Jake Gordon

Would the introduction of a basic income be a utopian reform or an administrative one?

A 'basic income', existing in theory in many flavours, is one name (others include citizen wage and national dividend) for a usually unconditional income given to citizens of a nation as per their right as citizens, regardless of their employment status. It can replace unemployment allowances but also has the potential to replace other forms of state welfare, such as schooling and health care. No world nation currently employs such a scheme, however Brazil is likely to begin phasing in a form of basic income in 2005.

This essay will focus on a discussion a compelling reason for the introduction of a basic income scheme - the unsustainability of full employmentWhen I talk of 'full' employment I am not referring to a 100% employment rate - which would be impossible in practice - but one which is high enough for there not to be a great problem of unemployment. because of technological unemployment. Whilst at first one may consider the dystopia created by this, a basic income scheme will be shown to potentially create a utopia in which people are liberated from work. Following this, the political reality of introducing a basic income scheme will be assessed.

Let's begin by accepting a humbling truth: like society as a whole, welfare theory is confusingly complex and there is no single 'correct' answer, but multiple partial answers to different questions with varying degrees of acceptance based upon the ideologies of those considering them. An attempt to find a perfect solution for everyone, regardless of their ideology, is futile. But sometimes, an answer is required all the same, particularly within politics where parties encourage voter support for their policies. Advocacy for a basic income can come from multiple political ideologies and in doing so is proposed as an answer for fundamentally different questions. For the pro-business right, a minimally sized basic income may primarily provide an answer to ensure that businesses are not responsible for the welfare of their employees, as the state will take care of their basic needs. The equality championing left, however, would principally encourage a basic income as a fair and equitable means to distribute wealth for the common good whilst reducing the need to sell one's labour for the profit of an employer. Because a basic income scheme is not currently in existence, and because it would be possible to employ in numerous forms, it is crucial to remember at all times that a basic income scheme is not intrinsically left nor right, and that it can provide answers to various questions.

Firstly, my own approach to basic income comes from neither a solely left nor right traditional stance. It comes from a strong belief that full employment is unsustainable due to technological unemployment, the saturation of world markets and a lack of new human-job creating industries. Assuming this to be true, and high unemployment to be an inevitable long-term result, a strong welfare system becomes ever more important to enable the sustainability of economic-growth based industrialism. The right and left within industrial societies are usually similar in the importance they attribute to full employment and growth: for the right, high levels of employment are necessary to distribute wealth, enabling people to consume more goods and hence for the economy to grow; for the left, employment also helps the economy to grow and people to consume more, although with importance on higher and more equitable pay. If anything, my approach is that of a zero or steady growth green party.

A lack of full employment is incompatible with modern industrial right and left wing ideologies and policies. A basic income scheme would provide both sides, with respect to high unemployment, an answer to enable industrial growth to continue. A failure to distribute wealth - for example presuming mass unemployment and no basic income scheme - would ultimately lead to the collapse of industrial society as crime levels soar and the wealthy segregate themselves from the poor masses. Whilst an alternative or complement to this may be a movement toward self-sustenance, 'own-work''Own-work' is a concept used by James Robertson (1985) Future Work: jobs, self-employment and leisure after the industrial age, Aldershot: Gower and community living in which employment as it is known today becomes less important, the resulting societies would be largely indistinguishable from modern industrial ones. In this respect, a basic income provides an answer to the problem created by unemployment - a lack of wealth distribution - and in doing so enables industrial societies to continue to flourish.

Secondly, my approach to basic income comes from my idealistic and undoubtedly leftist inclination. By exploring it in depth I have been able to discover and contemplate its utopian potential. The radical socialist vision of society would see all people working on common land for a common good, taking according to one's needs and providing according to one's abilities. However, my vision of a utopia would see technology replacing the requirement for people to work, enabling people to work when they wish - although importantly they may not get paid for this - and benefiting from the work done by technology. In this society, a currency would be required as a rationing device and to pay for those goods and services which still require human labour. There would be no state restriction, in contrast to a socialist society, on the ability to run a business or earn high profits. But the provision of a basic income would enable people to be far more free in their decisions as consumers and workers, and this could ultimately limit the profitability of enterprise.

Whilst my first approach sees basic income as providing a solution primarily to distribute wealth during mass unemployment, my second approach champions a basic income primarily for its liberating potential, regardless of the employment situation. It should be clear, though, that both of my approaches to advocating basic income are based upon a theory that technology can replace a large number of jobs in society, so it is worth analysing that theory with some degree of objectivity, particularly considering that people have been foretelling a loss of full employment for decades.

Arguments concerning technological unemployment and the move to a leisure society have been commonplace within academic and fictional literature for many decades. Kurt Vonnegut (1952) wrote a fictional tale of a future society divided strongly into two halves: those who control the machines; and those who don't. The fortunates live in secure communities and rarely make contact with the unfortunates. There is discontent from people who feel powerless, like slaves, with their skills rendered pointless as machines replace the need for them. Eventually, there is a Luddite-esque revolt against the machines and authority. Interestingly, having destroyed and dismantled many machines, the novel finishes by suggesting that it is perhaps human nature to rebuild the machines and once again eventually render the human worker obsolete.

