Fantastic Reasons Why A Basic Income Makes Moral Cents


Ontarians of a certain age and inclination know Mr. Brown, the terribly obnoxious (and fictional) winner of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming’s “Cash For Life” prize. Each week the same mailman delivers a one thousand dollar cheque to Mr. Brown, and each week Mr. Brown crows with delight. “Faaantastic!” he says.

As a child I thought this was a lame commercial and a lame prize. As the spot progresses we see evidence that Mr. Brown is making modest material gains: golf clubs, a boat, incremental additions to his home. I had decided then that winning the lottery should mean being able to check out of life as we know it, buying a castle like Mike Tyson’s, tigers and all. This was not the case for Mr. Brown, who we see pathetically and predictably by his fence each week waiting for the mail man to bring him his cheque. I imagined Mr. Brown driving his slightly better car to his same crappy job; taking marginally better vacations; and maybe, finally, buying organic!

I am older now, and if not wiser, more experienced. I think: maybe Mr. Brown was home to meet the mail man because he quit his job. I think: maybe he quit his job to build the studio he needed, so that he could spend his days drawing charcoal portraits of golden retrievers, as was his childhood dream. I think: what would I do if I had a thousand dollars a week? And although that question invites all kinds of existential anxiety – because what should I be doing with this wild and precious life? I assume I’d eventually figure things out.

Cash for life for all

What if we were all Mr. Brown? Not literally–I prefer bloodhounds to golden retrievers–but in the sense that we all had a guaranteed income that was sufficient to meet our basic needs. Sometimes called “universal basic income,” or a “basic income guarantee,” this idea is as simple as its name: we replace our existing social assistance programs with an annual cash payment to every adult resident. You get paid if you are alive and an adult. You do not have to prove you are unable to work, or looking for work, or getting job training, or that you have no access to other income. You do not have to sell all your assets to qualify. You do not have to expose the inner workings of your family, your psychology, your body, or explain them as failings.

Whose cash for life?

How could we pay for this? This is the typical first objection, and it is fair, because we do not have infinite money. However, I think we should turn this objection on its head and consider, instead, how much the status quo costs. We know that poverty is expensive: trips to the emergency room instead of the family doctor, unhealthy food and then diabetes, stress, and pay day loans to pay off pay day loans. Grandparents everywhere know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; and researchers continue to pile evidence for just how much poverty costs communities, and which preventative approaches can save us money and suffering in the future.

A 2013 report estimates that poverty costs the province of Ontario between $10.4 billion and $13.1 billion per year. In 2009, the last year for which we have figures, “governments spent $13 billion in welfare payments,” and another $4 billion in administration. We do not have to spend this much money treating symptoms. The status quo is unnecessarily costly, and interventions that look further upstream save us all money down the road. From this perspective, how could we not pay for this?

So we could afford a basic income program instead of our piecemeal social assistance, and would eventually save money through its implementation.

No work and all play make me a dull boy

But would people work if they had free money? One missing assumption here is that it would be a bad thing if many of us quit our jobs because we did not need them to survive. Perhaps this would be bad, though given the myriad ways our work destroys the environment and perpetuates inequality, it seems fair to ask for an argument explaining why, exactly. Another missing assumption is that many people would be comfortable with the standard of living a basic income would provide. This is partly a policy question: how much would a basic income be, exactly? But most proponents of basic income set the number fairly low, much lower anyway than most of us are used to. If I wanted a nice car or fancy winter boots for my Golden Retriever, I would have to work. I often hear that humans are competitive and driven to differentiate themselves from each other. I also often that it is precisely this keeping up with the Kardashians Joneses that ensures our economy will keep growing (and serves to legitimize our consumption patterns). If this is true—if in fact these desires are innate—then they would not disappear with a basic income, and we should expect many people to continue working.

Others are concerned that a basic income could not provide the psychological satisfaction we experience through work, because work is central to a flourishing life. During unemployed periods in my life I have certainly felt that way, desperate for work to restore some sanity and balance to my life. And yet, why must it be work? By some reasonably legitimate measures the good people of Denmark appear to be some of the happiest in the world, while working less than most. Indeed, this is also one of the arguments in favour of a basic income guarantee: wouldn’t our communities be better if people were not forced to ‘choose’ their work based on their survival needs? Indeed, “if we all had the equivalent of a trust fund, I think most of us would do as many trust fund kids do.” And indeed, we know that “when basic needs are met, it’s easier to be creative; when you know you have a safety net, you are more willing to take risks.” Certainly some people want and need to work to feel good. But it is hard to see a connection between work and human flourishing for the so-called “working poor.” Do those people holding up work as key to the good life have in mind cleaning toilets?

Fairness and dirty toilets

Nonetheless, “there does seem something fair about requiring those who benefit from society to contribute their share.” In other words, why should surfer bums get a cheque? Again, there is substance to this criticism and again, it’s not that simple. First off, we already have a massive system of social assistance that does not require people to work. We have decided, together, that people should have opportunities to live decent lives even if they cannot ‘contribute’ in the narrow sense of paid wage labour. And once we have conceded this, then we are no longer dealing with black and white, but into a thicket of grey: what counts as “work?” Typically, and problematically, it’s what men have done, away from home. Who decides who can, and who cannot work? What reasons will they accept? How must we prove or display, our disabilities?

OK, but who will clean the toilets, and take out the trash? Would I rather a subsistence income, or perform some of our community’s least socially valued work and have a bit more? I expect few would choose to clean toilets, and we would all be in, as the saying goes, deep ****. But if this criticism is good, it is good because it shows that “paid-what-you’re-worth” is nuts. Once you do not have to clean toilets for $11 an hour to survive, you might not choose to clean toilets for $11 an hour; and you might have time to organize a movement demanding that nobody should have to clean toilets for $11 an hour, and that our least desirable work should be much better paid.


One Response to “Fantastic Reasons Why A Basic Income Makes Moral Cents”

  1. ggscorzato Says:

    Great article!

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