Monday, 14 October 2013

Addressing One Hypocritical Argument Against Guaranteed Income

     This week I read that Switzerland is voting on a proposal to guaranteed every Swiss person an income of about $2800 a month. I will probably be writing more about the idea of a guaranteed income later, but for now I just want to address one criticism I've seen that is particularly annoying to me. Specifically, people look at this proposal and ask, "Hey, why would anybody work for minimum wage if they can get paid the same amount for just sitting at home doing nothing?"

     I am annoyed by stupid questions, and this is a stupid question, because it is based on the stupid assumption the only reason anyone works at all is just to make enough to survive. That is a stupid assumption to make when it is made by people who object to being taxed because they feel they should be allowed to earn as much as they like beyond what they need to survive.
     Stop and consider for a moment: once your basic needs are met, Mr. Hardworkingtaxpayer, are you content to stop working and enjoy your basic rations, watch TV and produce no more? No, of course not. You're the motivated go-getter who creates value for society, thriftily and prudently investing surplus for your retirement, and treating yourself to some of the finer things you've earned through your initiative and sweat. And good for you.
     So why, then, would you expect anyone else to be content with mere subsistence? Why would you assume that someone endowed with a basic income -- and now, some free time -- wouldn't choose to spend some of that free time to earn a bit more? And, given that basic survival was already provided for, wouldn't that free up employers and employees to negotiate wages without the need for an arbitrary minimum? For some extra spending money, accepting $1 an hour might be a rational choice; if you need to earn enough to survive, the opportunity cost of that hour is far too high.
     And secondly, let's suppose that someone would choose to sit around and do nothing with a guaranteed income. So what? Does it make you similarly angry when lottery winners quit their jobs? Are we facing a critical labour shortage right now, because urgently needed workers are insufficiently hungry? Or are workers sitting idle and hungry because nobody wants to pay them to do stuff? Unless you have some job you urgently need workers for, you have no right to complain about the inefficiency of labour resources going unused, because those labour resources do not belong to you. And even if you do have some urgent need for labour, here's how you address it: offer someone enough money to work for you! That's all, really. Negotiate a mutually acceptable price.

     There are other reasons one might criticize a guaranteed income scheme, but moral indignation that someone else is getting money "for nothing" is just silly, especially when it is so selectively and inconsistently applied.


  1. Down here in 'Murrica, folks are het up at the idea of giving money someone who doesn't -deserve- it. Part of this is wrapped up in the thinking of them fellers with buckles on their hats. Part of it is hating that "those people" can continue to go on living without struggle.

  2. I think one usual argument is that it is "our" tax money paying for "them" to sit around and do nothing.

  3. Anonymous: Yes, but questions of who DESERVES money do not seem to inform public policy when we decide whether or not to bail out banks, fund arenas for professional sports, administer state lotteries or abolish estate taxes. Hence my point that it's hypocritical to get worked up about lazy people getting money they don't deserve; it's not the "undeserved" part that is really what's motivating the ire here, and it'd be nice if people were a little more honest about their motives. Admitting that it's about hating "those people" might be the first step.

    Thomas: Of course it is, although as I've argued in a previous post, it's a mistake to talk about "taxpayers' money". It's not theirs anymore; it belongs to the state and thus to its citizens. And if some of it is distributed equally among those citizens (yes, many of whom happen also to be taxpayers), then the moral argument that some citizens don't "deserve" it loses its footing.

    I expect I'll be writing more about this soon.

  4. Well, hell, "deserves" depends on your perspective, don't it? F'rinstance, sports benefit everyone and lotteries give anybody a chance to get ahead. Estate taxes and banks are a whole 'nother critter; they're sacred to the other big Murrican religion: capital-ism. Them what own capital have, by virtue of having done something to merit it, been graced with the wisdom to know best how to use it.

    Which comes to taxes. Libertarianism, like Mormons and poisonous snakes, has filtered up into southern Alberta. They believe that all taxes are "their" money that's been taken away by gunpoint by a coercive government. It was their money, is always their money, even though it's been possessed by the gummint; seems fair to them that they should have a say in how it should be spent.

  5. What anyone deserves is a subjective question, which is why I think we can afford to leave it out of policy entirely.

    As for this so-called libertarian view of taxation, well, I'll get to that in a later post.

  6. I'm not a libertarian, but I do have some indirect say in how tax dollars are spent. That's part of the democratic process. The important part, in my mind, is that my say is indirect, and that it's inside the process.

