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Will we be paying people to do nothing?

What would you say if I told you we might soon be giving every adult a basic income – whether they work or not?

You would think I’ve finally flipped and lost my marbles after coming close to doing so many times in the past, yes? Well, allow me to explain a little further before you conclude on my sanity.

The income I am referring to would be given to every adult in the country – those who work, as well as those who do not. The amount would vary by country, but would be set at a level that would cover essential living costs without offering any greater comfort. In advanced nations that would be around USD 1,000 or more every month; in smaller economies the sum would be much less. But every citizen would get the same amount. Working would then be a choice: you can choose to get a job and earn more; or you can subsist on the basic income and stay home or engage in non-paying activities.

Are your hackles raised? What infeasible NGO-driven socialistic nonsense is this, you fume into your scrambled eggs (with smoked salmon)?

Would it surprise you to hear that a proposal like the one I have outlined is of interest to libertarians and free-marketers too? In fact many countries are considering the idea of universal basic income very carefully. There are controlled experiments going on in many places – including right here in Kenya.

I hear you shouting your objections. This would remove the incentive to work! We would create a nation of indolent, lazy good-for-nothings! Recipients would blow the money on foolish things and stay poor anyway! Productivity would plummet! If employees don’t need to work for their daily bread, they won’t work at all! It would cripple the economy! Surely we can’t afford to pay everyone in the country an income? (Oh, did I mention there would be a smaller allowance per child, too?)

Peace. Let’s calm down and think this through. There are reasons serious people are discussing universal basic income as a serious idea.

Fundamentally, it would transform the idea of work in society. Today, work is linked inextricably to survival. If you weren’t born rich and you don’t work, your only options are to live off someone else or resort to begging, borrowing or stealing. You need to work literally for your daily bread (or rice or ugali). But if you did not need to work just to stay alive, what options might open up for you?

Some people, undoubtedly, would never work again. They would live a basic life off that basic income and watch TV all day. For many others, however, a universal basic income would be a great boon. They would not work to make ends meet – they would work to find greater reward, financial or non-financial. Artists of every description would be free to explore their art. Mothers and home managers would finally receive some monetary recompense for their toil. Innovators could take risks they would not otherwise contemplate.

Can any country afford this? Many rich countries like Switzerland and Finland are already considering it. A universal income would replace most other forms of social support and welfare programmes. You now don’t have to target public aid to the poor: you simply give everyone the exact same amount every month. Each person decides how to spend it. The amount depends on the productivity of the economy. And you remove a huge forest of government bureaucracy in one stroke. All those gatekeepers gone… can you see the effect on corruption?

One more thing: we may have to do this regardless. I have written many times on this page about the new economy we are all facing: one in which computerisation, artificial intelligence and automation reigns supreme. Some studies indicate that as many as half of all current jobs will be automated away in the years to come. What will happen to all those people?

Romantically, we would like to think that all those newly unemployed people will learn new skills and learn to add greater value in the economy. Practically, there is every danger that people who are suddenly left desperate will lay siege to the robot factories and burn the self-driven vehicles. Unless, of course, they have a universal basic income…which will be paid for by the greater productivity that will result from the large-scale automation that is coming anyway.

Feasible? Or wrong-headed, utopian and impractical? Let me have your thoughts, and we will return to this topic.

(Sunday Nation, 30 October 2016)

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