Something to Look Forward To?
Y Combinator, a San Francisco-based ‘seed accelerator’ for start-up companies, is working on a pilot for unconditional basic income. The project’s research director told Quartz magazine it will explore ‘alternatives to the existing social safety net’ in a world in which robots take our jobs. They say subsistence grants dished out by corporate solutionists offer the answer. The Finnish government is halfway through a two-year trial, giving 2000 unemployed people €560 a month, with no obligation for them to look for work (or turn it down). Supporters of unconditional basic income include Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bernie Sanders.
But UBI is not a new idea. Quaker pamphlets at the turn of the 20th century advocated a regular income stream to assuage ‘the Social Problem’. One of its keenest proponents in the 1940s was Juliet Rhys-Williams, a member of the Beveridge Committee whose 1943 pamphlet Something to Look Forward To laid out a scheme for a subsistence income conditional on a contract stating a citizen’s intention to work. It was an explicit alternative to Beveridge’s insurance-based plan for the welfare state. Rhys-Williams criticised Beveridge’s designs, arguing he discriminated against those who worked by only providing for a ‘favoured few’: the unemployed, sick and unfortunate.
‘The state owes precisely the same benefits to all of its citizens,’ Rhys-Williams insisted, ‘and should in no circumstances pay more to one than to another.’ But her idea that grants should be dependent on willingness to work undercut their claim to universality. And set against the aspirational pull of Beveridge’s proposals, which aimed for full employment and breadwinner wages, her campaign for universal grants seemed unnecessary and naive.
Beveridge said there were ‘five giants on the road of reconstruction’ that needed to be attacked: want, disease, ignorance, squalor – and idleness. Rhys-Williams, too, was deeply concerned about the corrosion of a work ethic (her own was very strong: among other things she wrote novels, stood for Parliament for than once, was honorary secretary of Winston Churchill’s United Europe Movement, and had four children). The Quaker campaigners Mabel and Dennis Milner had similarly warned that basic income ‘must not be too much, since some are lazy, and if luxury were possible without work we would be glad of the opportunity to rest’.
Current proposals for UBI, however, envision a world in which there may be no work, no possibility of Beveridgean full employment. Some of these voices come from the left: Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, in Inventing the Future: Post-Capitalism and a World without Work (2015), argue that this future could be bright – boundless leisure divorced from the work ethic, where basic income has replaced a coercive welfare state. But Silicon Valley collapses the distinction between state and market in favour of simplified welfare solutions controlled by private interests. Its basic income lobby see automation as an unstoppable tide that will create a world in which the many are unemployed, and the few own the robots. Is a world without work in which the wealthy dole out subsistence payments to a surplus humanity something to look forward to?