A few days ago, I came across a Guardian article reporting that areas of Fife and Glasgow may become the first places in Scotland to trial a new Universal Basic Income scheme.
Advocates claim the idea is a revolutionary shift in the dynamics of society. By giving unconditional “free money” to every citizen, those struggling around the breadline will be liberated from poverty, crime will be reduced, and stagnating parts of the country will flourish with creativity and new enterprise like a desert in bloom. Once people are freed from the daily grind, so the logic goes, they will be free to achieve their true potential. I happened to read the article on the same day I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Later, I watched a TED talk outlining the positives and negatives of a B.I. The first major obstacle was how such a scheme could be financed. The second concern was that people would simply become lazy and quit work.
The speaker outlined various methods of funding, claiming that schemes conducted elsewhere in the world (in obscure locations on minuscule amounts of people) had been successful. The second concern—that a guaranteed income would see huge numbers of people quit work and become lazy— was simply wafted away.
“Put your hand up if receiving a basic living wage would cause you to quit your job right now. I bet 99% of you wouldn’t” He said to the audience of middle class post-grads.
The idea that the state should pay citizens simply to exist is nothing new, it was first proposed 200 years ago by Thomas Sowell, but no convincing model to fund such a monumental shift in economics has ever been created. Economics however, it not my strong point, but I do have considerable first hand experience on the matter of laziness and poverty.
I am the kind of candidate who would truly benefit from a universal income. It would solve all my current problems. I would no longer have to worry about scraping enough money together to pay the rent, I could stop worrying about the future. I could free myself from day to day concerns. Yet I do not want a basic income, not for myself, not for anybody.
The spectre of poverty is a real entity. I know it well. Like a Dickensian ghost, it floats somewhere just behind me, a dour chaperon, dolefully shaking it’s head at every frivolous suggestion. A night out? Absolutely not. Another hour in bed? It taps its wrist. If I try to ignore it, it pokes a cold bony finger into my thoughts. You’ve no time for this! You must do more, you must try harder, you must! It terrifies me, but it terrifies me into action.
If anybody is desperate for the tranquilising effects of basic income, it is me. But despite everything, I don’t want to see the spectre, my voice of reality, dissipate. Who will prod me awake and demand I seek a way to better my lot? Who will tell me that no job is beneath me and force me to fill out the application forms? Proponents would tell me that if I had money, I wouldn’t need to worry about these things, I could concern myself with loftier goals, but I have not found this to be true.
I look at the shelf full of elves, penguins and mice that I recently made. In my jobless desperation I managed to create an income simply out of a single pile of wool. I spent days felting together creatures and when one animal didn’t sell, I created another, and another. Soon I had wolves and tigers to add to the stock, then fairies, gnomes, pugs and foxes. I made enough to set up a Christmas stall and I scraped through. I earned less than I would have if I had drawn benefits, but there is something else that it gave me, and it is this ‘something’ that is precisely what the basic income would sedate. I garnered a sense of pride in my ability to learn a new skill, and a comfort derived from a self-assurance that I could look after myself independently.
Basic Income already has a nationwide trial run in the form of long term benefits. I know a good number of people on them. Whether they are genuine candidates or not however, once their lives become funded by the state, the mental deterioration is the same. They don’t notice it themselves, but I see it when I visit them at intervals. When they worked, they were animated and sharp, even those with genuine illnesses. Conversations were lively and varied, and left me energised.
But then the Benefits came and whatever illnesses they had before pales in comparison to the sickness that long term purposeless inflicts upon them. Especially men who live alone. The first sign of benefits sickness is a flattening of the voice, then the face loses expression and the eyes become distant. Over a period of months the lack of stimulation eats away their thoughts, outlook, self regard and ability to look after themselves. They become dishevelled and hopeless. The conversation overly focused on personal trivialities as the outside world shrinks in their awareness. Even the smallest of obstacles appear loom insurmountably to those with benefits sickness. Where once they were eager to get back into work, now, any attempt to change their routine is met with excuses and eventually they leave the house less and less. The days merge together, the clocks break and are not restarted. The afflicted sleep at irregular hours, until there is no point in opening the curtains at all. I know the sickness, I’ve felt its stultifying creep. Thats why I now prefer the company of the spectre.
The Basic Income is created by a class of people who regard manual work as beneath them. Therefor it must be beneath everybody. They fail to grasp that freedom comes to the individual through hard work itself, which is not just a means of securing money but also of engaging in the wider society. Full state support is the opposite, it is homogenising, stultifying, and robs the individual of the pride and confidence that work, any work, can bring. Huxley predicted the liberal utopia accurately, the BI is on the path to state ownership of the individual. Everybody belongs to everybody else.