In the future we won’t have to work and the state will give us money… it’ll be awful
Photo: Jens Kalaene/dpa/aa   

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the increasingly fashionable idea that governments should hand out wodges of cash to their citizens without requiring anything in return. (Apparently this is Silicon Valley’s prescription for our economic discontents.)

In today’s world, such a policy is simply unaffordable (see John Kay for details). But what of a future in which most work is done by super-productive machines, leaving us poor saps at a loose end? In these circumstances, UBI would be both necessary and feasible.

Free money for everyone sounds wonderful, but as Shai Shapira argues in a brilliant piece for Quillette, we’d pay a price:

“…when we examine historical trends in politics and economics, we can spot a basic pattern: political rights are strongly correlated with economic participation. Societies where the state economy depends on small inputs from many different citizens tend to give their citizens significantly more rights, including the right of participation in the government itself. Societies where the state economy comes from natural resources, or other sources that require only a small, fixed number of people to defend or maintain them, tend to develop autocratic regimes with little concern for the welfare of their citizens.”

For evidence, let’s look at some notable resource-exporting economies:

“The World Bank gives us a list of countries ordered by what percentage of their merchandise exports comes from fuels. At 50% or more we find, in this order: Iraq, Angola, Algeria, Brunei, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Oman, Norway, Colombia, Bolivia and Bahrain. Can we notice a trend? How many of these countries provide a good set of political rights for their citizens?”

There aren’t many democracies on that list. And the most obvious exception, Norway, was a democracy long before its oil and gas industry was established.

There’s a perfectly straightforward reason why the rulers of oil-rich states tend not to grant democratic rights to their people… they don’t have to:

“We do not get our rights because we deserve them, or even because we fight for them – we get our rights because the government needs us… a country that generates its wealth from oil wells, only needs to keep a handful of mercenaries happy as they guard the access to those wells.”

If a policy of UBI ever becomes necessary and feasible, it’ll be because most of us aren’t needed anymore. With machines doing all the work, the economy would be all capital and no labour: the culmination – and, hence, endpoint – of capitalism. It wouldn’t be good news for socialism either: you can hardly have workers owning the means of production if there aren’t any workers.

With machines doing all the work, the economy would be all capital and no labour: the culmination – and, hence, endpoint – of capitalism. It wouldn’t be good news for socialism either: you can hardly have workers owning the means of production if there aren’t any workers. To avoid such a future we should pursue policies that favour business models in which robots are deployed to enhance not replace human productivity. That way people can remain integral to the proper functioning of the economy.

To avoid such a future we should pursue policies that favour business models in which robots are deployed to enhance not replace human productivity. That way people can remain integral to the proper functioning of the economy.

Whether or not we’ll have that option is an interesting question. But an even more interesting one is whether, given the choice, we’d work alongside our machines or bunk-off and leave the robots to get on with it. Perhaps we’d prefer a never-ending weekend:

“Commentators love to imagine society after universal basic income as full of people studying, working on crafts and hobbies and generally living happy and fulfilling lives.”

Like Shapira, I think this would be terrible for us politically. It’d be a cultural and spiritual disaster too. Retirement can be a wonderful thing, but not for the young and middle aged. Can you imagine the sheer horror of a society in which everyone gets to pursue their creative ambitions irrespective of talent?

The most terrifying words in the English language are ‘actually, I’m a bit of a singer-songwriter’. If funded by the state and freed from the need to work, such individuals would run amok. The budding artist to willing audience ratio would become frustratingly unbalanced. With supply running so far ahead of demand, governments may decide to make UBI conditional on us consuming one another’s cultural output. We’d be forced to listen to our neighbours’ dreadful poetry, read their appalling novels and view their hideous daubs.

A few weeks of that and we’d be desperate to return to our offices and factories.