“‘It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life—the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure— had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw!”
The Swiss are voting on a referendum that if passed, would require the state to supply every Swiss citizen a basic income of 2,500 Swiss francs per month. That’s roughly $2500 or £1,755. For my one Japanese reader, that’s a trillion yen. This story in the BBC does a respectable job of covering the topic. The news suggests the referendum has little chance of passing. The Swiss are a practical people and this proposal has too many unanswered questions. That and the proponents are something less than assuring.
These proposals are following the typical course of reform efforts. They bounce around the academy for a while as intellectuals work over the concepts. Then they are sold to the political class in fits and starts. If the political class is resistant, then maybe an activist group or industry group is enlisted to move the effort. Over time, what was once a radical idea is being discussed by respectable people. Before long the debate is over who can best implement the new idea.
There are some good arguments in favor of the guaranteed basic income. One is it is simple. Like the flat tax, the GBI replaces the myriad of welfare programs and the government vipers that come with them. The other point in its favor is it addresses the growing problem of mass unemployment. In the robot future, most people don’t work so this solves the problem of people not having a way to earn money. There’s also the fact that it is value neutral. People get the money to spend on whatever they wish, without the nanny state harassing them.
There are many arguments against it, with the most obvious being that welfare programs never go away. In America, the US Congress has repealed exactly one welfare program in the last century. The WPA was passed in the 1930’s and later replaced by Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which was such a hilarious disaster, it was replaced by a program called the Jobs Training Partnership Act. That was eventually repealed in the 90’s. That’s a long time to kill one horrible welfare program.
The most likely result, at least in America, is a basic income on top of existing welfare programs. There are 79 means tested welfare programs in America. Everyone of those programs has a federal agency employing thousands of people who do nothing but administer welfare programs. Congress will get rid of those right after they do something about the unicorn infestation. Until the inevitable fiscal crisis forces a mass retrenchment of industrial era government programs, there will be no reform of welfare in America.
Putting that aside, there are other problems. Spend time in the ghetto and you see the effects of the dole on the human spirit. A man not working quickly falls into bad habits. Families dependent on public money soon start to act like zoo animals, because they are essentially zoo animals. The state gives them an allowance, tells them how to spend it and supervises their living conditions. Granted, most got into that state because they lack the ability to manage their own affairs, but the corrosive effects of dependency are well known.
Even so, for all of human history, nature solved the problem of too many people by killing off the excess people either through famine, warfare or migration. In other words, supplying enough food, shelter, water and security for the population required all hands on deck. If a society out bred its resource supply, then that meant starvation or expanding territory through conquest in order to get more resources. Often, it just meant killing off a lot of people in wars over resources, thus solving the problem.
We are now able to produce all the food we need long into the future. More important, automated food production is well on the path to producing all the food we could ever need with very little human labor. The robot future has been discussed to death at this point, but even allowing for a fair bit of hyperbole in the predictions, we are facing a future where human labor is decreasingly necessary. That means the value of human capital will plummet, assuming the current economic models.
In a world of scarcity, society can carry the old and very young, along with a ruling elite. The modern industrial society could carry many more people who produced nothing because technology made those who did produce vastly more productive. Welfare programs knocked the edges off the inequality by transferring wealth from the rich to the poor. In the mature technological society, vast numbers will be idle, but provided for as there will be more than enough resources.
How that is resolved will be the greatest intellectual challenge in human history.