(Originally published on my Hebrew blog in January 30th 2017)
The idea of universal basic income has been getting more and more popular in recent years – we saw it in Finland, Switzerland, France, and others. The basic concept: The state will give every citizen a small wage, just for being a citizen. No demands, no checks, no limits. The idea is that in an economy based more and more on luxuries and consumption, as our basic needs like food are produced more and more easily and efficiently with advancing technology, we must encourage people to consume. And directly giving money is more efficient than welfare systems and other types of government spending.
This idea has various supporting arguments and many of them are quite logical, various opposing arguments and many of them are also quite logical, and you can hear about all of those in various places on the Internet. I would like to talk about one issue that does not seem to be talked about often, at least I don’t remember ever seeing anyone raise it – the influence of such a model on the interdependence between government and citizens.
I don’t want to be all negative about universal basic income, because the problems it tries to solve (at least in its current form, and the main reason why it’s been coming back to the discussion recently) is a real problem that definitely requires a solution – the increasing unemployment, and the improving technology that increasingly allows satisfying all our basic needs with less and less human labor required. The unemployment crisis, currently hurting many developed countries, seems likely to only become worse, with some new technological developments that are going to make many more jobs unnecessary, most notably the autonomous car – millions of people are currently employed in driving (trucks, taxis, buses) and might all find themselves instantly out of work soon. And this is only the beginning. It’s hard to think about a single profession that good enough technology cannot replace within a few decades. And if machines provide all our needs, why should we try to artificially “invent” new jobs? The world of advertising and marketing is working hard to come up with new “needs” for us to justify creating more jobs. What if, instead of that, we just give up the idea of everyone having to work, and find some way to reward the few who work while the majority just lives on universal basic income, consuming what the machines produce?
That is a reasonable way of thinking, and the immediate criticism of “but then who will want to be the only people working” is reasonable and should be addressed, but is not necessarily impossible to solve. But as I said – I have a different question to ask.
For a little background, I want to look at the list of countries in the world whose economies are based on oil. The world bank provides us a nice list of countries in the world sorted by how much of their export products are fuels; In the list of countries with over 50% we can find, in this order: Iraq, Angola, Algeria, Brunei, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Oman, Norway, Colombia, Bolivia and Bahrain. Can you notice what almost all of those have in common?
Other than Norway which is really a special case, and possibly Colombia and Bolivia which are still democracies, however imperfect, all these countries are somewhere between authoritarian to complete dictatorships. Despite all the fuel export money that should seemingly help them develop and advance, almost all of them are at the bottom of nearly any reasonable measure of quality of life or quality of government. Is this a coincidence? Probably not, and this is an example of the famous “natural resource curse“. It has long been discussed in the past, and it seems quite likely that it’s a real factor in the development of these countries.
Where does this curse come from? The explanation seems so natural, that already Plato predicted it – in the days of classical Greece, when the main challenge for states was combat more than economic growth, he provided the following insight: States whose army is based on hoplites (elite infantry who came from the upper classes of society, mostly through the requirement that they finance the expensive armor and equipment for themselves, meaning poor people could not be included) would develop an oligarchic government; States whose army was based on warships (which in those days required a great number of rowers, a job which did not require much equipment or training, therefore was available for the lower classes) would develop democracy.
What am I getting at? It might sound cynical, but it certainly seems like this is how global politics work: People do not get rights because they deserve them, not even (at least not only) because they fight for them. People get their rights from the state because the state needs them. The hunter-gatherer societies before the agricultural revolution were completely egalitarian; and those were societies where every person provided their own sustenance, and was not dependent on anyone else. After the agricultural revolution, we start seeing differences – in fertile countries in Europe and the Mediterranean we see weak governments, collecting taxes from farmers who mostly provide for themselves. In the Middle East, America, or China, we see strong dictatorial states, managing giant irrigation projects that bring prosperity to the people, but also create a dependence of the people on the state rather than the state on the people; Diverting a river for irrigation of a dry area is not a project that can be managed by a small family farm. Which type of country more easily evolved to develop democracy and individual rights? It’s easy to guess. That was then, and the trend still goes on – countries where the common citizen’s participation in the economy is insignificant, such as in the oil exporting countries, are the same countries that show the worst records of citizen’s rights. The advanced and free countries are those that base their economy on taxing the citizens’ economic activity, as these are the countries that need their citizens; They have no choice but to keep them happy.
And that, in my view, is the undiscussed danger of universal basic income – it makes the citizens unnecessary for the state. It’s not for the few who have to work that I worry; I worry for those who will not work – maybe one or two generations of them will enjoy the free lunch, but eventually, what stops the state from turning into a corrupt entity that takes away their rights and exploits them, once they are fully dependent on it? Governments of modern countries in the developed world cannot afford facing a mutiny of, say, ten percent of their citizens over some problematic law, because those citizens are what gives the state the power to enforce its laws in the first place. But a theoretical country that finances itself with robot labor and gives the citizens universal basic income, in case the government decides to end democracy, what will the citizens do? Rebel? Let them rebel, the government will say. The robots or mercenaries can take care of them. In fact, why limit ourselves to theoretical countries? The modern Middle East provides perfect examples for this. What was the Arab Spring if not a sequence of rebellions of citizens against governments who have little or no need for them, and therefore had no problems crushing them with violence? If we want a future where our income comes free from the government, we better think very hard on how not to make ourselves unnecessary.