ATHENS – The right to laziness has traditionally been only for the propertied rich, whereas the poor have had to struggle for decent wages and working conditions, unemployment and disability insurance, universal health care, and other accoutrements of a dignified life. The idea that the poor should be granted an unconditional income sufficient to live on has been anathema not only to the high and mighty, but also to the labor movement, which embraced an ethic revolving around reciprocity, solidarity, and contributing to society.
When unconditional basic-income schemes were proposed decades ago, they inevitably met outraged reactions from employers’ associations, trade unions, economists, and politicians. Recently, however, the idea has resurfaced, gathering impressive support from the radical left, the Green movement, and even from the libertarian right. The cause is the rise of machines that, for the first time since the start of industrialization, threaten to destroy more jobs than technological innovation creates – and to pull the rug out from under the feet of white-collar professionals.
But as the idea of a universal basic income has returned, so has resistance from both the right and the left. Rightists point to the impossibility of raising enough revenue to fund such schemes without crushing the private sector, and to a drop in labor supply and productivity, owing to the loss of work incentives. Leftists worry that a universal income would weaken the struggle to improve people’s working lives, legitimize the idle rich, erode hard-won collective-bargaining rights (by empowering companies like Uber and Deliveroo), undermine the foundation of the welfare state, encourage passive citizenship, and promote consumerism.
Cheerleaders for such schemes – on both the left and the right – argue that universal basic income would support those who already contribute priceless value to society, mainly women in the caring sector – or, indeed, artists producing great public works for next to no money. The poor would be liberated from vicious welfare-state means testing, and a safety net that can entangle people in permanent poverty would be replaced by a platform on which they could stand before reaching out for something better. Young people would gain the freedom to experiment with different careers and to study topics that are not considered lucrative. Moreover, in today’s increasingly pervasive gig economy, with unions shrinking along with their capacity to protect workers, the economic stability that most people are losing would be restored.