There’s been an interesting resurgence about the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI) for the US… and, ultimately, globally. Formerly dismissed as either a flower-powered pie-in-the-sky concept or an evil socialist plot—and certainly spurred on by the Millennial generation, which not only shows a distinct interest in changing the status quo, including the conventions behind working and owning goods and property, but which has a vast communications system and social media to help spread their message—the promise of UBI is starting to catch up with the social, economic and technological realities of the 21st century, and is strongly worth looking at again.
Almaz Zelleke‘s article in Pacific Standard is a great place to start, as it goes into great descriptions about why UBI would be beneficial. Another blog on the Huffington Post by Scott Santens not only makes the same points, but it supplies more extensive detail as well as examples of past and ongoing experiments in UBI, in regions all over the world, and their results. The Santens post also includes information from social experiments done on individuals’ work ethic and willingness, and their predilection to do something enjoyable and useful with their freed-up time… not just lay around and do nothing just because they can.
Those articles, and others besides, provide a lot of information about how UBI can work (and does, in many places that are experimenting with it right now). But all of that information may pale in comparison to the real question: When people don’t have to work to survive, what will they do?
It’s certainly a difficult question, considering most of us have very little frame of reference against which to evaluate it. It has been discussed numerous times in the past, but without the social or technological framework to properly implement or support it in anything other than isolated cases. And if we look to futuristic literature, we find there are precious few examples for us to study. Most science fiction authors have assumed that our future, no matter how far ahead or wide-spread, will involve some sort of effort expended by individuals to make money.
There are exceptions, of course, and perhaps none are more famous than the ideologies depicted in the many Star Trek TV series and movies. We know that Star Trek‘s future is based on the fact that the Federation is not about the pursuit of profit; that individuals, living in a post-scarcity world and freed of a working-for-cash lifestyle, spend their time trying to better themselves and society. Supposedly, that’s why all those people are in Star Fleet: Not because they were drafted, or that they need the hazard pay to cover their bills, but for the thrill of contributing to knowledge and discovery. The rest of them work in trades that they have a particular love or interest in, or they create art, or they help others because they love to. Some of them voluntarily risk their lives for a chance to do something special or unique, either for the thrill of it, or just to prove that they can.
But how realistic is that outside of a Star Trek universe? Well, we already know that people today do all sorts of things with their free time, from basically practical things like gardening, to building or repairing complex machinery, to maintaining social environments that they enjoy, to preparing good food for others to enjoy, to practicing new and even arcane arts just for the fun of it. Many will volunteer their time to helping to keep others safe, or to monitor man-made or natural things to keep them (and us) safe and healthy. And many will volunteer their efforts, just because they are appreciated by those who need help with things they can’t manage on their own. In short, people like doing things, for themselves and for others… and everything is interesting to someone.
Will people do these things all the time? They certainly don’t have to… and in most cases, no one will need them to, because there are an awful lot of people, they’ll have an awful lot of free time in a UBI world, and there will always be someone around who’s willing to lend a hand in most efforts.
Will everyone want—or be able—to help? Well, no. And we shouldn’t expect everyone to help, or even want to help; part of the UBI proposal is the right and ability to simply do nothing but survive, if that’s what you want to do (or if you’re not physically or mentally capable of doing much). Unlike our present society, where we measure people’s value by the cash value of the work they do, a UBI society will embrace a different equation, appreciating people for who they are rather than what they bring to the table. For the first time ever, it may be truly possible for everyone to live and let live.
An important aspect of making sure people are doing what work is needed is providing education about these services and efforts, and why they are important; so people who may not have otherwise known about them will be aware of their existence, their importance, and the need to support them. Education will also be important to provide to people who, with their new-found time, will want to learn about new skills and fields where they can apply themselves. The other important aspect is communication, making sure people know about the work that’s needed, so they can be there to help. Knowledge and communication will provide a lot of hands when effort is necessary.
And we should also not discount the potential for teleworking to allow people to do all sorts of jobs, including jobs that are physically remote from their location. Desk jobs and even mechanical equipment monitoring and control can be done remotely, from potentially anywhere in the world, enabling people in distant locations, or shut-ins, to be able to contribute if so desired. As we further develop our teleworking systems, we’ll move closer and closer to the possibility of individuals doing jobs anywhere on the globe at will.
Fortunately, we also have a very powerful tool that we can now apply to the workplace: Automation and artificial intelligence is rapidly reaching the stage of being able to handle many of the jobs, from menial to complex, that humans must do now. As automation progresses, there is already a belief that robots will start taking over many human jobs. That makes this as good a time as any to let them. The faster robots assume their place in the workforce, the sooner the rest of us can consider a life that doesn’t revolve around work. (For some of us, our new jobs will be monitoring and maintaining the robots, so they can do the heavy lifting for us.)
And as to organizing this vast and innovative new system, we have just the tool for it: Again, artificial intelligence. Tasks that were handled with difficulty by rooms of people juggling tables and spreadsheets, can now be done by AIs in milliseconds. Such a process could be part of the Logocratic government system I’ve rambled on about in the past: The data the Logocratic AI would already be collecting on the state of the states and their citizens would inform and organize the required outlays to those citizens.
There’s no question that UBI won’t be perfect; with seven billion people and a very complex society, there will be people and tasks that will slip through the cracks. Quite possibly we’ll have a need to use conscripted labor in some cases… and in others, simply offer a lot of money to do the tasks. And for those few for whom the UBI is insufficient (possibly due to medical issues or other unusual hardships), adjustments to the UBI, or additional compensations, will be required. There will certainly need to be a department in place to deal with the outlier situations to find the best solutions for them. But compared to the present state of worldwide unemployment and job inequalities, that should be a comparatively miniscule task. And as it would be a job dedicated to helping people, I doubt you’d have a dearth of applicants for the job.
The UBI concept has indeed been on a long and divisive road; but it is now reaching a convergence with technology, communications, social systems, economic needs and ideologies never before seen. As we fix our weather-eyes towards the future, it’s time to renew discussions about UBI, and what Santens calls Capitalism 2.0, and the next steps for a new social system for humanity.