Basic income and the future of work

By Elliot J. Rossiter, Philosophy Instructor

There are a growing number of people who think that we are on the cusp of transitioning to a “post-work” future where the majority of working-age adults will not possess full-time jobs due to both the influence of automation and the rise of the gig economy. While any discussion of the future of work should be tempered with a recognition that people often overestimate their ability to predict the future, it is worth considering the question of how we would live in a society where there are fewer stable, full-time jobs.

One idea that is becoming increasingly popular is that of basic income, which holds that everyone should be given a regular sum of money that provides some measure of economic security. Indeed, the B.C. government recently set up a committee to explore the feasibility of implementing such a project in the province. While there are some differences among various basic income policy proposals – including the appropriate level of support, the frequency of distribution and the administration of benefits for children – the core idea is that support should be given unconditionally, without any means of testing or requirement to work.

One closely related variant to basic income that has been tested in Canada – and often simply referred to as basic income – is a negative income tax, which is a tax system that provides supplemental income for those whose earnings fall below a certain threshold. The Mincome experiment tested this system at various sites in Manitoba during the 1970s, but political commitment to this project gradually waned due to a combination of inflationary pressures, high unemployment and changes in government.

Recent years, however, have seen a renewed interest in basic income. The system was tested again in Ontario, with a pilot project launched in 2017 under a Liberal government. But the new Progressive Conservative government, elected last year, ended the pilot, criticizing it for allegedly making recipients less socially productive by receiving money without any strings attached.

Elliot J. Rossiter, Douglas College Philosophy Instructor

It is worth noting, however, that research on Mincome shows that workforce participation did not generally decline as a result of basic income except for women engaging in care work and teenagers staying in school. Furthermore, preliminary research from the Ontario pilot does not suggest any decrease in socially productive activity.

Despite the evidence that basic income recipients would not be any less socially productive, the objection that basic income would lead to economic freeriding by recipients who stop working is still popularly held.

In considering the relationship of basic income to the nature of work, it is worth stepping back to reflect more deeply on the meaning of work – and this will become increasingly important to consider if futurists are correct that there will be fewer jobs in coming years. We tend to equate work with paid employment; but this tendency is a relatively recent phenomenon, and I argue that it ultimately finds its roots in certain strands of modern philosophy beginning in the 17th century that hold that the standard for what can be known consists in what can be measured quantitatively and mathematized.

Prior to the modern period, work was generally identified either in a person or in a product. In other words, work was thought of in terms of a person using their deliberation and agency to produce some good of benefit to the wider community. But with the advent of the drive to measure and control that is prevalent in much of modern thinking, work increasingly became identified with a process measured in terms of things like labour hours and marginal productivity. In thinking of work this way, the subjective aspects of work and the broader social purpose of various goods and services tend to fade into the background.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the quantitative measurement of various phenomena, such as the economic activity of human beings; but we go deeply astray in our understanding of the world – including the nature of work – if we reduce what can be known to what can be measured.

To properly grapple with the question of the future of work, it is necessary to recover the subjective and social dimensions of work: indeed, work should best be understood as a task performed by a person for the benefit of the community around them. My current research involves taking the capability approach to human development – an approach pioneered by scholars like Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum – and applying it to an analysis of the nature of work. I defend a capability approach to work, which holds that meaningful work is an activity that develops one’s own capabilities while promoting the capabilities of others in one’s community. Examples of this type of socially productive activity could be a mechanic troubleshooting and repairing a vehicle, a musician directing a community choir or a parent caring for a child.

We can have better discussions of our economic future if we expand our understanding of work beyond paid employment. To fully evaluate the social effects of a policy like basic income, it is necessary to consider not just the willingness of recipients to participate in the traditional workforce but also to engage in a broad range of capability-promoting activities. In this regard, results from a number of pilot projects seem to indicate that recipients are more likely to care for loved ones, to seek training to improve their work skills and to volunteer in the community. As we consider how we can flourish in the midst of economic challenges facing the future of work, basic income is an idea that is certainly worth exploring further.

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