a just manner soon after humans evolved, none was. Every square inch of inhabited land on earth can trace its title back to someone who acquired the land by force. All land titles on Earth are soaked in blood. And not just land titles. Thanks to past government spending, targeted tax breaks, intellectual property, corporate charters, slavery, and meddling regulations, no property or wealth can be said to have been justly acquired. If we assume that those who have the least are greatest net victims, a basic income would provide the best possible rectification with the least government control, producing the least unjust system of property distribution possible in the real world.

The one minute liberal case for a basic income:

A basic income would correct or ameliorate many inequities and inefficiencies inherent in market capitalism. The wages of unskilled and semi-skilled workers would rise as those who enjoy and are good at such work will no longer have to compete against those who are forced to seek such work out of financial necessity. The wages of highly skilled workers will fall as more people are able to take the time necessary to gain the skills to compete for those jobs, lowering the cost of legal, financial, and health care services. A guaranteed income will soften the blow to workers displaced by advancing technology and the creative destruction of the market. Job seekers will be able to take the time necessary to find work that is the best fit for them, increasing efficiency in the distribution of labor. And entrepreneurship will flourish as those wanting to start their own businesses will have an income to survive on during the long lean times that typically come when building a new enterprise.

The one minute independetarian case for a basic income:

Property rights are not natural, they are a social convention. But they give each individual freedom, as the essence of property is the right to exclude others, to have a place where no one else has dominion over you. The first rule should be that each individual has inalienable ownership over her own body and mind. But carving up all of nature outside of bodies leaves some people unnaturally without the means to obtain the necessities of life. Therefore each person must also have an inalienable property right to these necessities. Society owes you a living, because society is preventing you from foraging the land to obtain the necessities of life on your own. Society could rectify this problem by letting individuals forage for necessities wherever they wish, or by giving them the land they need to survive on their own, or by providing these necessities directly. But in modern societies, the most efficient way to provide for these necessities is with direct cash payments, a basic income.

Discussion

24 Responses to “OPINION: The One Minute Case for a Basic Income”

  1. Hi
    I love the heart behind the idea, but many public services require cheap labor to perform crap jobs… and that requires putting 18 year olds over a barrel with the “join the free marketeers or starve/or die/or else” felony extortion. (and forced-religion into a competer’s church.)

    The policy reversal from share share share, to fight fight fight… when kids turn 18… is part of the programming and it IS the “put ‘em over a barrel” part of the pyramid scheme called capitalism, whose pyramid symbol is seen on the back side of the USA dollar.

    A better approach might be to take the price tags off of all survival supplies. In other words, make all “necessities” free. The USA military uses custodianship instead of ownership, as well as this “all necessities free” all-on-the-same-team-ism. Just requisition the needs. Luxuries, on the other hand, tend to be kept in repositories such as “rec services” for all to share no matter the rank. The military knows… that to hurt one member of “team”, hurts ALL of team. That’s because USA military society… is a commune. Capitalism’s rat-racing, top-heavy, sure-to-collapse, every person for themselves policies… have yet to learn this wisdom.

    If you were to “set” a basic salary for all… the prices of survival supplies would just inflate until capitalism could get the herd-folk over a barrel again. Then the basic allowance would increase, and so would survival supply prices… over and over and over.

    The solve is… abolish economies (money, ownership, price tagging) completely. Not a single other living creature on the entire planet… uses economies. The other creatures are much too smart to fall for a servitude-infested pyramid scheme like capitalism.

    Best regards!
    Larry “Wingnut” Wendlandt
    MaStars – Mothers Against Stuff That Ain’t Right
    (anti-capitalism-ists) (anti-economy usage)
    Bessemer MI USA

    Posted by Wingnut | February 25, 2013, 2:55 pm
    • It’s interesting that you can read 11 excellent justifications for a Basic Income, and still suggest it’s the wrong path.

      Here’s some more to chew on:

      If you eliminate money, you create the Tragedy of the Commons – you create great waste. A free market economy is a great and powerful tool you do not want to throw way so quickly. Communism failed because they threw this tool away. The problem it solves, is to maximise the allocation of all goods and resources, to the task where they can create the most value for society. Without the tool, goods are poorly allocated and utilized, and great waste is created.