Undoubtedly, machines have their uses. To defend a society in which all work is done without machines, or even without basic tools (for where do you draw the line?) would surely be folly without good reason. Machines enable people to work less, for the same level of productivity. People in industrial societies very rarely provide the basic necessities of life for themselves, and hence are reliant upon an income. The problem comes where a society is entirely reliant upon jobs as a form of distributing income, and then machines and technologies come and disrupt old ways of doing things. Handy (1985) argues that "[i]f a society makes jobs the pivot of existence and then cannot provide enough jobs, or share out the available jobs more fairly, or find alternative pivots for life, it is practicing deceit" (1985: 15). Currently, society has made jobs the 'pivot of existence' and disruptive technologies are looking likely to making the provision of enough jobs difficult for the future.

Disruptive Technologies - The Internet & Robotics

Technologies are disruptive if they disrupt accepted ways of doing things, usually forcing people to leave jobs in search of new ones. There is nothing new about disruptive technologies, and almost all technologies can be seen as disruptive in at least some regard. Often, technologies create new industries and jobs relating to them which may be partially unforeseeable before their introduction. For example whilst computers may have made office tasks simpler and less time consuming, replacing some jobs, they have also spawned whole new industries, for example in computer hardware, software programming and computer gaming.

But a 'problem' now occurs where we have disruptive technologies which do not create new jobs of the same magnitude or greater than those they replace. Although technological developments are generally incremental with many different technologies amalgamated together to create new ones, the two particular technologies which are important to my argument are the Internet and robotics.

Whilst technologies in the past have threatened one or two industries or job segments, the Internet has the potential to threaten multiple industries and jobs. The Internet should not simply be understood as the world wide web - although this is a popular part of it - but as a worldwide communication network over which any digitizable data can be copied to any number of users at minimal cost. In 1995 the Internet was in an embryonic stage, limited to governments, universities and the 'geek' niche. Today (2004) there are an estimated 100 million broadband connections globally, 3 million of which are in the UKBBC News Online (6 January 2004) Global broadband keeps climbing, online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3369323.stm. Using a standard broadband connection, it is possible to download a 3 minute MP3 song in under a minuteCalculation for MP3 song based upon encoding at 128kbps and a broadband connection of 512kbps running at full speed.. Clearly, this is having an impact on the music industry, as copyright material is distributed both legally and illegally online. In March 2004, over 5 million households in the US were estimated to have downloaded music illegally over the Internet, with 600,000 households downloading music legallySource: News.com (April 26 2004) iTunes ushers in a year of change, online: http://news.com.com/2100-1027_3-5199227.html. If all music was downloaded over the Internet, record shops and their distribution channels would cease to exist. If all music was downloaded free of charge, then artists, song writers and the music industry as a whole would be forced to look for money elsewhere. The digitization of any data makes it intangible and infinitely copyable, with all DRM (digital rights management) techniques thus far employed technically crackableThe Register (5 May 2004) DRM 'will be cracked' says iTunes hacker, online: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/05/05/drm_will_be_cracked/.

But the digitization and transportation of data over the Internet goes far beyond just music. Movies can also be digitized and transported - a DVD quality 90 minute movie can be downloaded over a normal broadband line in just over 2 hoursCalculation for movie based upon encoding at 700kbps with a 512kbps connection running at full speed.. Books can also be digitized but have thus far been held back by displays which are less readable than regular paper. However, last month (April 2004) Sony introduced an e-book reader in Japan which uses 'e-ink' technology to produce a display which is almost as readable as ink on paper. When digitized, text requires extremely small disk space, making books possible to download in just seconds. Newspapers, magazines, journals - all will become widely distributed over the Internet, whether legally or not, as e-book readers proliferate. Whilst today it is common for tech-savvy individuals to carry dozens of hours of music with them in their pocket, by 2010 it will be commonplace to carry dozens of 'books', 'newspapers' and 'magazines' in a pocketable storage and display device. Further, those devices will be increasingly wireless, connecting to the Internet whilst on the move. Over time, regular phone networks will also be deemed extinct as voice and video communications are digitized on-the-fly and transported over the Internet. The device in your pocket is then able to store all your music, your books, newspapers and magazines, and also provide you with voice and video communications. All that's lacking is a kitchen sink, but a 3D model of a kitchen sink could also be stored on the device before it is transferred to a 'fabber' for productionA 'fabber' is a 3D printer. In theory, it is possible that a 3D printer could be developed which could 'print', using raw materials available to it, any object which is provided to it as a 3D digital file. Already, such printers are used for such producing single material objects, for example bone replacements within medical science. For more information see http://www.ennex.com/~fabbers/publish/200102-Napster/.

