Work is fundamental to human development and personal fulfilment. This is not to say that one should be forced to work at all times for their own good, especially under the guise of wage labour. But, there is a vast body of research showing the connection between mental health and labour. It suggests that the human ideal is not an escape from work but an escape from meaningless, exploitative work under capitalism where people don’t feel they are making a positive difference in their communities, and are not respected by their employer. Instead, to maximize the individual self is to be engaged in meaningful, self-fulfilling labour and have that balanced with regular and substantial leisure time. This means different things for different people. Fundamentally, human self-worth is connected to the ability to contribute meaningfully to society and to do this through our own labour. That good feeling you get after a day of productive work is not accidental, it is inherent in the human condition.
Confusion between different structures of income supports is used by cynical policy makers to drive an agenda of privatization. In essence, giving poor people money is the lazy and irresponsible response to a crisis of employment and economic conditions.
Work and Need
Recently, the idea of a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) has come back into fashion. It is an idea that seems to rear its head every time the economy is in crisis or results in regularized and sustained high-levels of unemployment. This is the case now, with a slow growth economy and anxiety caused by the idea that automation and cheap “foreign" labour will lead to mass unemployment.
The scaremongering that “robots of foreign labour will take our jobs” is an anxiety that is uniquely based in the market economy and is rooted in a misunderstanding of how jobs are created.
Robots and computers have resulted in increased productivity for decades the same way industrialization increased productivity and displaced millions of jobs. However, jobs that were displaced by automation has not lead to an equal number of unemployed workers sitting idle. The current levels of employment and production are not the levels that have ever and can ever occur, it is simply the level production that is occurring right now. Understanding this is important when thinking about how we deal with the current disruptions to employment.
The role of the government (the State) is important to consider when we think about these transitions through mass automation or disruptions to patterns of work. One of the generally agreed roles for governments is to mediate employment. Most political ideologies call on their government to support workers when they are unemployed, provide regulation to the economy (or central bank) to support employment, and facilitate social supports for those who fall through the cracks. Without this mediation from our social institutions, society does not function well. However, how a government facilitates a functional society creates the fundamental differences in political/economic ideology from left to right.
For socialists, the fundamental form of social support is through democratic state mediated production and redistribution. This view is based on the belief that the economy is a tool that society should use to maximize human development and it is partly through the labour of workers that we can build a just and equitable world for all.
Of course, we have not arrived at such a society yet and are currently living under a system where economic and social development is put well behind the priority of accumulation of wealth for the few owners of the system. So, in the struggle for a better world, socialists call for reforms so that the government supports those who cannot work through services financed by those who can work. This “welfare state” is supported by the idea that anyone may, at any time and for whatever reason, be unable to work and and still support themselves and their families.
In this context, the battle between the left and right economic ideology is a battle over how much redistribution from the wealthy owners of production is possible in order to support this welfare system. It is also about how this redistribution of wealth occurs.
The structure of this welfare system is particularly important to consider in light of the massive disruptions of employment characteristic of capitalist economies – such as automation and outsourcing to foreign companies. The right-wing would like everything to move to a commodified market system where you have to buy everything, thus undermining the redistribution system workers rely on when they cannot work. The response from the left is to promote universal and free public services delivered by (real) people.
The different result is important in the context of an employment crisis. In a time where automation and outsourcing is replacing jobs it make sense that the state employ people to provide needed services.
Needed and wanted work is not in short supply. There are plenty of ugly spaces that could be beautified by employing an artist. There are plenty of elderly who need support. There are plenty of buildings that could be upgraded. There is plenty of land that could produce food. There is plenty of infrastructure that needs maintenance and construction. There are plenty of services that don’t exist that could be provided. There are plenty of needs that have not been filled by the private market that will only be filled if we collectively decide to pay workers to undertake these priorities.
Income support vs Basic Income Guarantee™
What the Liberals (and some Conservatives) are proposing is very different vision than a government supported job program. The Basic Income Guarantee is the right-wing response to people-delivered public services. It is the laissez-faire alternative to a work-focused welfare state model. It decouples work from income and argues that if you cannot work, the state will give you an income. In that case, there is no need for the government to be delivering universal public services, even those who cannot work can access private market services. It also abandons the notion that the government should develop a social economy.
There is a fundamental flaw in this kind of program. Instead of mediating and facilitating work and human development, the state is actually structurally supporting unemployment. Where a welfare state model would facilitate needed employment, a model of basic income guarantee facilitates unemployment while supporting a commodified service model. This is a model that increases inequality of access to services since the poor will only be able to access cheap, low quality services and benefits of redistribution is limited to the destitute.
Real income supports
Socialists advocate for a specific type of income supplements in the current economy. However, the reason for the income supports are different from those who promote a Basic Income Guarantee.
Even free services are not equally accessible to all and so an additional support is needed for those at the lower income level.
For example, even free post-secondary education is out of reach for those who are unable to afford the time off work to study. This is why needs-based grants to cover living and leisure costs and affordable housing and food are demanded by the student movement. The idea is to even-out the experience of university between those students from low and high-income families so as not to further entrench the latter’s privilege.
Free health care is out of reach for those who are not able to get to the hospital that provides the care. This is why free ambulance services, home-care, and personal support workers are needed to either bring someone to the hospital or bring care to the person.
In both these examples, money does not replace the actual workers who support access to the free service, it simply allows for additional support to even-out access to the services.
Income supports for seniors and others who cannot work (or who are retired after working their whole lives) are also supported by the left under a system which does not provide for basic needs like housing and food. For example, the basic income supports for low-income seniors that currently exists through the Old Age Security program and the Guaranteed Income Supplement – funded out of general government tax revenue – is a basic living support and never intended as a replacement for high quality public services for the aged. Nor does this income supplement replace the call from socialists for quality public housing and care services for seniors.
The Liberal’s plan
The Basic Income Guarantee proposed by the Liberals (and some Conservatives) is not about additional monetary support for accessing universal public services. Instead, it is about replacing public services with money given to individuals directly in the hopes that the private market will provide needed services at rates those receiving the Guarantee can afford.
The Ontario Liberal government has been promoting guaranteed income supports as a way to replace “too expensive” and “not innovative enough” universal services for the under-employed and/or precarious workers. The problem is that the narrative from the Liberals is not to support employment of people, but as a way to relieve the responsibility of the government in shaping and supporting employment and to further empower the private sector.
One example is the basic income guarantee pilot project targeting seniors on disability support programs, a program where those who can work will support those who cannot. The idea is to replace some disability support services with money so that seniors can buy services from private enterprises instead of being served by public service workers.
Another example is that of childcare. While both Liberal and Conservative governments support a system of providing money directly to parents so that private sector childcare can be purchased, the ideal system is one in which no money is provided to individuals, but instead invested in a national system of free childcare to which everyone has access.
Public services, delivered by people and funded by progressive taxes as part of a comprehensive plan for social services that are universally accessible and of high-quality is necessary.
However, Liberals (and some Conservatives) are not proposing this currently and therefore cannot be trusted to implement a progressive Basic Income Guarantee program. The Liberals (and some Conservatives) are promoting a version of the Basic Income Guarantee that re-directs money away from current public programs in an attempt to privatize those services. As such, any proposal for a basic income guarantee under the current climate of budget cuts should be opposed until support levels for public services are at an adequate level to provide quality public services and sustain good jobs.