      The evils of capitalism comes not from the free trade, but from how the wealth is allocated to the citizens. A Basic Income redistribution fixes the evils of capitalism by limiting levels of inequality and guaranteeing participation for all, while keeping the amazing and wonderful powers of Adam Smith’s invisible hand working for us. It’s the perfect blend of socialism and capitalism.

      The Military works by replacing free trade, with a strong management hierarchy – your superior office’s word, is law. No one wastes resources because their superior will ultimately come down hard on them if they do. If you want to eliminate money for basic resources, we have to create a management structure like the military to replace it – and no one I know wants that.

      The price of goods and services do not inflate under a basic income. This is just something you have to study to understand. The income is not created by printing money, and expanding the money supply (the only thing that creates inflation) they are created by reallocating the wealth. All it does, is change who gets to spend each dollar, not add more dollars into the system.

      Posted by Curt Welch | March 15, 2013, 6:28 pm
      • “The price of goods and services do not inflate under a basic income. This is just something you have to study to understand. The income is not created by printing money, and expanding the money supply (the only thing that creates inflation) they are created by reallocating the wealth. All it does, is change who gets to spend each dollar, not add more dollars into the system.”

        I would rename this post 11 economic fallacies. Curt you had it right until the last part I quote above. A basic income would be inflationary as the more money people had as a base the more they could spend, this aggregate demand push would raise prices. Also if you redistributed wealth, you are robbing others to pay everyone else. If the amount of capital (savings) is greatly diminished you destroy productivity, as productivity suffers prices rise as well, as you derail the law of increasing returns. All of the ways most people dream up this utopian idea fails as it always violates economic laws. The only way that Gov. can accomplish this goal is to tax, inflate or confiscate others wealth and give it to everyone else. Each robs productivity, destroys capital formation, devalues the currency, raised prices and most importantly derails the Technium’s evolution.

        Posted by C. James Townsend | June 12, 2013, 12:23 am
  2. Inspired by a conversation with my friend Tammy Starling Van Dunn, I have rounded it out to an even dozen:

    The one minute Christian case for a basic income.

    God does not force people into poverty in order to give you a chance to show your charity. God loves the poor as much as he loves you, and does not use them as tools in your salvation. The word that Jesus uses in his comandments to us that Christians translate as “charity” is usually translated by Jewish scholars as “justice”. Jesus comands us …to feed and clothe the poor for the same reason he commands us to nurse the beaten, so that we may provide justice where others imposed injustice. Early Christians fed and clothed the poor to right the wrongs committed by the powerful who created a society that imposed poverty on some. In a democracy, the voters create society. A society without a basic income is a society where someone, somewhere, lives in poverty. Christ will hold resposible those who vote to create a society where some people live in poverty.

    Posted by Timothy Roscoe Carter | March 1, 2013, 6:33 am
  3. Thanks for the erudition and work:

    How about reducing that to one sentence: “In a society without an unconditional basic income there is more likely to be someone, somewhere, living in poverty.”

    I also suggest:

    “A universal basic income is a payment to everyone for being expected to abide by the law and a dividend for everyone paid from the prosperity generated by the rule of law.”

    Posted by Edward S | March 4, 2013, 12:21 pm
    • I *LOVE* the second one about the rule of law. I don’t know how persuasive it would be to many people, but it actually articulates my own position better than any of the twelve explanations I summarized above. I will be stealing it. Thank you.

      Posted by Timothy Roscoe Carter | March 4, 2013, 2:57 pm
    • Yes, this is very good: “A universal basic income is a payment to everyone for being expected to abide by the law and a dividend for everyone paid from the prosperity generated by the rule of law.” It sort of mixes indepentarianism with social contractarianism, but it’s still good.

      Posted by Karl Widerquist | March 4, 2013, 3:20 pm
    • Rewording this to more accurately reflect my own position: A universal basic income is a dividend for all willing participants in the social contract paid from the prosperity generated by the rule of law and a payment to all dissidents to the social contract for having the rule of law imposed upon them.

      Karl, your own dissertation was centered on these two points, although you did keep them separate. I think I can articulate the connection: Dissidents to the social contract are entitled to at least all of the same benefits of the social contract as willing participants, maybe more, because they are unwillingly forced to abide by it.

      Posted by Timothy Roscoe Carter | March 4, 2013, 6:06 pm
  4. I didn’t quite say that in so many words. I say that social cooperation makes greater prosperity possible. I do not say whether the rule of law or a social contract make social cooperation possible. I don’t deny that they might or even that they do. I just don’t make a statement either way.

