Is the living wage a good idea? Yes…? Well, what about a guaranteed basic income?
Decades ago, far-sighted humanist author Erich Fromm suggested the idea of an unconditional basic income (not the same thing as the living wage) in one of his many outstanding books, but he was not the first. Thomas more in Utopia wrote: “No penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it is their only way of getting food. It would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood.”
The notion of a living wage has recently reappeared in response to the turmoil unleashed by the continuation of capitalism, with all its expected results, such as the increasing gap between rich and poor; but the idea of an unconditional basic income is more radical. In 1795 Thomas Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice: “Agrarian justice, opposed to agrarian law, and to agrarian monopoly. Being a plan for meliorating the conditions of man by creating in every nation, a national fund, to pay to every person, when arriving at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, to enable him or her to begin the world! And also, ten pounds sterling per annum during life to every person now living of the age of fifty years, and to all others when they shall arrive at that age, to enable them to live in old age without wretchedness, and go decently out of the world.” In other words, a basic income was to be given to every person in a society, regardless of their position. It is, Paine said, “… a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for.” He wanted the funds to come from a ground-rent paid by property owners. This was just because the Earth is “the common property of the human race,” and so everyone deserved a share on which to survive.
Still later, Bertrand Russell wrote in Proposed Roads to Freedom: “… a certain small income, sufficient for necessities, should be secured for all, whether they work or not. A larger income… should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful.”
And there is much more. The idea of a negative income tax was first proposed by Juliet Rhys-Williams, a British public servant and political activist – people who earned less than some set amount would receive money from the government instead of paying taxes to it. Another British guaranteed income advocate was James Meade, who received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1977.
To return then to Erich Fromm, who was one of the most brilliant analysts of the human condition. He wrote: “Aside from the fact that there is already no work for an ever increasing sector of the population, and hence that the question of incentive for these people is irrelevant. … It can be demonstrated that material incentive is by no means the only incentive for work and effort. First of all there are other incentives: pride, social recognition, pleasure in work itself, etc. Secondly, it is a fact that man, by nature, is not lazy, but on the contrary suffers from the results of inactivity. People might prefer not to work for one or two months, but the vast majority would beg to work, even if they were not paid for it.”
This is not to mention Marshall McLuhan, Margaret Mead and Martin Luther King Jr… and many more.
Of course, there is one main obstacle to such common-sense schemes – the self-regarding narcissism of those who exploit in order to aggrandise themselves. Alas, there has not been much movement in lessening their influence on us all during recent centuries.