    My objection to your argument here, Tom, is that it assumes everyone is motivated in an identical fashion. I am not content with subsistence living, but I know people who are and do live like that. Statistically, money isn't a good motivator, but it's still effective for some people, so removing it entirely seems foolish.

    That said, a person working a full time job shouldn't be stuck in subsistence living, and it's nonsense for minimum wage to be low enough to create that situation.

    I have no objection to people who win the lottery and choose to stop working, or with people who retire. Likewise, I have no problem with people who don't have the opportunity or ability to work. My sole objection lies with people who choose not to work when they could contribute. Fortunately, the number of such people is extremely low, so it's pretty far down on the list of important issues.

  7. And my question to you, Ted, is why should you care if someone who is able to work chooses not to? Someone who wins the lottery is ABLE to work, and could contribute, but chooses not to. Why is it okay to be idle just because you have lots of money, and why is it NOT okay if you only have as much as you want?

    I'm not actually assuming that everyone has the same motivation. Rather, I'm challenging the hypocritical assumption that poor people only work enough to feed themselves, and then slack off. And, of course, asking why it should make us angry even if some do, since we don't begrudge lottery winners for coasting on their winnings.

  8. Well, them buckle-hats figgered work was a Good Thing, nearer my God to thee or somesuch. Some of that thinking survives, so if people don't work, that's a Bad Thing and they're bad people. (And don't "deserve" nice stuff, which gets back to your subjectiveness. Good point that it should be left out of public policy, or at least admitted to, but in Murrica they don't 'fess up to nothin'. Like how millions of old white folk goin' batshit over a black man becoming president was all because of him being a "socialist.")

    Now, in Murrica you ain't got to work just to survive; you're reliant on your employer for health care, or at least you had been, and even now it's not as affordable as it could be. People get locked into jobs they've come to hate. Ever gotten service from someone who obviously din't want to be there? Even worse, ever worked with one of them? Maybe their best "contribution" could be to stop doing an impression of a boat anchor at work.

  9. Existence is a struggle in which energy is used to offset entropy. Civilization exists because we work to keep it functioning. Society invested a certain amount of money into each of us to get us to adulthood, and it's reasonable to expect a return on that investment.

    If somebody chooses not to contribute, then society is not repaid for that effort, and the cost continues to mount. Get enough people who choose not to contribute, and the system fails entirely. Prior to that, the more people you have not contributing, the worse things get for all of us.

    Retirement is supposed to indicate that the individual has worked enough that they've contributed more than they will ever take and have earned not working. It doesn't really work out that way, but that is what it should to be. Winning the lottery is a really backwards and inefficient mechanism to provide retirement, but like wealth inequality that's a problem with wealth not being distributed based on merit so I see it as a separate issue.

    I don't agree with blaming the poor as a whole for the actions of a very small minority. However, I still have to acknowledge that the minority exists, and I think that financial motivation is needed for that group. There's a golden mean between letting the poor starve in the streets, and guaranteeing a standard of living which most of the world considers beyond the dreams of avarice.

    That's another angle I failed to mention: most of the world does not have the standard of living we consider the minimum. The amount of housing space per capita in Canada has doubled since the 70s, and doubled again since the 40s. Many of the things we have made essential are wants rather than needs, and we have shaped things like our transit system around those assumptions. There is some serious redesign needed to bring expectations back in line with reality, which frees up resources to improve the conditions of the poor while also changing the system to better accommodate them.

  10. I think you're applying a little more interpretation to nature than you need to here, Ted, by which I mean your reading "retirement" as something one earns after contributing enough or children as an "investment" that should provide a return to society. These aren't invalid ways to view things, but they are not privileged. That is, one can look at the economics of a human life cycle in other ways which do not lead to the same moralistic conclusions. Since, at the policy level, we are (or ought to be) trying to legislate for everyone regardless of worldview, presuming any particular interpretation as normative is something to be avoided.

    That said, I really don't think I can agree with your assessment of what retirement indicates, even as an ideal. It presumes, first of all, that everything must be understood in terms of quid pro quo exchanges, and that something is wrong if the amounts of utility put into and taken out of life are not approximately equal. Further, it assumes that there's some kind of objective standard by which we could measure such things. But dollars only measure the value of quid pro quo exchanges, and necessarily miss a great deal (maybe even a majority) of what makes a life worthwhile, both for the liver of it and for those around her.

    I believe it is an insurmountable problem to try to build an economic system aimed at giving people what they deserve. The best we can hope for is a system in which people have the greatest autonomy over what kind of contribution to make. And I have some faith that given the choice, people will prefer to live worthwhile lives.