    The difference is small, but important to me: I’m definitely not endorsing any version of social contract theory, and I’m being cautious even about necessarily endorsing the need for a state-centered sovereign rule of law.

    The justification I give for establishing government is not that it is necessarily better, but that most people want a government. I have no natural starting point, no state of nature. People who impose anarchy on people who want to live under a government impose something on others just as much as the statist would be imposing something on the anarchist if the roles were revised. The justification for the one system over another for me is two things: largest coalition supporting that system (i.e. a majority) and minimum interference with people who do not support the system.

    The difference might not be as important to you. And your position doesn’t have to be the same as mine to still be an indepentarian position.

    Posted by Karl Widerquist | March 4, 2013, 9:51 pm
  5. I am viewing this as a lawyer, and an indepentarian legal theory would have to directly address some of those questions you are not taking a stand on.

    Posted by Timothy Roscoe Carter | March 5, 2013, 5:31 am
  6. Wow, Indepentarian legal theory. Sounds great.

    Posted by Karl Widerquist | March 5, 2013, 11:34 pm
  7. “Property is a social construct legally enforced by the government. If all people are considered equal, then absent any other considerations, each person should have an equal amount of property.”

    Don’t confuse equal opportunity with equal property. “Everyone is born equal, thus everyone can earn the same amount for the same work.” is valid. “Everyone is born equal, thus everyone must have the same amount of property regardless of what they do” is absurd. It’s the former, not the latter, which is considered a human right.

    That said, all of the ethical arguments in the world won’t sway me if it isn’t actually possible to implement such a plan. I don’t think there’s any way to implement this forced equality other than by removing the human right of equal opportunity that I mentioned above, because there is a fixed amount of money to distribute and tasks of variable difficulty which need to be performed to keep that money supply tied to some real measure of value (for example, you could give everyone as much money as you’d like, but if no one is farming, the money is valueless and even the richest would still starve anyway).

    Posted by Michael | March 19, 2013, 2:06 am
  8. While there is much to debate about this issue, I really appreciate how you outline and summarize reasonable arguments for a universal basic income. These ideas may be debatable, but what is most important is that we keep thinking outside the box and explore rational solutions such as these.

    While I do not think a basic income initiative goes far enough for bridging the class divide in this country, it certainly can address a lot of economic problems that people are facing today. We definitely have a maldistribution of wealth in this country that are the cause of insurmountable problems, including poverty, crime— and you’re right, an overall lack of freedom.

    None of us asked to be born, and therefore we are all born into slavery because we must spend practically our entire life making money in order to survive, even though we had no choice in coming here. If we as a human species are intent on bringing offspring into this world, the least we can do is guarantee them the basic necessities of life whether they choose to work for are not.

    Posted by Bakari Chavanu | April 3, 2013, 2:14 am
  9. One more reason:
    We are owners of our country. Any property that is not privately owned belongs to all of us equally. Any money derived from common property (oil, wealth fund, land, etc.) should be distributed to us equally and unconditionally. Currently the money is taken away as a hidden tax.

    Posted by Nicole | April 17, 2013, 5:07 am
  10. Readers here will be interested to know that Mongolia has also been paying citizen dividend based on resource revenue. Their law explicitly recognizes citizen right to the resource revenue. This is very similar to Alaska’s Permanent Fund.

    Citizen ownership of resources is a reason for a basic income.

    http://cod-democracy.blogspot.com/2013/06/mongolia-yearly-cash-for-citizens-human.html

    Posted by Nicole | June 17, 2013, 7:21 am
  11. Thanks, Nicole. That’s a very useful story. I’ll report on that.

    Posted by Karl Widerquist | June 17, 2013, 2:46 pm
  12. What author developped the Georgist theory ? Susan George? Someone else ? We’re translating/adapting the text for French and we need this info ; thanks !

    Posted by Georgist ? | August 31, 2013, 6:13 pm
  13. What about the socialist argument for basic income? And the ecological argument?
    Those are the two major driving forces in the BI movement in Sweden. I guess we all focus on different sides of the BI possibilities. :-)

    Personaly I would also like the “The capitalist argument” for Basic Income on how we need to sustain consumer demand in a time where human labour is in less demand.

