On both sides of the argument over the efficacy of the Universal Basic Income (UBI), there is the claim that the UBI might encourage unemployment. The critics of UBI claim this is a defect, but the Left often argues that employment is not the only value we should have, and that a universal net will encourage people to pursue their own ends, rather than have their life consumed by a job that might not foster such individuality. While I am sympathetic with the Left’s claimed desire for a sort of autonomy-expanding benefit to a universal basic income, I think we have good reason to doubt that such a state of affairs is possible or that the Left in this country is genuinely interested in the free expression that would result from such a state of affairs.
Over at the “Bleeding Heart Libertarian,” Jacob T. Levy’s entry, “A worry about the basic income,” proposes that while the unconditionality of a basic income might be promising in theory, there are serious worries as to a basic income remaining universal for long. He quotes Don Boudreaux to begin, “That policy might well be better than what we currently have, but I fear that the chances are high that we would soon hear – not long after its implementation – cries such as “You are hypocritical to object to government policy X because government is the root source of your income. Because government guarantees each of us an annual income of at least $10,000, our prosperity and well-being and civil peace spring from this policy. As such none of us has any right, or strong grounds on which to stand, to engage in civil disobedience or even to oppose government regulation.”
Boudreaux’s worry is apt. The history of modern government welfare stems from 19th century German chancellor Otto Van Bismarck, who stated that welfare was a way to bribe and distract the working class. Indeed, even the more benevolent advocates of the German welfare state admitted that the program was meant to be paternalistic, so that a state had control of a worker’s life. Those who became dependent on the state would be necessitated to obey its commands as Frederic Howe explained, “The state has its finger on the pulse of the worker from the cradle to the grave. His education, his health, and his working efficiency are matters of constant concern. He is carefully protected from accident by laws and regulation governing factories. He is trained in his hand and in his brain to be a good workman.”
Not much has changed in the justification for the welfare state or how it is used. American intellectuals took the ideas of Bismarck and over the 20th century transformed America into a vast welfare state. Thaddeus Russell notes that one of the founding documents of today’s welfare state, “The Other America” is highly paternalistic. The author, Michael Harrington, claims that the poor are naturally dependent on their betters, the wealthy.
As will happen, the culture of the elites trickled down into the American subconscious. Today, Americans exist in a reactionary craze over those who, for a plethora of reasons, do not work. This can be unfortunately be seen quite well even among the working class, who rightfully believe they have been overworked and are resentful towards those who can successfully avoid such toil. Levy points out that even when conditions for welfare have no foreseeable economic benefits to anyone, Americans will still demand that discipline be implemented in such programs. Simply put, after working 8-16 hour days, you do not want to be informed that your neighbor sat at home and smoked weed. Why should they, who are not disciplined enough to work, get to enjoy themselves?
As much as some leftists claim that they want autonomy for the poor, people are naturally skeptical of those who they strictly associate with unemployment or shiftlessness. I will here posit a possible explanation for why: people are averse to being ripped off. As a result, a basic income or any other welfare program will inevitably lead to the disciplining nature of being treated as a ward of the State. Libertarians should stop entertaining new schemes for using the violent arm of the state to create social stability. Society is not stable and caging it will not sedate its members.
Leftists are right to point out that employment can be restraining of autonomy, of individual creative action. However, they often ignore that their own worldviews are rarely respecting of autonomy themselves. The Progressive Left rightly knew that control of the poor was necessary in order to maintain societal order. If the poor become too free, too distanced from the prevailing culture of work, discipline and promoting the “social good,” the Progressive path of our culture is in trouble. The point of all welfare schemes is not to allow the individual to flourish for himself, but for the collective to be carefully cultivated for the State’s interests.
We must begin focusing on the liberation of mutual aid if we truly want the end of careerism, of working for the purposes of others through our most vibrant and alive years. Local organizing by lodges and fraternities was the norm in America and England before the Bismarckian ideal of welfare became the enforced norm.
Ryan Calhoun is a C4SS Contributing writer and a Philosophy student and activist at the University at Buffalo.