A Moral Argument for a Universal Basic Income

17 Oct 2017 9:53 AM | Mike Lillich (Administrator)

First published online in the Yonkers Tribune.

By Oren M. Levin-Waldman

During the eighteenth century republican thinkers used to talk about free labor as both the basis for personal autonomy and citizenship. Free labor meant that one worked for one’s self and was not subject to the control of say an employer. Slavery was certainly contrary to free labor, but so too was working for others as a wage laborer. Why? Because wage workers subject to the control of those who owned capital were seen as being no different from slaves.

Of course, there were differences. The chattel slave was owned and was never free to leave his or her master. The wage laborer was always free to seek employment elsewhere. And yet, the wage laborer had few options available if s/he wanted to eat: accept low wages and the control of the employer during working hours as a condition of employment or starve.

Although free labor was certainly the ideal, the economy was changing. In an agrarian economy where each person could farm his or her plot of land, then certainly that person could be free. In an industrializing economy where the only options for earning subsistence were to work for others in factories, it was no longer so clear. Freedom was essentially redefined to include wage laborers because they weren’t subject to living on the dole.

Still, questions remain: What does it mean to be free? And can one truly be free while earning low wages? We are now living in a global post-industrial service sector economy where the wages for unskilled workers are extremely low. Workers work because they need to eat. This means that they are needs traders; not wants traders. Because workers have no choice but to accept such low wages in order to eat, they are not only subject to their employers’ control, they are subject to being dominated.

At the heart of republican freedom is non-domination. Is the payment of low wages the same as domination? Can an individual be truly autonomous if they are forced to accept low wages? Even if those wages are subsidized by the state, is one truly free? If they are receiving subsidies from the government, then they are subject to government control.

Milton Friedman’s opposition to wage floors was based on two arguments: first it was inefficient because it prevented wages from dropping to a level that wage labor would be demanded by employers. As a result, there would be less employment with the labor market not working at its full capacity. And second a wage floor infringed the liberty of workers who now were not free to work for less than the wage floor.

Of course, Friedman was opposed to all public assistance programs because recipients subject to the rules of the bureaucracy in exchange for their benefits could no longer be considered to be free. Therefore, Friedman proposed a negative income tax so that poor people could enjoy greater freedom, because dependency was considered to be the same as domination.

We are still left with a quandary. If low wages are considered to be unfree because the low-wage worker is subject to the domination of his/her employer, and government subsidies are also considered to be a form of domination, then what? The forces of globalism, after all, are only pushing down wages further. Are we not almost at the point where most of the labor force might be in need of subsidies and/or other social supports that we can say that they are all subject to domination?

When the market place is allowed to determine wages in the absence of wage floors and/or other institutions that bolster wages, there is nothing to stop the employer from arbitrarily lowering workers’ wages. Indeed, according to the laws of supply and demand an oversupply of low-skilled workers should force down wages. Moreover, periods of recession should force down wages even more.

Although the laws of supply and demand may not be arbitrary, being forced to accept lower wages may appear to be arbitrary to workers forced to accept lower wages. What makes a work environment one where there is domination is that it can indeed be arbitrary. A minimum wage floor prevents the arbitrary payment of wages below that floor. A minimum wage floor, however, may not be enough.

A minimum wage floor still does solve the problem that low-skilled workers are barely making subsistence and therefore may continue to be subject to the control of their employers. They are still forced to work in less than ideal circumstances because they are needs traders who need to work. We are, then, left with perhaps the inevitability of a universal basic income (UBI).

Several weeks ago I argued in this space that a UBI might be inevitable given the march of technology in a global economy. If globalism will force down wages and mandating higher wage floors will lead to the substitution of technology for workers, then we will be left with more workers either out of work or in need of more supports because their wages are insufficient.

A UBI, however, could address both that issue and the issue of domination in the workplace by effectively changing the nature of work. In a global economy without a basic income, workers are at the mercy of market forces which to them will appear to be no less than arbitrary. They will continue to be needs traders which will subject them to control and domination.

A UBI, then, will transform workers into wants traders and force employers to raise wages and offer working conditions where the potential for domination is less just to attract those who opt to work because they choose to, rather than have to. As a variation on Friedman’s negative income tax, the UBI will actually afford workers greater freedom. The changing nature of the economy may have necessitated a UBI in order to truly have free labor.

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