    Posted by Martin Jordö | September 26, 2013, 11:58 pm
  14. There is no automatic right to any of society’s benefits to which we did not fairly contribute (although even as children we may already have paid a hefty price through the absence of working parents. There is also a case for humaneness regarding the strong and the weak, but that consideration is unnecessary to the point to be made here.)
    So what other possibility is there without paid work and with no birthright to the dole?

    Rights always involve responsibilities, and they are always limited by the equality of rights of all others, and by the rights of future generations. A lifestyle that respects rights and responsibilities is a just lifestyle.

    Access to such a lifestyle is the right and responsibility of all.
    We have the right to choose to live with others, in a group or a family, or we may choose to live alone.
    We also have the right to enjoy the fruits of our chosen lifestyle, provided that lifestyle is balanced and its fruits are just and equitable, depriving nobody of anything they have a right to expect.

    So how does one gain access to such rights, and what responsibilities must be met?

    These are human rights, and to gain them one simply has to be born. They can be lost by being irresponsible.

    To live at all, we must have food, shelter and clothing. We may get these things by any just means. We may choose to work for someone doing just, equitable and balanced work. For this we are paid and can thereby buy what we need to live. Alternatively we may even decide barter our product or service.

    But, we have no obligation to take either of these choices. We do not have any obligation to work for anyone to acquire our right to live. To live is a right, and there is no responsibility to provide for our needs by working for any other person for payment or exchange.

    However, neither do we have any right to have others provide anything for us … unless we are working for them, or except if we are their dependent.

    To provide for our own needs by working directly with the gifts of nature is the only other possibility, and, while few may choose it, it must remain a right to have this option.

    LAND
    Since food, shelter and clothing all come directly from the land, then access to land where the individual can provide for themselves must be a right, limited of course by the rights of all others, as expressed for example in just and equitable building regulations, etc. (This right of access to land for survival must also necessarily limit the right any other person may have to hold title over land for any other purpose).

    Society seems to have forgotten about this right, except in an around-about and rather weak way through our public housing system. Unfortunately, public housing is now seen as a charity by many who are independent through wages or business – it certainly has a ‘non-birthright’ even ‘welfare’ component to it. The labour and building materials paid for by the taxpayer may be the reason for this, but land itself is another element to public housing and it is fundamental. It is this element which we say is an inalienable human right. So we see the Dept of Housing as the best potential for a national reform which would restore the opportunity for people to choose to provide for themselves.

    SKILLS
    Unfortunately not only have we forgotten that it is our right to choose how we will provide for ourselves, we have also forgotten how we could manage to provide for ourselves from the land, even if appropriate access was restored. Others now build our homes, grow our lettuces, and still others grow our tomatoes. We did not give up our right of access to land, or the skills that would make this right useful. They were accidentally eroded by a system of specialisation and industrialisation beginning at school and before. If we should choose to reclaim our right or those skills, the system which deprived us of them would have a moral duty to help us to regain them, to establish ourselves, and to rightfully live on the land.

    Compare this to the situation today where an unemployed person must either manage to find a job they want, or, if they cannot find one that is suitable, they must be willing to work in any job which the system dictates that they work in. If not, they will be deprived of the financial support they need for food, shelter and clothing, and will have no human right to live by. Does this seem right to you?

    In these circumstances where there is the denial of a birthright by which a person can live, that person would seem to acquire a different type of right to the basics from that system – the dole.

    RIGHTS & RESPONSIBILITIES
    There is one way by which rights and responsibilities could be assured.

    With appropriate education support through TAFE to learn practical skills, and by applying them in a co-operative model lifestyle, a group of around 10 unemployed people could demonstrate the benefits for the entire community that would flow from a restoration of natural rights and responsibilities.

    NEIGHBOURHOODS THAT WORK
    Through access to land and the development of skills for sustainable development, participants could provide for their basic needs, and in fair exchange for the advantages received as part of the larger society, could make a meaningful contribution out of their activities and experience. This would be a project for Neighbourhoods That Work – see http://on.fb.me/MJDR00

    Posted by Chris Baulman | October 1, 2013, 5:12 am
  15. Could we get the 1-10 minute *mathematical* explanation of basic income? What level could we currently realistically pay, what would make it go up and down, how do we ensure the tax base for it (I assume by taxing consumption not production?)

    Posted by Joanna Bryson | January 25, 2014, 4:13 pm

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