Sunday, November 15, 2015


226. A basis for independence

An old debate on basic income is being revived, in Europe. In item 154 of this blog I discussed the arguments and uncertainties involved, and I will not repeat them here. The arguments are both social and economic. Here I want to add a ‘deeper’, philosophical argument.

In different ways, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Onfray strove to liberate the individual from the hold of social systems. Unleashing will to power, Nietzsche proposed. Getting away from ‘das Man’, Heidegger said. ‘Creating one’s life as a work of art’, Foucault proposed. Sculpt yourself, Onfray proposed  Deconstructing the established order, Derrida said. Stepping out into ‘jouissance’ of reality outside the symbolic order, Lacan urged..

In the preceding item I offered entrepreneurship as an opening for rebellion, in creative destruction, as an element of capitalism. But there are limitations to this. I mentioned that corporate capitalism tries to muscle out genuine entrepreneurship. But also, not all people have the guts and the stomach for it. And is the breathless momentum of creative destruction to be maintained continually? Is there no need for stability next or in addition to change? I will later dedicate a series of items to that question.

A basic income provides a basis for independence and personal agency. It is  an unconditional cash benefit for all people above a certain age, regardless of further income or capital. It frees recipients of social benefits from the ‘poverty trap’: the fact that any additional earned income is taxed for 100% (surrendering the benefit when finding work). The scheme may seem off the wall to many readers, and unrealistically expensive, requiring an unacceptable rise of taxes. That is not necessarily the case, but I will not argue that here (see item 154).

In the present context the point is that a basic income strengthens the power of a worker with respect to his/her employer, since in case of injustice or mistreatment he/she can exit and fall back on the basic income. It improves the worker’s bargaining position by offering a basis for independence.

One might argue that this is a double-edged sword, since it also makes it easier for employers to fire employees, easing the qualms about sending someone into unemployment. But there seem to be few such qualms anyway, and presently unemployment benefits already take away any qualms that may be there.

Basic income also facilitates entrepreneurship as an escape, since it provides the funds to tide over the difficult period of setting up an enterprise, without income from work, and difficulties in obtaining funds from banks or investors before one has developed a demonstrably viable prototype of a new product or service.

It enables exit as an artist, or to provide unpaid or low-paid social support that is no longer offered in public health.

Another economic point that I did not mention before is the following. After digitalization of music, books and film, it has become hard for their makers to appropriate the returns from them as income. As more activities become digital, his phenomenon will spread. To maintain the production of such things the makers need another source of income. Basic income may become inevitable for that reason as well.

To deepen the philosophical argument, I go back here to the tension between ethics and justice discussed in item 224. A basic income yields more scope for a Levinassian ethic of dedication to the humanity, the ‘face’ of the other, with less pressure for exploitation and rivalry, while it is also an item of justice, in its universal application to all, as an unconditional benefit.

As an element of justice it has also been justified as a ‘social dividend’, a return on the various forms of capital that have accumulated, as a shared heritage, over many generations, at the cost of much blood and toil. Think of the rule of law, democracy, culture, science, technology, and physical infrastructure of roads, railways, etc. Entrepreneurs pride themselves on their achievements as if those were entirely their own, while in fact they have built their success on leveraging this joint heritage from which others also deserve a return.