The moral arguments for basic income are actually fairly easy to identify and make. Intriguingly, these arguments successfully refute many of the attacks on basic income.
The moral case for basic income can be boiled down into a few ethical concepts that are easily understood. These concepts are respect for human life, human dignity, the value of work, and freedom.
This case is neither conservative nor liberal, but it will attract and repel people on both sides of the spectrum. The ethical arguments for basic income are the most powerful and effective. A short version of them will be outlined below.
Respect for Human Life
The best argument for basic income can be summed up in two simple words: “poverty kills.”
The side effects of poverty; whether they be lack of health care, poor mental health, substance abuse, poor nutrition, hunger, lack of adequate transportation, dangerous jobs, stress, violence, cold, and lack of decent, housing can be deadly. Researchers at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University calculated that 698,000 Americans died from poverty in 2000. That number increases to 874,000 when racial segregation is added to the mix.
Those numbers are obviously low; because the study was completed 18 years ago, but they paint an ugly picture. Any that respects life, whether they be a “pro-life” Christian on the right, or a pacifist on the left should welcome policies like basic income that alleviate poverty. At the end of the day, basic income would save lives by allowing the poor to rectify some of those deadly side effects.
Respect for Human Dignity
The worst thing about our present jobs culture is the way it undervalues people. The only values assigned to people are the job they perform, or the amount of money they make.
Persons without “jobs” are considered valueless, no matter how much they contribute to society. Even wealthy people without jobs are considered sick or abnormal. Individuals with no money or no job, have no value. By basing compensation and benefits solely on “jobs” we strip individuals of their dignity.
Many people feel valueless simply because they lack a “job.” Disturbingly, that feeling is often reinforced by the very institutions that are supposed to “help” the poor.
The present social-services bureaucracy; which is designed to force the poor into the jobs culture, is an affront to human dignity and a violation of basic human rights. That bureaucracy is also a betrayal of the American Dream and a violation of our Constitution and the values it is based upon.
Examples of how the social-services bureaucracy tramples basic constitutional rights and strips people of dignity are endless. The whole system is based on the belief that the poor are scum and must be treated accordingly.
The current US welfare system is so oppressive that author Virginia Eubanks calls it The Digital Poorhouse and compares it to the draconian poorhouses that Charles Dickens wrote about. For a good overview of the nightmare facing poor Americans trying to get help from their own government — see Eubanks’ frightening book Automating Inequality.
The Value of Work
The sorry truth is that our society places little or no value on work. Workers are only valued by the amount of money that they can make, or worse their job title.
Persons in professions that contribute the most to society; such as teachers, soldiers, police officers, firefighters, social workers, clergy, and nurses often receive little in pay. Teachers have to march on state capitols in some states to demand a salary comparable to that of the average truck driver.
Disturbingly, those people are often the lucky ones. Many others who contribute heavily to society such as housewives, mothers, fathers, grandparents, foster parents, community leaders, people who care for elderly relatives, volunteers, political activists, union organizers, entrepreneurs, researchers, scholars, writers, artists, journalists, inventors, and small-business people often receive nothing for their trouble.
These people often work themselves to the bone at lousy jobs; then put in a full day at their other occupation, and live in poverty. Many persons in such positions end up trapped in abusive relationships just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
A good basic income would give people a living wage and free millions to do important work. It would affirm the value of their work, and demonstrate that money is not the only goal of work.
Oddly enough, the value of work is one of the main arguments made by critics of basic income. By making such arguments basic income opponents prove that they do not value work. They do not care that untold millions of people are not paid for hard work.
To add insult to injury, many basic-income opponents would create millions of bullshit jobs that would pay people to do nothing through a “jobs guarantee.” That would completely destroy the value of work. The jobs guarantee should frighten us because those opponents support a welfare system that forces average people into bullshit jobs.
The best way to affirm the value of work is to make sure that everybody gets paid through a basic income. Understanding the value of unpaid labor is the first step on the road to true freedom.
Basic Income is about Freedom
Poverty is the greatest threat to freedom in America and the world. Poor people have little or no liberty even in “free” countries like the United States.
Poor people without a car often lack the freedom of movement. Those without money often lack access to freedom-increasing technologies such as the internet, smartphones, wireless service, apps, blockchain, computers and Fintech. A poor person that has to work 12 hours a day at two shit jobs has no freedom.
Poverty is the most insidious enslaver of all because it forces people into situations from which they cannot escape. The classic example of this is a person unable to leave a crummy job because of a lack of cash.
Many people are unable to pursue opportunities for self-betterment such as education, study, reading, contemplation, prayer, meditation, entrepreneurship, or simply searching for a better job because all their time and energy is invested in their “job.” This hurts society because vast numbers of people are unable to reach their full potential or to expand their horizons.
Our society is missing out on new art, inventions, businesses, innovations, and more because tens of millions of people lack the time to pursue them. Just imagine what America would be like if we had 100 Jeff Bezos or Elon Musks out there building new businesses?
There are hundreds of entrepreneurs as great as Musk and Bezos trapped in bullshit jobs in America. All they need is the freedom to pursue their dreams. Likewise there are thousands of great artists, philosophers, thinkers, political leaders, authors, poets, writers, scholars, musicians, researchers, and scientists, who are unable to make a real contribution to society because of “jobs.”
A basic income would free untold millions to purse their dreams. It would also give people the freedom to participate in volunteer work, church work, local government, charity, arts, writing, music, and hobbies. Many others would finally get the freedom to spend with their families and raise their children.
At the end of the day basic income is about increasing freedom. Our world has done a great job of increasing intellectual and political freedom, and a terrible job of extending individual freedom. The freedom granted by America’s Constitution and won by our ancestors on the battlefield and the picket line is stolen by the jobs culture.
Thanks to the jobs culture, most modern Americans have less free time; and often less real freedom than a medieval peasant, and fewer opportunities than most Europeans. In other words, we are less free and need mechanisms to extend freedom. The basic income is the best mechanism for extending freedom now available.
Basic Income is the Moral Choice
The arguments against basic income are disturbingly similar to the arguments against historic extensions of freedom, author Rutger Bregman noted. The basic-income critics use the same tired arguments as those opposed to abolition of slavery, women’s rights, civil rights for minorities, unions, gay rights, and democracy.
The reactionaries of the past argued that extending freedom would destroy the family and traditional culture, condemn peoples’ souls to hell, undermine religion, create anarchy, and cause the collapse of civilization. Basic income opponents make the same sorry arguments. They chant that granting ordinary people more freedom will lead to ruination, while jealously guarding their own liberties.
At the end of the day, basic income is about freedom there can be nothing more moral than that. Basic income is the moral choice; the question we have to ask is will America make that choice.
This commentary first appeared at Market Mad House your Tribune of Basic Income.