A Radical Critique of Universal Basic Income
Readers have been asking me what I thought of Universal Basic Income (UBI) as the solution to the systemic problem of jobs being replaced by automation. To answer this question, I realized I had to start by taking a fresh look at work and its role in human life and society. And since UBI is fundamentally a distribution of money, I also needed to take a fresh look at our system of money.
That led to a radical critique of Universal Basic Income (UBI) and an outline for a much more sustainable and just system of money and work than we have now. To adequately explore these critical topics, I ended up writing a 50,000 word book, Money and Work Unchained.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is increasingly being held up as the solution to automation’s displacement of human labor. UBI combines two powerful incentives: self-interest (who couldn’t use an extra $1,000 per month) and an idealistic commitment to guaranteeing everyone material security and reducing the rising income inequality that threatens our social contract–a topic I’ve addressed many times over the past decade.
UBI’s goals–guaranteeing material security and reducing income inequality–are not just worthy; they are essential. The question then becomes: how do we achieve these goals?
The conventional critiques of UBI focus on the practicalities of funding such a substantial universal entitlement. Where will the trillions of extra dollars required come from? Can we pay for UBI by “taxing the robots” or borrowing/ printing more currency?
But a radical critique must go much, much further, and ask: is UBI the best that we can do? If we provide the basics of material security–the bottom level of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs–what about all the higher needs for positive social roles, meaningful work, and the opportunity to build capital?
This critique reveals the unintended consequences of UBI: rather than deliver a Utopia, UBI institutionalizes serfdom and a two-class neofeudalism in which the bottom 95% scrape by on UBI while the top 5% hoard what every human wants and needs: positive social roles in our community, meaningful work that makes us feel needed, and the opportunity to build capital in all its manifestations.
UBI is the last gasp of a broken, dying system, a “solution” that institutionalizes all the injustices of serfdom under the guise of aiding those left behind by automation. We can do better–we must do better–and I lay out how to do so in this book.
A radical critique must also examine the widely accepted assumption that automation will destroy most jobs. Is this assumption valid? It turns out this assumption rests on a completely false understanding of the nature of work, the economics of automation and the presumed stability of an unsustainable global economy.