Finland, a civilized nation near the top of the world, has decided to end its experiment providing a basic income to citizens. This will prompt predictable reactions from predictable factions. But maybe we should spend more time looking backwards, rather than forwards?
The most shallow reaction to this news is, “If FINLAND has decided to shut down its universal basic income program and impose work requirements, what hope is there for the idea anywhere else?” This ignores the fact that Finland was but one small UBI trial among many across the world. It also ignores the fact that entire nations with sovereign wealth funds already have a form of UBI—and so does the state of Alaska, which has been cutting an annual check to every single citizen for decades, thanks to oil revenue. The end of Finland’s experiment can be ascribed to a shift in political winds, a rising public discomfort with what can be painted as “money for nothing”—but this happens periodically in the United States too, which doesn’t have UBI. Its target is usually “welfare,” or any other vulnerable parts of the social safety net. And Finland’s program was only a small trial. Based on the experience of other grand social programs like Social Security, it is fair to expect that if UBI were actually to be instituted universally, it would be very popular. People like money.
A lot of people believe that basic income is the best solution to what will be the increasing automation of all types of work, which will create a situation in which there are simply not enough jobs to go around. If such a situation does in fact come about, the case for UBI is certainly strong. But people have been warning about automation in exactly the same way since at least the invention of the loom, and thus far the great Destruction of All Human Work has yet to be realized. What has happened repeatedly is capitalism’s “creative destruction” of certain industries and sectors of the economy, as technological and political change constantly rearranges what jobs exist and where. This is the constant creation of economic winners and losers that for centuries has been one of the biggest challenges to achieving some semblance of economic equality within American capitalism.
Not to give into the sin of incrementalism, but... given the fact that “automation will destroy work as we know and therefore we need UBI” is just a doubtful thesis, whereas “the normal operation of global capitalism will constantly devastate various sectors of our economy, producing a steady stream of disempowered people in desperate need of aid” is a fairly certain fact, perhaps all of the political capital that is being invested in promoting UBI might be better directed towards strengthening our existing social safety net, so that it is well-funded and more protected from political interference and better equipped to respond to those who need it most. Which is to say: poor people. And people who have, through no fault of their own, been left behind due to vast global economic changes. If Bill Clinton and company had thought to construct a working safety net like this a quarter century ago when they were all pursuing unfettered free trade with stars in their eyes, we might not have witnessed the profound post-industrial economic devastation that helped to give us Donald Trump. I know that “BUILD AGILITY AND FUNDING INTO EXISTING SOCIAL PROGRAMS” or “PROMOTE SOVEREIGN WEALTH FUNDS THAT SOCIALIZE OWNERSHIP OF FINANCIAL ASSETS” may not be as appealing to tech utopians as UBI, but it has a better chance of happening now, and there is no need to wonder whether its supporting idea will turn out to be true. Creating a UBI is not impossible, but its huge expense would probably mean a total deconstruction of the existing social safety net, which could easily turn out to be a bad deal for people at the bottom of the economy.
No need to spend all our time fighting the robots while we still have plenty of human capitalists to fight first.