A lot has been said about basic income. Let us for now put aside the question of how it can be paid for or whether or not it will destroy social security systems. Let’s ask a more existential question: should we give people an income for basically doing nothing apart from being alive?
In our current day society there seems to be a general opinion that people have to prove their worth before they are entitled to anything. This is especially the case with those who are better off. They often claim that their amassed wealth is a measure of their worth and that everyone who puts their mind to it can do the same.
Let us put aside for a moment the fact that most of these people have been lucky enough to be born in a cushy, developed country and that a lot of them started off with inherited wealth. Let us also put aside for a moment the unseen masses who ‘put their mind to it’ and fail. And let us ask what it means to have worth.
Babies are helpless, they often cry, need tons of care and are the antithesis of productivity in our society. From an economic point of view they are worthless, except maybe that they create babysitting and daycare jobs. But their production output consists mainly of noise and dirty diapers. Yet we spend a lot of time and money on them without them having to prove anything. And this extends to not only their parents but to the majority of society. I haven’t met anyone yet who looks at a baby and says: prove me your worth.
Yet, once we step into ‘adult society’ we all of a sudden need to prove our worth, to extreme levels. Most people want society to take care of the weak and the helpless like people with chronic diseases, the elderly, the disabled, the homeless, … But only when they can show that it’s not their own fault. Homeless? You sure you didn’t bring it upon yourself? Chronic disease or disability? Make sure you can prove it. You’re better off missing an arm or a leg or to be crippled than having a mental disease because those can be faked, i.e. they are not obviously visible. And we don’t want freeloaders now do we?
How far are we willing to go in this avoidance of freeloaders? Do you feel it is just to have to prove yourself to have access to food? To shelter? To healthcare? To human contact? To being seen as a human being?
What if you did your best and just did not succeed? What if you ended up on the streets because of bad luck? What if you end up with a mental disease that makes you look semi normal but makes life anything but easy? Should we then just abandon you and point out to you all of the examples of people in your situation who have pulled themselves out of that situation without taking into consideration that for every one of them succeeding there are numerous others who failed? See! (S)he could do it so you can too. You just have to put your mind to it. Who cares if you struggle to get fed every day? It’s all in the mind.
Now consider the ones who have enough to live off and ‘do nothing’. The ones who just wake up, eat, hang out with friends, have fun and enjoy life. Do they contribute in any way to our society? Do they have ‘worth’? Not from the viewpoint of productivity, the main measure for worth in our current day society, for sure. But the longest running research has discovered that what makes us most happy is building and being part of meaningful relationships. It’s what we as human beings crave and value the most. People on their death beds don’t regret not having been productive enough. On the contrary. They often regret to have spent too much time with work and too little with loved ones. Shouldn’t our human values be worth something? From that perspective, how much value does the ‘non productive’ person add to the lives of the people (s)he hangs out with?
Now don’t get me wrong. This is not a black and white thing where all of a sudden no one has to prove anything anymore. When I board an airplane I definitely want the person flying it to have proven the ability to do so. And there will always be people who just take and don’t give. But if you read the book Give and Take by Adam Grant their number is far less than we think. How many people do you personally know who don’t care about anything but themselves? And have you ever tried to figure out why they are the way they are?
The choice we have is the following: either we make sure everyone gets a fair chance and doesn’t have to worry where the next meal comes from or where they are going to sleep. And that means we put up with the minority of people who just bum around all day. Or we try to make sure no one who can’t prove their worth gets anything and we let them starve to death on the streets where they can then at least be a general nuisance to the rest of us. That also means we live with the fact that quite a few people who are just unlucky end up in the same situation. And that just might be you one day.
In the end it comes down to how much we value a human life. If we agree that every life needs to be valued in itself and that every human being has the potential to contribute. And that that potential has vastly more chance to emerge when they don’t have to worry about food, shelter, clothing and being seen as human. Then a basic income is merely an economic expression of universal care and an acknowledgement of the value human life. If we go that way we all win because taking away the stress of survival will unlock a tremendous amount of potential in humanity as a whole.
Also published on Medium.
This is great. Well done Stef – both on the article and life!