One of the barriers to adopting Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the feeling in neoliberal societies that nobody should get something for nothing. Even if the money is available, and there would be tangible improvements to society, the rule is that individuals must work in order to get recompense. And if you’re too sick, too stupid, too tired, too old, etc, it’s tough. Your worth is determined by how much capital you can generate, and if you can’t earn enough to survive — you don’t survive. It’s cruel and unnecessary, and it’s the belief system we’ve signed up to.
In addition to the idea that our value can only be measured in monetary terms, there’s also a perceived need for us to work for as long as we can each day, and to work every day. In this case our value is derived from the fact that we are working long hours, that we are not being “lazy,” that we are constantly producing. We know objectively that it’s unnecessary, and that we could comfortably work much shorter hours for the same outcome, but it’s a part of our culture. Anthropologist David Graeber describes this phenomenon as the proliferation of “bullshit jobs”.
But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.
We don’t need these jobs; technology allows us to automate, outsource and scale up most processes so that machines can perform the work more efficiently than humans. This should mean that we are able to work fewer hours and have more free time to spend as we wish. However, there’s a feeling that we just aren’t ready for this and that the lack of meaningful employment will cause society to collapse and everyone will just sit around eating crisps in front of the telly all day. But if they did — so what? The amount of money generated by more efficient processes is still available whether we create made-up jobs to fill the time or not.
Industrialists needed a willing workforce available immediately and for long hours, but economists and visionaries predicted a future where wealth generation was not limited by the size of the human workforce. Two centuries later, those predictions are our reality, and our thinking needs to keep pace. UBI would manage the practical aspects of such a shift, but we need to reconsider what we see as the purpose of human endeavor if we are to reap the rewards of technological progress.
The only things holding UBI back in the long term are moral objections and beliefs that people cannot live fulfilling lives without toil. UBI could provide an opportunity to re-evaluate the purpose of our existence, and perhaps free us from the constraints of conformity.