If you follow the weekly reading lists on this site, you might notice that I frequently express my sympathy for the idea of an unconditional basic income (UBI). In fact, the UBI is the single most socio-economic and political idea that I am passionate about at the moment. I explicitly don’t state that I “believe” in the UBI, since that would make me sound too confident in its feasibility. I prefer to use the term “hope”. I hope that the various experiments and initiatives that currently are ongoing (e.g. Finland’s experiment, Y Combinator’s research, the Swiss referendum) will lead to positive results that eventually make one country become the first mover in introducing the UBI for its citizens.
While the concept of the UBI currently has a momentum and receives a lot of attention within certain circles, mainstream politics in the majority of countries have, for the most, not acknowledged the UBI as a serious undertaking. Also, many people are sceptical when they hear about the idea of giving “free money” to people. Which is fully understandable. It can be a strange thought and provoke all kinds of associations.
This made me think about why some people choose to support the UBI, at least the theory of it, while others choose to oppose it. There are for sure lots of factors playing a role, not the least the political and economic ideologies that act as the foundation of each person’s world view. However, one main criteria here must be, in my conclusion, a different outcome in the individual calculation of risks and possibilities regarding a future with and without UBI.
The question that this calculation is based on might look something like this:
Are the worst possible side effects of introducing the UBI to all citizens of a country worse than the socio-economic consequences of carrying on with the same or similar economical, political and social policies as ever since the creation of the modern capitalist state?
For myself, based on my current state of information and insights, the answer is: No. Carrying on with the same economical, political and social policies would, in my eyes, lead to massive instability of the type that we are already starting to witness in many economically advanced countries, where constant crises and the (rational or irrational) absence of hope for a better future make huge numbers of people disillusioned enough to fall prey to populism, fascism and extremism, which in turn threaten everything modern democracies have achieved.
I have to assume that those who oppose the UBI must come to a different conclusion: In their calculation, the potential negative outcomes of carrying on as always must be less significant than the possible negative and undesired side effects of launching the UBI.
This theory would explain why, when discussing the UBI, some people start to talk about the possibilities, whereas others make their case for why the UBI won’t work. It’s a simple thought process:
If based on the above calculation the UBI emerges as the better of the two options (or as the less bad option), making the UBI a reality becomes a goal. As every successful entrepreneur knows, when people have a goal and the will to pursue it, they don’t begin with thinking about the obstacles. They think about the opportunities first and about how to get the obstacles out of their way second.
If based on the above calculation the UBI emerges as the less attractive option, then the absence of a will to achieve it makes people emphasize the obstacles and weaknesses, which, according to their argumentation, are way too big to seriously consider the UBI as a feasible option. Case closed.
Because in my calculation the introduction of the UBI emerges as a desirable goal, I don’t focus on the obstacles first. Instead, I put the benefits first, as well as the – in my prediction – negative consequences of relying on current policies and practices.
And those benefits are a direct consequence of why I think NOT trying hard to make the UBI happen is a worse option. So let’s investigate that part of my calculation:
We are at the beginning of a new wave of automation. This automation, powered by advancements in artificial intelligence, is more disruptive than previous waves, in which machines only took over highly simple, repetitive jobs from humans. Over the next years and decades, the new wave of automation will eradicate tens of millions of jobs that today are being done by humans. As always in history, new jobs will appear. Like many of today’s jobs did not exist 150 years ago, many jobs of the year of 2100 are hard to imagine today. Probably even the understanding of what “job” means will change. However, this transition period will take time and it will leave millions at least temporarily unemployed. One group which, for example, is especially at risk are those driving a car or truck for a living. Once self-driving cars are here, they won’t be needed anymore. Many other professions face a similar fate.
The new jobs of the future will require special skills that need to be learned, and that wont’ happen within 2 days. Many people also struggle with the need to re-invent themselves, instead choosing resistance over adaption. In other words: The period of the next 10 to 20 years will bring a lot of forced change and tension, and it will expose many people to existential fears, risks and tremendous amount of pressure. While these type of fears can be motivating for certain individuals, if they are felt by too many members of the society at the same time, it is the historical breeding ground for the world’s evils. Again, we are already seeing some early effects today.
This scenario is unpleasant and undesirable enough that I feel comfortable stating that even if the UBI will bring new challenges and possible unexpected (negative) consequences, I don’t see a situation which will be worse than what I think will happen otherwise. The UBI will act as some kind of base insurance for people so that whatever happens, they will still be able to satisfy their primary needs – food and shelter. And of course it will also give people the freedom to pursue other types of projects which give meaning but less money than a traditional job – that’s one of the empowering effects of the UBI, which I do not focus on a lot in this piece.
Today’s governmental and social systems have been optimized for the industrial age and the age of the worker. We are leaving this age behind us and entering an era characterized by connectivity, automation and knowledge. The old frameworks will struggle to provide the guidance, structure and empowerment they were designed for. For the moment, the UBI looks like the most promising adjustment of the old frameworks. Because it is real upgrade, not just a a quick fix of the existing systems.
To end this text, I would like to come back to the calculation described earlier. Those who oppose pursuing the idea of the UBI because of the obstacles they see need to ensure that their calculation is not suffering from lack of information. Machines, robots, artificial intelligence, the Internet and the late-stage consequences of globalization will, without any doubt, change the rules of life and economics. They are doing it right now. Societies will struggle to digest the consequences. That will require new policies and approaches to ensure that all members of the societies get the chance to benefit from this shift, and to ensure continued peaceful coexistence. Maybe the UBI will turn out to be a bad idea, after all. But then other ideas are needed. Tomorrow, not in 10 years.
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