In praise of Universal Basic Income

…and why objections based on so-called ethical principles are silly

In a recent address to his graduation class, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called for the implementation of Universal Basic Income (UBI): a well-known and forward-looking concept in the social sciences, where the state provides everyone with an income sufficient to meet their basic survival needs such as food, shelter and clothing, irrespective of whether they are gainfully employed or not.

I am greatly encouraged by this resurgence of interest in UBI, amongst Zuckerberg, Musk and other Silicon Valley big wigs. I noticed however, that Zuckerberg’s speech in support of UBI drew a hostile reaction of non-trivial proportions across social media, and thought it worthwhile saying a few words in support of his cause.

Zuckerberg put the case forward quite clearly; he provided at least three compelling reasons for embracing UBI.

  1. Advancing technology and increasing automation is leading to fewer jobs.
  2. The dire need for a financial cushion for people, so they could educate themselves as adults, or engage in quality parenting, or perform other productive activities at different stages of their lives, which don’t provide a direct cash return.
  3. The undeniable role that basic financial security plays in fostering entrepreneurship.

I would like to reinforce Zuckerberg’s case for UBI by expanding and extending his rationale. I am charitably assuming of course, that Zuckerberg’s interest in the matter goes deeper than a mere desire to absolve people of the need to work, so they could spend all day on Facebook – a rather sardonic yet common enough reaction to his address.

Let us for a moment explore the ethical underpinnings of the objections to UBI. The commonest objection raised against UBI is the objection to giving people “a free lunch”, and thus “spoiling” them. I saw this particular objection echoed time and again in the commentary surrounding Zuckerberg’s address. One commentator stated this objection with poetic elegance, sighting the good book. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”, he chimed in.

I don’t buy this ethic. Iron age religions codified our inherited instincts to forage and hunt, which were perfectly natural, into a dogmatic ethical principle that one doesn’t deserve to eat, unless one has worked for it. There are two problems with this rather unfortunate paraphrasing of our natural instincts. The first is that nature doesn’t set a precedent to frown upon idle eaters who reach out effortlessly for an easy meal procured by someone else. A male lion, mooching about on the savanna whilst the rest of his pride sweats hard to bring down a kill, may simply saunter over and dig into the carcass, without causing any ill feeling.

Of course one has to sometimes “work” to obtain a meal in nature, but everyone doesn’t have to work for it all the time, and, more importantly, providing food to others is not something for which one need demand an explicit return. This is the second problem with the canonical viewpoint. Social animals such as lions, gorillas or meerkats instinctively understand that opportunity is the biggest success factor in nature, and the individual who “wins the bread” shares it without placing demands. An ancient Homo sapiens may have brought down a boar and dragged it over to his tribal dwelling, to be shared with his kinsmen with altruistic pleasure. Group cooperation, and adaptation for altruism amongst kin, are well-known Darwinian processes.

Civilization and the rise of religious ethics changed this protocol of feeding each other FOC, by sub-optimally placing a mandatory barter value for a meal; it had to be obtained by working (and usually working for someone else). To put it plainly, we were told we have to toil for every f…ing meal. We were conditioned to feel squeamish if we had procured our lunch effortlessly, even if it harmed no one.

Another fallacy, which again I suspect has its roots in the folk psychology of religions, is the idea that poverty is the main driver of success. One particularly benevolent commentator on the Zuckerberg story had these words of wisdom to say: “poverty will be merely a step you take towards success”. Really?! Contrary to this rather masochistic view, the majority of those whom I’ve met who had lost jobs due to no fault of their own, will attest to the huge dependence of their subsequent success on how much financial support they got, when they were “down”.

Rather than being a driver of employability, the fear of starvation often rushes and muddles up the process of getting back on one’s feet. Your friends and relatives push you get any kind of job, which often doesn’t match your skillset, causing further disruptions in your career and more psychological distress.

I quote from a conversation that the political scientist Charles Murray had with the philosopher Sam Harris, where Murray says that an income stream actually improves moral agency, contrary to popular belief. It’s much easier for society to demand more from someone whose basic survival needs are already met. “Don’t tell us you are helpless because you aren’t helpless; the question is whether you are going to do anything to further improve your lot” is something we can tell those who are unproductive, yet receiving a basic income from the state. In contrast, far too many homeless people without a predictable income are powerless to land a job interview, simply because they can’t afford to dress up tastefully. This fact reinforces Zuckerberg’s third point.

Let us bring in another perspective to Zuckerberg’s second point. Many young people sacrifice their best years helping others, at the expense of helping themselves to a comfortable salary. If one raised a child (or looked after an aged parent or grandparent), one has discharged an important practical responsibility towards maintaining a civilized and productive society, for which one ideally aught to receive some material benefit. However, when such a dutiful person looks about to make a living after a hiatus in paid employment, they often face a forbidding society that won’t employ them again because they have a “broken track record”, or are “too old”, or judged to be “overqualified” if they seek a “lesser” job than they last held.

To expand on Zuckerberg’s first point, it is more than mere automation that future employment seekers must worry about. The demography of working class society is changing, towards the upper end of the IQ and EQ bell curves. The rise of importance in IT is a classic example. Coming from this industry myself, I can say that not everyone is cut out to be a good software engineer, for example. In fact, very few people are. Successful lateral career moves into software engineering are an absolute rarity, and worse, the ratio of employability of graduates keeps dropping over the years. It is harder to become an expert software engineer in 2017 than it was to become a successful corporate executive in 1980, in real terms.

The eminent historian Yuval Noah Harari predicts that, barring other catastrophic possibilities like extreme climate change or nuclear war wiping us out, humanity is reliably on course towards freeing itself from the shackles of existential labor, and morphing itself into a species that spends most of their lifetime on pursuits of a recreational nature, either of the intellectual or physical kind. Hence the title of his latest book, “Homo Deus” – human gods. Work, including food production and delivery, will soon be seconded to technology, and humanity will be left to worry about doing things to please themselves, or please each other. This doesn’t sound like all too bad a predicament for us, particularly if one didn’t subscribe to those silly Iron Age philosophies about the sanctity of laboring for one’s meal.

I’ve purposefully not discussed the economics of walking towards UBI and ultimately a labor-less, recreation-focused society. I’ll leave that discussion to the economists and experts. Suffice to say that a very promising trial is in progress in Finland.

However, I argue strongly against any moral objections to freeing ourselves from the need to labor for our basic needs. Social norms are evolving, and its time that we freed our minds of the ancient burden of mere survival, in order to move 100% into the more joyous space of innovation and recreation. Just as Homo erectus evolved towards freeing two of its four limbs to use tools and develop its mind, Homo deus aught to evolve towards freeing its mind of the worry of survival, and focus on developing its technology and the quality of its leisure-time, at an accelerated pace.

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