Monday, 19 February 2018
What are you worth?
Imagine a world where there was no work ethic. Imagine a world where, to survive, all you had to do was pick up your basic income and settle back into your armchair; where being in work was no longer a necessity. I have been invited to imagine such a world and I have found the prospect horrifying. Working has been the backbone of my life, from the very early days (sub-ten years old) of pocket money for odd jobs to my current 60-hour week I can’t imagine life without it. As I’ve got older I have toiled longer and become more dedicated to my work.
The work-life-balance trope is an illusory and often meaningless thing, espoused by those who think they have achieved it, much like Slimmer of The Year supposedly sets a shining example of what can be done with a bit of willpower, a gastric band and some judicious photo-shopping. For most people it is a distant dream. But could Universal Basic Income free us from that dream and make leisure and the pursuit of happiness a reality? Well, no; the idea is frankly preposterous.
An interlocutor on Twitter seemed to be all for it. He said "I'm not 100% sure of the benefits of a basic income, but I do believe it would work." Which, in a nutshell, encapsulated for me the deep waters of critical analysis which have been trawled in developing the idea. Like all social policies driven by dreams it envisages a humanity set free to explore everybody’s potential, where nobody is in fear of falling through the cracks and we all live happily ever after. The machines will do the work while we just sit back and enjoy our leisured liberty.
If only I had the time I could write that novel, invent that gadget, build that dream house, explore that vast untamed wilderness; the belief that this could happen is seductive. Yet where’s the evidence that this is likely? History’s great thinkers, its artists, its writers, its explorers, its pioneers in every field have done so not because they were freed from the drudge but in spite of it. For every success story there are a hundred others who tried and failed... and for every heroic failure there are thousands who just never got around to it.
Our forever burgeoning welfare state is a harbinger of what might happen under UBI. The odd J K Rowling may emerge from the experiment, but in reality most will simply languish on a subsistence level of unearned income and – rather than be the masters of the machine age – become slaves to state handouts. Those who do strike out to better themselves will come to resent the unnecessarily indolent even more than they currently do and tax avoidance will inevitably rise.
I heard a caller on LBC yesterday, earnestly explaining how she joined the Labour Party after the Jeremy Corbyn ascendency because she wanted to bring about a fair society. At the heart of her passionate thesis was a plea for egalitarianism; equality being the holy grail of those who believe in ‘social justice’. Universal Basic Income is not Labour policy (yet) but it might as well be. It is just the sort of crackpot theory that would appeal to those who feel they are owed a living.
Promoting the Utopia of a society with want vanquished could be seen as the worst kind of political mountebankery. If you want to keep left wing governments in power you need a solid voter base of poor, ill-educated people, who will vote uncritically for the slops served up in the state trough. Universal Basic Income would become – like the minimum wage – not the bare minimum, but the maximum wage for the untermenschen. Turnips for everybody, tovarishch!