America’s elite technocrats (or at least the not insignificant subset who go to TED talks) seem increasingly enthusiastic about the idea of a universal basic income to address the job losses brought about by technological change. Business Insider reports:
Universal basic income — a system of wealth distribution that involves giving people a monthly wage just for being alive — just got a standing ovation at this year’s TED conference. […]
People in Silicon Valley are working to build autonomous robots that could replace human labor. But as economists have started speculating about the ways those innovations could lead to widespread unemployment, many tech elites have begun searching for solutions to the problem they’re creating.
It’s easy to see why this idea is appealing to Silicon Valley technologists, to economic policy wonks, to citizens of rationalia. It satisfies fully the demands of what Shadi Hamid has called “chart-based” liberalism, with its homo economicus model of human behavior. Globalized capitalism is exacerbating inequality and squeezing jobs outside of metropolitan centers? The capitalist winners can just pay off the losers with a UBI and go about their merry way. The price of long-term social peace is just a slightly higher marginal tax rate; the rest of our economic model can remain untouched.
The problem is that work, for most people, isn’t just a means of making money—it is a source of dignity and meaning and a central part of the social compact. Simply opting for accelerated creative destruction while deliberately warehousing the part of the population that cannot participate might work as a theoretical exercise, but it does not mesh with the wants and desires and aspirations of human beings. Communities subsisting on UBIs will not be happy or healthy; the spectacle of free public redistribution without any work requirement will breed resentment and distrust.
Countries across the West are struggling with ways to politically accommodate the dislocation brought about by 21st century economic forces. We don’t have a complete answer yet. But we will have to do better than simply resigning ourselves to the existence of a vast, subsidized underclass.