Utopia or reality? How Universal Basic Income could transform our politics

by Hasmet Uluorta and Lawrence Quill

Universal basic income has been touted by many in the technology sector as a possible answer to the problem of automation. Amidst fears that big data, robotics, and artificial intelligence put up to 47% of jobs at risk by 2050, experts – both in Silicon Valley and in academia – have suggested basic income holds the solution to unemployment.


On the traditional Left, the case for a basic income has been made most forcefully by Guy Standing and his work on the emerging precariat, the term Standing uses to define highly flexible mainstream workers. These workers are subject to insecure labour contracts,  part-time work and zero-hour contracts. They may be part of the gig economy, participate in crowd-labour, or work as paid or unpaid interns. These people have no occupational identity or narrative to make sense of their lives. A basic income, according to Standing, would supplement existing welfare programs and restore human dignity by alleviating the chronic insecurities of modern working life.


The libertarian Cato Institute, by contrast, endorses basic income as an alternative to existing social welfare programs. A UBI would replace the welfare provisions that are regarded as inefficient, wasteful and paternalistic hindrances to creative human potential. Real freedom for all, to cite the title of an influential libertarian treatise on the subject, would dismantle the state in the name of social justice, and provide a level of subsistence directly to each person so that they may spend it according to their own desires. As Phlippe Van Parjis puts it, UBI would ‘help to solve the policy dilemmas of poverty and unemployment, and serve ideals associated with both the feminist and green movements’. Coincidentally, these are the policy areas that appeal to many technology entrepreneurs.


Elements from both approaches may be found in arguments for UBI now emerging from Silicon Valley. In a recent report about Silicon Valley leaders, Gregory Ferenstein notes that the old categories of political understanding fail to capture the ideological complexity of technology entrepreneurs. Technology CEOs are supposedly left-leaning; they promote automation, high-skills immigration, and charter schools. They believe in the free market but also believe that government should invest in citizens. They are paternalist, thinking that government should encourage certain kinds of behavior, make society run like a high-tech company, and make people better educated, healthier, and civic-minded. Above all, they are optimists, believing that there is a solution to every social and political problem, and are committed to information as a good in itself: more information is always better. This new progressivism is communitarian in spirit, believing in the wisdom of crowds. Tech entrepreneurs see the government as an investor in citizens, rather than as a source of protection from capitalism.


These logics mark a profound shift away from the old progressivism of the ‘New Deal,’ a societal compromise that sought to insulate citizens from the market. But this shift is not unprecedented. On the Left, it reminds us of the Counterculture and its critique of “technocratic totalitarianism”, a regime of experts intent on modernizing and planning the new society. On the Right, the state has long been seen as a threat to democracy and individual liberty, with privatization, deregulation, and the transferring of social care duties to charities and corporations hailed as solutions.


Yet while this strain of thinking has prevailed in Silicon Valley for some time, it is only recently that leading technology entrepreneurs have become advocates for basic income. Why now – and why not, for example, during the 2000 tech sector collapse or the 2008 ‘Great Recession’? One explanation is that the technology sector has recently lost some of its lustre among the public. We have moved a long way from technology CEOs spouting words of inspiration like ‘the only way to do great work is to love what you do’ (Steve Jobs), to CEOs uttering warnings about a future that looks inhuman. As Elon Musk recently suggested, humans will need to become cyborgs if they are to avoid being reduced to the status of house cats. Increasingly, tech companies appear out of touch, remote from the world around them.


Basic income, as envisioned by the technology sector, has significant implications for the role of the state. Sam Altman, the venture capitalist and president of the incubator Y Combinator who is overseeing a basic income pilot project in Oakland, California, notes that a basic income is supposed to install a financial floor from which people can become as wealthy as they want. Hypothetically speaking, people could use their basic income for leisure or whatever else they choose – like starting the next Google or Apple. For this model to work, the government would need to reimagine citizens as entrepreneurs.


Many technology companies have utilized public assets (i.e. roads) with ‘idle capacity’ (i.e. waiting for a bus or cab) to create revenue for themselves and those who work in the gig-economy. It is conceivable that a basic income might be applied in a similar way: UBI socializes the reproductive and social costs of labour so that firms can treat workers like other assets, hiring them at the margin in a competitive market. Moreover, in the future, technology companies might privatize welfare provision as they extend their reach across all areas of social policy. The result would be a further collapse of the distinction between state and corporate power.


What would this mean in practice? Let’s consider how basic income might be implemented in the United States. Jurgen de Wispelaere and Lindsay Stirton have argued that ‘monitoring the effective disbursement of a [basic income] that encompasses the whole population’ would be costly and time consuming, one that might, paradoxically, require an increase in administration rather than a reduction. A potential solution to the problem of ‘wasteful’ government resources might be found in tying basic income to the kind of technological surveillance with which we are fast becoming comfortable. If basic income was assigned electronically, for example, it would remove the need for other parts of government bureaucracy – i.e. government officials who monitor people’s behavior to insure they receive the right amount of money. Turning welfare provision into an app that tracks and monitors behavior means you can do away with many of the bureaucratic elements of the state.


Of course, this would mean giving technology companies access to the entire database of citizens within a given territory, along with other data such as immigration records. This would arguably swap one form of paternalism for another. But where some observers see Big Brother, the tech entrepreneurs who wish to alter the behavior of people for the common good see ‘captology’ or “persuasive technologies”, and substitute ‘surveillance’ for ‘using apps to change the behavior of people for the better’. Thanks to phones and other wearable technologies, such ‘intimate surveillance’ is now so pervasive that this participatory panopticon is the norm for a generation who have grown up knowing only the reality of Internet life.


It’s too early to say whether the United States, or individual states, will adopt Silicon Valley’s version of a basic income. The idea that poverty, like other social and political problems, can be solved by turning to technology and reducing the power of the state is a potent one with deep philosophical roots. We should keep this fresh in our minds when debating policies that herald privately owned technologies as the solution to complex social problems.

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