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  • Writer's pictureMartin Schmalzried

The petty ambitions and aims behind Universal Basic Income

Economists from all sides weight in on Universal Basic Income (UBI) and assessing what the concrete economic effects it will have: Will there suddenly be more people pursuing hedonistic pleasures and crash the economy? Will it unlock untapped economic forces? Will it support consumption and growth?

All of these considerations seem extremely petty in comparison with higher philosophical considerations like freedom and liberty.

I am a lobbyist representing civil society. Part of my job involves sitting in meeting where I have to marvel at the bad faith of lobbyists representing private interests. Every time, let me insist on this, EVERY SINGLE TIME, that there is a debate about potentially detrimental effects of private actors (call it externalities) and policy solutions to address them via regulation or other, you face resistance based on a myriad of arguments: bad science, relativism, impending doom, economic crash, loss of jobs, making things worse then before… I often grow extremely frustrated and angry at just how far these people are willing to go to defend their positions. The tobacco lobby resisted currently undisputed scientific evidence of just how bad smoking is for you.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m wondering whether my anger has been misdirected, whether I am not barking at the wrong tree. I am more and more convinced that these people are simply pawns on a chessboard, playing a game (capitalism) whose rules have been defined and now live a life of their own, blindly executing their “moves”, take or be taken, in an endless repeating dance, game after game, convincing themselves, at a deeper level, that it all makes sense, that this is the “least worst” game to play, with the “least worst” rules, the famous TINA (There IS No Alternative) mentality.

Can anyone blame them? The rules of the game are simple: fail and you will be out of a job. People defending private interests are not defending companies, they are first and foremost defending themselves, their “right” to have access, month after month, to food, shelter, education… a better life for their kids. This “game” has thought about everything, especially to create complex causal links between their individual actions and the problems that our societies face, be it inequalities, famine, poverty, climate change… The prisoners’ dilemma and race to the bottom are only two of many classical ways through which this “game” is locked in. “What will I do if I lose my job?” This is the fear that we all live under. Those that have a multiple set of skills and are flexible in their competences might not care so much, but what about those that have sharpened and specialized their skill set to act as pawn on a chessboard? That’s a scary perspective. It’s in this light that I find quite ironic/funny when politicians call upon unemployed to simply “retrain” to find jobs in high demand sectors, yet cling on to their jobs and positions as politicians for dear life, scared that they might not be able to do anything else besides politics. In essence, wait long enough, and people that have specialized will inevitably defend their jobs, even if they are the shittiest and most terrible jobs in the world, because it’s always better than to be unemployed: the coal miners that Trump panders to come to mind. Who would enjoy working a body breaking, dangerous job consisting in unearthing highly polluting combustible material which, if burned, will cause mass ecological disasters in the future? The type of person that has nothing else and still, as any human, needs to believe that his/her life has meaning!

For the private sector, the “game” is quite grim. There is no magic, the rules are simple: grow or die. There is no “degrowth” model under capitalism. A company that does not systematically grow, year over year, is doomed to fail :bankruptcy, merger and acquisition, perhaps, if they are lucky, downsize by getting rid of less “productive” or profitable parts of the business, but this is a tricky exercise.

And this is logical. In a financial and monetary system which is based on monetary creation based on debt/credit, no wonder that you are “locked” into growth! If you take a credit to start your company, you have to make profits exceeding the interest rate, aka, growth! If you go public with your company through an IPO, you better create a decent return on investment for your investors by dividend payouts, aka, growth!

What does this has to do with UBI might you ask? I’ve been rambling on for a few paragraphs and didn’t mention UBI once…

UBI could radically change the rules of the game. If tomorrow, UBI becomes a reality, and only if it allows anyone to live a life in dignity (not the ridiculously low UBI that barely allows for subsistence), the pawns might finally have a way to rebel, to free themselves from the terrible moral dilemma of choosing between public interest and your own survival and that of your loved ones. Suddenly private companies had better to up their game in convincing people that every action they take, every product they create, affects the whole world in a positive way. No sweeping child slavery or ecocidal actions under the carpet, or rather, no way for individual workers for those companies to “rationally” (in cold blood), justify continuing to work for such companies because they put their own survival and that of their loved ones higher then the survival and well-being of some distant kid on the other side of the globe, or higher than the future odds of survival for their own children in a distant future when climate change becomes much more serious. This is unfortunately how we reason: live today, die tomorrow. All the idealistic and naive scientists that dream of saving the world will not need to abandon their dreams once they find out that the jobs where they can pursue their ideas are scarce (publicly funded research) as opposed to jobs which instrumentalizes their knowledge for profit, often at the expense of the public interest. Companies will have to adjust to the natural moral compass that we all have, as humans, and will no longer be able to blackmail workers into bending those moral principles by holding them and their families hostage. In terms of politics, people might finally vote with their heart instead of their wallets, voting for public interest instead of their private interest. Is it any wonder that so many voices oppose UBI?

The potential of UBI for more freedom and liberty are completely underestimated, overshadowed by petty technical discussions about economics. UBI might be one of the fundamental requirements for fully achieving freedom and liberty, even solving problems such as inequalities between women and men by allowing people to pursue that which they feel most passionate about instead, contributing to the “best of their ability” as Marx would say, as opposed to chasing power and money, simply asking for “quotas” of as many women, men, blacks, asians, muslims, christians, in the high pay, high power jobs, regardless of whether those jobs have a real social utility or contribute to destroying our planet or our society.

Of course, there is always the question of “but how to implement UBI, who will pay for it?” As if anyone had to pay for it. I am more convinced than ever that UBI should never be implemented as a transfer payment but rather as a universal dividend that each human being has a right to, simply because this planet belongs objectively to no one and everyone, each human, has a right to share in the wealth that it generates. Alaska has implemented such a system by redistributing to its citizens the wealth generated from exploiting it’s natural oil resources. Of course, there is much to be said about the “how”, and I have much hope for the relative theory of money for solving the “how” (I will explore this theory in a subsequent article), but I wanted to insist on the fact that the economic effects of UBI are only second rate to the other effects UBI may have on our societies.

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