The public sphere has been a realm of echoing noise, lately, but through it all, readers may have picked up from time to time the notion of a universal basic income — that is, some system or other that guarantees every American a baseline level of money that allows them to subsist, if not live comfortably. Even on the political right, some folks are willing to entertain the idea as a reimagining of the welfare state, but that’s not the angle that leads me to bring the question up, just now.
As David Rotman writes in the MIT Technology Review, some folks are seeing a UBI as a way to address the social change when technology ensures that fewer and fewer people actually have to do anything resembling work:
… among many tech elites and their boosters, the idea of a basic income seems to have morphed from an antipoverty strategy into a radical new way of seeing work and leisure. In this view, the economy is becoming increasingly dominated by machines and software. That leaves many without jobs and, notably, society with no need for their labor. So why not simply pay these people for sitting around? Somehow, in the thinking of many in Silicon Valley, this has become a good thing.
It’s not surprising that tech oligarchs and other comfortable groups of people would favor the idea, because the healthier, more-natural economic path forward would put some risk on them, rather than just on the poor folks losing their jobs. If you’re out of work and the government gives you money (from somewhere), then you can go on buying devices and software, keeping Silicon Valley humming.
What ought to happen is that prices adjust to reflect the new economic reality. If your entire industry is displaced, many people won’t be able to afford the latest gadgets, so the industry that makes those gadgets will have to find a way to lower their prices. Every industry will have to lower its prices to reflect the reduction in demand at current prices. That sounds terrifying, but remember that the premise is that technology is displacing people and making everything less expensive to produce.
If we use government to prevent deflation, then somewhere along the line, some people are collecting more money than they should. A frivolous device company, for example, is producing its products more cheaply because of technology, but it doesn’t have to adjust its prices down to reflect the poorer population. When government intervenes for this purpose, it necessarily means that some industry, product, or occupation is being unjustly constrained, even if it would be impossible to trace it dollar for dollar.
Letting prices adjust is simply letting society reprioritize based on its new reality. The reality we’ve been refusing to accept is that the economy will adjust one way or another. As the world changes, we need the maturity not to save the privileges of those we see at the expense of those we don’t.