Saturday, February 15, 2020

Universal Basic Income: Some Advocates And Analysts

"In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite." -- Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 48.

This post, I guess, is somewhat about current events. I claim no comprehensiveness for my impressions on the topic. I find my references are aspirational more than usual; some do not even seem to be in print. In this post, I do not compare and contrast UBI with a Job Guarantee, which seems to be argued about a lot on twitter.

Three properties define a UBI, according to Philippe Van Parijs. It is paid to individuals, not households. One obtains a UBI payment independent of need or any other sources of income. And it is not conditional on one's willingness to accept a job or on a requirement to have worked in the past or to work in the future.

I think a UBI is consistent with Keynes' vision in 1931 of "Economic possibilities for our grandchildren". Whether increases in productivity are broadly shared, including in increased leisure or non-work time seems not to be determined by technology. In some sense, the use of such progress for progressive ends is a result of collective choice. By the way, increased non-work time is part of a response to the global climate crisis. I have seen statistics about how less carbon is emitted during recessions. If we labor less voluntarily, and share time somewhat fairly, those trends would continue, I gather. So UBI could be one component of a green policy.

I always like to find those on the right stating their principles support supposed policies of the left. I find Hayek's ideas in The Road to Serfdom as inconsistent with UBI:

"There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom. There are difficult questions about the precise standard which should thus be assured; there is particularly the difficult question whether those who thus rely on the community should indefinitely enjoy all the same liberties as the rest. An incautious handling of these questions might well cause serious and perhaps even dangerous political problems; but there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody." -- Hayek (1944, Chapter IX).

Hayek argues for too much, in that UBI proponents do not claim to be assuring, by this policy alone, that some necessary minimum will be achieved. He argues for too little, in that proponents of UBI do not want to even consider limiting the liberties of those who receive it. Nevertheless, the above quotation, and the chapter in which it is in, might be of interest to advocates of a UBI. From Hayek's perspective, a UBI does not seem to be a threat to the liberty of private property.

I have been reading Steve Wright about a much more radical movement that developed ideas close to a UBI. His book is an intellectual history of operaismo (workerism) and the area of autonomy in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. Mario Tronti and Antonio Negri are two leaders of these tendencies, albeit they seem like the kind that are, in some sense, leaderless and spontaneous. I find some of the slogans and practices (for example, "the refusal of work" and "self reduction" (autoriduzione)) associated with autonomism intriguing. Workerists developed the concept of the social worker, the idea that the self-reproduction of the economy occurred not only in factories, but outside including by such non-waged individuals as students and housewives. The autonomists wanted to separate pay from productive labor, including a wage for housework. This social "wage" sounds a lot like an UBI to me.

I now turn to an author I know even less about. Philippe Van Parijs seems to be the most prominent academic advocate of UBI. He comes out of the tradition of analytical Marxism. I associate G. A. Cohen, Jon Elster, and John Roemer with this approach, although I knew that the September group had more members. Here Chris Bertram interviews Van Parijs. Van Parijs seems to have a number of books, more than I list below, in which others comment in his idea for UBI and in which he responds. Apparently, in discussing the impact of an UBI on work ethic, this literature also turns to a stereotype of surfers. (I was under the impression that the sunfish sailboat was also the product of a beach bum.)

My favorite approach to economics emphasizes questions of viability and what is needed to sustain human societies. Guglielmo Chiodi connects Sraffa's book with an UBI and normative concerns. No physical surplus is produced in the model in the first chapter of Sraffa's book. The inputs of production processes can be just reproduced from the outputs. Prices of production are determined by the need to redistribute these outputs, in accordance with a division of labor. One can consider these inputs as including commodities to sustain workers, just as they might include feed for horses. I think I take from Bertram Schefold the idea that the inputs might also include investment goods and capitalist consumption. Chiodi goes further. He suggests inputs include consumption by those who are neither capitalists nor working. And he reads Sraffa as emphasizing non-market institutions and non-market values. I am not sure I agree with this reading, but I find it of interest. I agree with Chiodi that Sraffa is more than an internal critique of neoclassical economics, but points to an alternative approach to economics. I do not think I have read anybody other Chiodi as connecting Sraffa to UBI. But I still have more to learn about the autonomist slogan of "the wage as the independent variable."


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