Over the recent years we could read more and more about various jobs being threatened by automation. I am a big proponent of automation, which might sound hypocritical because my job in software engineering is not threatened at all. On the contrary, automation increases the demand for software engineers. But what about the people whose jobs are in danger? With self-driving vehicles on the horizon (I believe they will become mainstream within a couple of decades), drivers are a good example of an endangered category. History has thought us that when we find ways of automating jobs that used to be manual, the number of available jobs does not go down, because automation opens the door for new types of jobs. For instance, when cars started being assembled by robots instead of humans, a whole new field of work in maintaining the robots emerged. But not everybody who lost their job on the production line could all of a sudden find work as a maintainer of robots.
What about those who will be completely out of work because their job was rendered obsolete and who do not have the possibility for further education? This is where a concept I strongly believe in comes in. Yes, I am talking about unconditional basic income (UBI). The idea behind UBI is that the state covers all the basic human needs (housing, food, education and health insurance) for its citizens. It is to be given to all citizens without any requirements.
Opponents of the concept usually claim that it will decrease the incentive to work and that there is not enough wealth to provide an UBI for everybody. I strongly believe in the opposite, on both accounts. People intrinsically strive for meaning, and UBI will not stop them from working, but will give them the security and freedom to pursue something they have a true passion for, instead of suffering at a possibly meaningless job which they are afraid to leave because they don’t want to become homeless. I see UBI as a means of setting free all the unknown Elon Musks of the world. And what if a minority of people does choose that UBI is enough for them and they do not want to do more? In my opinion they have every right to do so. Human beings have the right to survive because they are alive, not because they have a job.
As far as supporting UBI, I don’t think that the problem is in non-sufficient wealth, but rather in the uneven distribution of wealth, where 1% of the population owns 50% of the world’s wealth. The amount of food produced in the world is enough to feed the entire population, but again, the problem is that not everybody has access to it. Furthermore, UBI will substitute all the existing social benefits, which require a large workforce to administer since these social benefits are conditional. In other words, UBI will leave a lot of people in the public sector unemployed, but it will also solve the problem by making sure these people are taken care of. There is poetic beauty in this, isn’t there? A solution creates a problem that it immediately solves. And finally, as said above, removing the risk of becoming homeless and hungry creates a strong incentive for a large number of people to develop businesses, thus increasing the overall wealth.
The biggest challenge in my opinion is not sustaining an economic system based on UBI, but transitioning to UBI from the economic systems we have today. I am not sure we have evolved enough as a species to succeed with this. Greed and short-sightedness still characterize us more than empathy and long term thinking. But I hope I am wrong and that I will see UBI successfully deployed on a large scale during my lifetime.
Even though UBI is by definition equally distributed to everybody, it will of course have the biggest impact on the poorest among us. And when the quality of life increases for those who are most vulnerable, the complete society benefits. I have had the opportunity to live both in one of Europe’s poorest and one of Europe’s richest countries, and the difference in peoples’ happiness is painfully obvious. Another aspect not to be ignored is that places of despair are fertile ground for extreme ideas which history has shown us lead to a large number of people suffering. UBI would make such ideas more difficult to take root.
A lot of opinions have been voiced both for and against UBI, but thankfully science has also recently been involved. Other than small local experiments (for example in Holland and Finland), there is an ongoing long-term controlled experiment in Kenya and Uganda whose purpose is to experimentally answer what incentives UBI gives to people. Read more about it at https://www.givedirectly.org/basic-income. And if you have been on the lookout for a good charity, I warmly suggest donating to Give directly. If the experiment proves that UBI is successful, your donation will make you a part of history, you will have participated in changing the world for the better. If, on the other hand, UBI is shown not to work, you will at least have helped getting a number of people out of extreme poverty.
I encourage you to pursue the topic further, there are great articles about UBI out there. You can start with Scott Santens’ article on medium.com (where the title image for this blog post comes from). A good book on the subject is Utopia for realists by Rutger Bergman.