As our society becomes increasingly automated, some leading thinkers are talking about what to do for workers who lose their jobs. I’ve written a few blogs on the subject, myself. (Click) One suggestion is to provide displaced workers a basic income. Different from unemployment insurance, this money doesn’t require the individual to train for another career or even to prove he or she is looking for work. It’s money with no strings attached. The underlying assumption is that society works best when its members are cared for.
Oddly enough, this simple and decent notion can raise hackles when it’s proposed. In 2016, Switzerland voted the idea down. After the defeat, researchers discovered voters “didn’t think it was right for people to be given something for free.” (“Solution: Free Money,” by Claire Suddath, Bloomberg Businessweek, Jan. 15, 2018, pg. 53.) A basic income, they feared, would make individuals lazy or turn them into alcoholics and drug addicts. (Ibid pg. 49.) Experiments, like the one going on in Finland and those tried in Kenya (Ibid, pg. 48) and in the U. S. in the 1970s prove those negatives rarely occur. (Ibid, pg. 48) People use the “free” money to go back to school, supplement the income of their part-time jobs, start a business or use their freed time to become community service volunteers.
Leaders on both sides of the political aisle have long supported a basic income. Conservative economist, Milton Friedman proposed it, too, and so did democrat and president, Lyndon Johnson. (Ibid, pg. 48.) Selling the idea continues to have detractors, however. Before Finland’s experiment began, labor unions feared they’d see a decline in their membership. Others objected to giving away benefits they didn’t receive. (Ibid, pg. 48)
Implementing a basic pay would require radical tax reforms, of course. That challenge boggles the mind, when Congress quarrels about allocating enough funds just to keep government open. Nonetheless, science says basic income is doable. What’s required is trust, the ability to believe that the poor and unemployed know what’s best for them.
At the moment, trust is in short supply. We are mired in so many conspiracy theories, we’ve become suspicious of one another. While the need for a basic income is growing, it’s going to be a hard sell. Pity.