No week spent discussing the “radical fringe” in politics would be complete without reviewing one of the most insidious political arguments I’ve seen so far in 2016.
The argument appeared this week on the website of The Nation, a left-wing magazine, in a piece by Fred Block and Frances Fox Piven titled “A Basic Income Would Upend America’s Work Ethic — and That’s a Good Thing.” The notion of a basic income or a universal basic income has been debated many times over the years, and that debate has reappeared in recent months as some people fret about robots replacing workers on a mass scale (something no previous wave of technology has managed, by the way). But “basic income” is a concept with varying definitions. Here’s how the authors define it: “the idea that every citizen is entitled to an income sufficient to cover basic needs.”
If this sounds attractive, it is meant to be so. The actual aim here doesn’t come until a few paragraphs later: “decoupling money and work by giving money to everyone.” Put another way: Don’t reform welfare; put everyone on it.
Suddenly, we’re not talking about modifying or even expanding the safety net for the poor. A basic income as a means of welfare reform is the only reason, as Block and Piven slyly put it, “the Koch brothers’ favorite think tank, the Cato Institute, has revisited the idea.” Yes, some scholars at Cato as well as other libertarians and even conservatives have done so. But they’ve done so explicitly as a means of replacing the welfare state (see the second paragraph here for an example). Block and Piven insinuate Cato’s support is different when, by way of contrast with Cato, they say support on the right for a basic income has “historically” owed to “hostility to welfare-state programs.” In fact, Cato has revisited the idea for the same reason men like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Charles Murray considered it: All of them believe the welfare state serves the poor rather poorly.
Suffice it to say, though, none of the above conservatives and libertarians are entertaining the idea of “decoupling money and work by giving money to everyone.” Block and Piven have something far more radical in mind.
Block and Piven never come out and call it a “universal” basic income — the kind the Swiss recently rejected, which would have paid every single citizen the equivalent of $2,800 a month — but that’s the only version of the idea that conforms to what they wrote. After all, “giving money to everyone” would seem to include everyone. There is somewhat of a contradiction in their acknowledgment that the enormous sums of tax revenues it would take to fund a basic income would threaten “the regrettable bipartisan consensus that there must be no increase in the tax burden on middle-income households.” But how many middle-income households would remain in the work force in a world in which money and work were decoupled? (As an aside, it is refreshing that Block and Piven acknowledge broad taxes on many Americans would be needed to fund such a program, when everyone from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders say only “the rich” need to pay.)
Indeed, how many middle-class households would Block and Piven want to keep working? Work — excuse me, the “tyranny of wage labor” — seems to be their main enemy. “It is not just another reform,” they insist; “it is a proposal that makes us think about what it is we are here on earth to do.” That’s rather too broad a goal to be limited to just the poor. (And speaking of “tyranny,” if you think you are uncomfortably confined by the golden handcuffs of your employer, wait until you and the rest of us are dependent for our income on a government that can impose its will with the force of law and, if necessary, violence. That is actual tyranny.)
Where, though, do Block and Piven think the ideas for the consumer goods being “churn(ed) out by automated factories” are going to come from? Where, even, will the robots doing the work come from? And future improvements in those robots? Who is going to spend time dreaming up new products, services and machines when they could be enjoying “a rich leisure life” and “a dense social life,” without worrying about how the mortgage will be paid? What’s more, what happens if those robots cost more to operate than we expect? Where will we get the tax revenues to pay for a basic-income raise, in order for people to afford the higher prices of the goods those robots produce, once people leave the work that’s been decoupled from the money? Their serene picture of a life spent at leisure ignores all this.
Or maybe their picture simply omits it. For someone will own those factories, as well as the large farms also referenced in the article. Who? The government? There’s no suggestion of that in the piece, though it wouldn’t exactly surprise me if that’s what they had in mind. But if not the government, would it be private citizens? If so, won’t they be the prime beneficiaries of such a system, as they’d be the only people in line to reap more than a basic income? Won’t that invariably exacerbate what Block and Piven decry as “the huge gap between the ostentatious wealth of the billionaires and the misery of those who can find only the most degraded forms of work”? We just won’t be doing “degraded” work anymore, whatever that means. (Another way Block and Piven misrepresent the right’s attitude toward this issue is to ignore completely the renewed emphasis among conservatives of the inherent value and dignity to be found in work of all kinds.)
Here lies a hidden element of this whole idea. Yes, the current environment in which this idea is being discussed is amid concerns technological advances that, some people believe, will lead to mass unemployment. But that’s not the argument Block and Piven are making; they are making it for its own sake. That’s hardly surprising, considering Piven has been espousing this idea for literally 50 years — even endorsing an artificially sparked crisis to force its adoption if need be (the infamous Cloward-Piven strategy).
Finally, it’s worth noting that Block and Piven botch their retelling of a “myth” they blame for our holding up work as “one of the most elemental pillars of our civic religion”:
“Remember the myth of the Garden of Eden, shared by all the Abrahamic creeds, Christian and Muslim and Jewish traditions alike. Once upon a time, the story goes, God was generous. He created Adam and Eve and gave them a garden of plenty in which to live. But although there were many trees with many fruits, they were tempted by the serpent and disobeyed God’s warning not to bite into the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. For this sin they were cast out of the garden and made to struggle for their subsistence. They had sinned, and so ever after they were made to work for their livelihood. Work is our punishment, the story goes, and our redemption.”
Like the serpent, though, Block and Piven must mislead in order to create their temptation. Contrary to what one might believe by reading their account of the story above, work existed before original sin. Right before the part Block and Piven quote about the trees with many fruits, which comes from Genesis 2:16-17, is verse 15:
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (emphasis added)
So work did not originate as some kind of punishment, nor is that what it is today. For those of us who believe the “myth” Block and Piven have twisted for their own use — and a great many people who don’t — work is central to our humanity. It helps explain “what it is we are here on earth to do.” It’s how we don’t end up like this: