I read a post on universal basic income (UBI) yesterday, and it got me thinking. Basically, a UBI guarantees all citizens of a country a sum of money from the government or another public institution. This sum of money is designed to be enough for each citizen to cover their basic necessities so that they don’t have to hold a job.
Proponents of a UBI argue that, since people will no longer need a job to cover their basic necessities, this will give them the freedom to focus on doing what they want. By taking money out of the equation, we will be free to spend more time on creative activities where we don’t necessarily earn much or any money. For the purpose of this post, I define a creative activity as one which produces a benefit for at least one person other than the person performing the activity.
While the arguments of the proponents of a UBI make sense in theory, I think that there’s a fundamental problem. The people making these arguments are self-driven people with an energy which they have been able to channel to be successful in their field. If everyone were like them, a UBI would make sense as it would indeed let individuals be productive in areas of interest to them rather than forcing them to try to be productive in areas that they don’t find interesting.
However, everyone isn’t self-driven. In fact, most people aren’t. And I don’t think that people are this way because of the lack of a UBI. It’s not because of the lack of a UBI that most people don’t channel their energy to creative activities. Most of us are lazy. If given a choice between doing something and sitting around not doing much, we would choose the latter. And if you do the latter, it doesn’t benefit anyone but you, so it can’t be a creative activity.
This isn’t a judgment, but a statement of reality.
The resulting loss in human productivity created by a UBI won’t necessarily be a bad thing. We’re likely going to live in a future where robots are able to perform a lot of our work for us much more effectively than we’re able to, and these robots will be able to more than make up for the loss in productivity of humans.
However, we need to call it like it is.
A UBI may indeed work. It may indeed be part of a stable form of government where humanity continues to make progress and most people are happy. But it’s unlikely to achieve this by enabling a majority of humans to direct their energy towards creative activities. For a UBI to work, robots will need to make up for the mass of people sitting around doing nothing.