Can I Still Get Filthy Rich?
It seems to me that the crux of the debate around Universal Basic Income is the following question: Can I still get filthy rich after UBI is implemented? The short answer—I hope—is hell no. And this is in direct opposition to >the Silicon Valley libertarian conception of Basic Income.
I’m continually struck by the degree to which mainstream discussions of UBI avoid the discussion of redistributive tax policy, nevermind wealth ceilings. Consider an essay written by one of UBI’s most prolific advocates, Scott Santens, in which he lays out the case for why a universal basic income would not cause inflation. His tortuous avoidance of the word “tax” is nearly comical:
The money for a basic income guarantee would be already existing money circulated through the economic system. It would not be new money, just money shifted from one location to another. This means that the value of each dollar has not changed. The dollar itself has only changed hands.
The reluctance to talk about taxation or wealth redistribution seems to me to be one of the core problems of the discourse at present, for it limits our imagination as to how drastically a basic income policy could reorient power relations. So let’s imagine.
Imagine not only a high corporate tax rage, and a high tax rate on personal income, but also perhaps a wealth ceiling too. These would serve to provide us with the means for basic income, and also check the economy to prevent runaway inflation. (We should also take care to note that inflation effectively has a salutary effect on wealth inequality, and wouldn’t be the worst thing in a country seeking to move towards socialism.) On a less technical level, high progressive taxation means an abolition of extreme social hierarchy. In a sense, it’s the foundation for a new social contract. One in which we agree collectively that the flipside of never having to worry about being poor is never really being able to be really rich. And as much as I abhor contractarianism, this time it’s different: it’s a contract theory based on our mutual precarity, on the inevitable tendencies towards inequality under which we enter social relations, and on the unknowability of our subject positions in relation to one another.
Even if we’ve gotten this far, this is where most every conception of UBI ends: a society where people’s basic needs are met. But let’s imagine further; what happens now that capital—that which is not in the public coffers—is distributed to a much greater degree among the populace. First, less concentrated capital among political influencers means more fair elections and greater democracy. Citizens United is obsolete as a political issue; if money is speech, UBI means that more people have more equitable speech rights. And in a system in which everyone has more free time, there is more room for political organizing and educating. Democracy functions better under a basic income regime.
Second, ownership becomes more diffuse. We don’t to have imagine a totalitarian communist state to imagine the proliferation of housing co-ops, for example. With a more equitable distribution of capital, rent-seeking becomes mitigated by greater, more equitable access to housing and property ownership. Property taxes and caps on wealth prevent any single individual or corporation from owning large swaths of land. Continuous turnover and distribution of capital has the potential to dramatically reduce inter-generational ownership of land and property.
To be clear, I am arguing for a far greater redistribution, and a far greater basic income, than I think other advocates of UBI are posing. And one could suggest that what I am describing might not be Universal Basic Income at all, because it only uses UBI as the premise for a more radical, comprehensive re-envisioning of how society might work. This is precisely the point. Basic income, it seems to me, is the most pragmatic way towards a fundamental re-ordering of social relations. It is the radical and utopian nature of this program that allows us to reimagine the social contract in terms of economic justice, but the simplicity of Basic Income that serves as the means to get us there. This is what others on the left talk about when they talk about “non-reformist reforms.” UBI requires no revolution to start, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be revolutionary.
Who Holds the Power Under a UBI Regime?
All of which brings us to this point. In a fully imagined UBI scenario, power is dramatically upset. UBI isn’t simply a replacement for welfare, it’s a means towards a fundamental reordering of society by means of democracy and equitable distributions of wealth. It’s a means towards an erasure of social relations as defined by one’s relationship to the market.
Critics of UBI are quick to paint it as simply a libertarian bone throw or a means to legitimize post-industrial neoliberalism. I argue that it can be an incredibly great deal more. If the purpose of socialism is the collective ownership of the means of production, why not socialize capital itself? After all, what else is the means of production but capital? Socialize capital, and everything else—property, democracy—falls into place.
The alternative—to work towards a regime in which wages are still tied to remuneration, even if theoretically no surplus labor value is extracted—is to fetishize productivity for productivity’s sake, in a world where a pro-growth orientation is not only unnecessary but dangerous. In part three I’ll say more about this.