Civilised people feed one another

June 2013

In a truly civilized society, the citizens would ensure that none among them was wanting for the basic things in life. Just as monetary policy ensures that the cover of money is the total of available goods and services, so basic income is a matter of ensuring that the population as a whole has income sufficient to match its basic expenditure. For this to be effective, however, money flows need to recognise that income = needs and that investment = capacities. (Most people link investment to real estate, the stock market or whatever else they have invested money in. But these are the collaterals. In reality, fruitful investments depend on individuals’ capacities.)

A truly basic income means no longer believing that the devil should take the hindmost, that some people deserve to be poor or to starve, or that survival of the fittest is a high social ideal – thoughts that lead us to ignore the circumstances of our fellow human beings, abetted by the constant iteration of an ‘invisible hand’, ever-lower prices, and relentless competition as the watchwords of a supposedly scientific approach to economic life. How one steps free of these concepts is a moot affair, but step free of them we must if we would find in our own beings the wellspring of welfare.

Then comes the question: How to arrange a basic income? By leaving it to the state? But this will lead only to a minimum wage, which will also be minimal because the state can only think in abstract aggregates. By leaving it to ‘market forces’? But market forces belong to the realm of commodities and are not a right fit for income. To be effective, they assume labour is a commodity like any other and that, worse still, it can be used to measure human worth. Or by looking to human beings as such, on the grounds that true prosperity and true welfare derive from individuals, albeit only when mindful of one another?

The question then becomes how can we collectively allocate part of society’s wealth to provide a basic income so that its level is not uniform or externally imposed, but a matter only for those whom it directly concerns. For example, the employees of an enterprise should allocate to themselves a global sum and then further allocate this sum among themselves by whatever means they choose, while making sure the global amount is affordable to their enterprise and linked to what they can together contribute to society. Such collective agreements between sovereign individuals should not be taken over or subverted by the state. Providing a basic income should remain a simple economic task of first ensuring that we all have our basic needs met before we allocate to ourselves funds in addition.

By extension, similar considerations concern pension provision and other forms of social security, all of them versions of the one problem. But they call on us to rethink three main aspects of social security:

Firstly, the concept of employment. If we were all remunerated for the results of our activity and not paid for our labour, the concept of employment would not arise, witness the self-employed person for whom the question is only ever, “How long can I usefully make my contribution to society and be remunerated for that?”

Secondly, the idea of a standard retirement age. By imposing this from without, as a right regardless of how it is provided for, we create a rod for our own backs. If people were not employed, but remunerated for their contribution to society, they would not think in terms of a standard cut-off point. Left to themselves, human beings would retire at different ages and for all manner of reasons – none of them being that one has reached a statutory retirement age.

Lastly, the choice between daily cash transfers, whereby the currently ‘employed’ finance the currently ‘unemployed’, and invested fund arrangements, based on each of us ignoring the needs of others and providing for himself by lending money over time. We need especially to lay an axe to the concept of providing for pensions through funds that create a stock of capital far in excess of the economy’s need for it. This engenders the very inflation it aims to hedge against, bringing with it enormous uncertainty and the risk of inter-generational inequities.

Such a triple rethink will beget the will to overcome self-centeredness. If not, social security arrangements will increasingly become privatized and individualized, the retirement age will rise (thereby reducing the time between stopping work and one’s rendezvous with death to such an extent that the idea of retirement loses its meaning), and pension funds will become ever more dependent on the capitalization of property.

All of this only puts off until tomorrow the day of economic reckoning, when people will realize that it would have been better to have done one’s whole life long what one had a love to do and been remunerated for it, than to reserve this for weekends and retirement. For labour means nothing economically, nor does being paid for it bring dignity to life. It is recognition by others of one’s unique contribution to society that moves economic life forward, and their ensuring that one is not left wanting that dignifies human existence.