Of course someone has to build these 'magical' devices in the first place and then transport them to the customer. Whilst all information - whether of a creative nature or not - can be digitized, raw materials cannot. But raw materials are necessary for life: people need food, clothing and shelter; tools and machines are required to do tasks; people like to have material 'stuff'. Also, many jobs involve a service which are not deemed redundant by the Internet. This is where robots complement the onslaught against jobs.

Marshall Brain appears to understands the developments in robotics better than most people. He keeps a blog called 'Robotic Nation Evidence'Marshall Brain Robotic Nation Evidence, online: http://roboticnation.blogspot.com/ where he tracks news about robots on an almost daily basis. In 2003-4 he released, in parts, an online novel called 'Manna'Marshall Brain (2003-4) Manna, online: http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm which explores a utopia and dystopia following a revolution in automation. He has also written numerous essays and articles on issues concerning robotics and the consequences of robotization, including a basic income. His basic (and extremely convincing, given the evidence he presents) argument is this: over the next few decades, robots will make advances into an ever increasing number of previously secure job arenas. In time, few jobs are safe.

In light of overwhelming evidence which I have dissected over the past few years, I see just one major factor which could slow the drive towards robotization and automation: a shortage of cheap energy. My undergraduate dissertationMy dissertation is freely available to read online at http://www.nojobs.org.uk explains that the production of world oil is approaching a peak (or possibly, has already peaked). Following that time, the supply of world oil will fall, never to return to such heights again. Oil provides industrial societies with a cheap form of energy which has made considerations of energy usage within robotics and other automating technologies largely irrelevant. However should oil supplies fall and prices rise astronomically (the price of crude oil already sits at a 13 year highBBC News Online (5 May 2004) Oil soars despite overproduction, online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/3685145.stm) then the cost of energy becomes a great concern. If no suitable replacement for oil can be found, as the evidence suggests, then in the long term it is possible that robots and other technologies will be competing with humans for limited energy reserves. As a result of a chronic energy shortage, it would be sensible that tasks would be done by machines only where they require less energy than humans. For example, transporting a letter by foot would require more energy, in food, than transporting an email the same distance over the Internet. But the energy required to produce and deliver food by human hand, with the aid of hand-tools, is comparatively small when compared with the energy which would be required to produce and deliver the same quantity of food with machines. Hence, it is possible that robots will not eventually replace many jobs.

Back To The Question

Right, so this essay would appear to have deviated from the question. But for an important reason: too often, economics and politics fail to take sufficient account for world-changing technological developments. Trends are spotted and plotted on graphs, extending infinitely into the future without due consideration for technologies which should greatly alter the shape of those graphs. Also, the political-economic system would appear to base itself upon a Cornucopian flat-world fallacy, presuming unlimited supplies of resources. The use of a fiat monetary system, in which money supplies can constantly increase regardless of the fact that resources themselves cannot increase, compounds the problem by creating the illusion of perpetual economic growth. For a basic income scheme to have the quality of sustainability, it would be important for it to have rationing qualities based upon resource limits.

Following much necessary discussion, we can now begin to tackle the question directly: would the introduction of a basic income be a utopian reform or an administrative one? This is the wrong question to ask because of the political reality: policies need votes, voters need reasons. Voters will support the introduction of a basic income scheme for numerous reasons, some of which will be utopian, some of which will not. There may be administrative grounds for a basic income scheme, but crucially there must be continued voter support for the scheme too.

The introduction of a basic income scheme would require a change in common sense, a change in mind sets. The Green Party has a basic income, which they call a citizen's wage, as part of their manifesto. Within the current mind set, the Green Party has no chance of winning a general election. If one adopts a mind set based upon the argument provided by this essay, a vote for many of the policies advocated by the Green Party becomes more likely. The Liberal Democrats also supported a basic income scheme for the 1992 elections but dropped it two years later as it attained little popular support from potential voters. Fitzpatrick writes that "Common sense says that a something-for-nothing income is wrong and common sense is not overturned by the conclusion of a philosophical debate." (1999: 69) but also suggests that basic income "is no more unrealistic than the state pension was before 1908 or health care free at the point of treatment was before 1948" (1999: 70). For Fitzpatrick then, common sense does not change because of the vision of a utopia, but for other reasons. As the world wakes up to the reality of living on a round-world with limited resources and limited new markets to expand into (as globalization achieves world saturation), perhaps this common sense will change.


This essay has explored technological unemployment, an important reason for the introduction of a basic income scheme. It suggests that technological unemployment should be embraced for its liberating potential, but that doing so requires a change in common sense, a change in mind sets and ideologies. These changes can make a basic income politically feasible, and regardless of compelling administrative and other reasons for introducing a basic income, it is this feasibility which is crucially important when one considers political reality. Whilst a utopia may be partially achievable with a basic income, perhaps more important in the minds of voters is to avoid a dystopia which could be created by mass unemployment and a lack of wealth distribution.

[2,950 words, written May 2004]


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  • by Jake Gordon, some rights reserved