Minority Opinions

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Singular Possibilities

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Imagine a world in which you had a guaranteed income, leaving you free to do whatever you want.  What would you do?  I would still program, but perhaps not for business, and would probably play a few more board games.  Tarn Adams would still produce Dwarf Fortress, but perhaps on nicer hardware.  Jonathan Coulton would still write songs.  My father-in-law would still have translated history and horticulture books.  It’s what we do, part of who we are.

Yet, there would be differences.  Would JoCo’s songs be quite so popular without his corporate programming background?  Would I have such a solid grasp on database concepts if my company hadn’t decided to send me to a MySQL conference?  Would Dilbert exist at all?  Restrictions breed creativity, and having to work toward someone else’s needs is a massive restriction.

On the other hand, leaving everyone free to do what they wish, to create what they desire, would probably leave us with at least as much quality work overall, and could make most of us happier with our lives.  Except those who create their masterpiece, and watch in despair as the world ignores it for a third Angry Birds theme.  Is the tradeoff worth it?  I believe so, but could be convinced otherwise.

More importantly, is such a world possible?  There have been societies in which members didn’t have to work for a living, but they always depended on the work of others.  Ancient Rome, for example, had a slave class and conquered territories sending tribute.  In another time and place, landowners lived off the income of the serfs working their land, nominally in exchange for protection and government.  There may even be those today who live in such a manner, collecting income based on investments or businesses which they largely ignore.

However, a universal guaranteed income couldn’t depend on the work of others.  What if nobody wanted to grow the food?  Instead, we would need to rely on some sort of technology: Robots, nanotech, and biological engineering may each have the potential to create whatever we need.  Based on the pace of progress, some sort of post-scarcity economy is almost assured.

Whether that means that nobody need work, I’m less certain.  Everybody needs some sort of human contact, and we’re more comfortable interacting with real people for certain things, so there should always be jobs available.  For each such job, there should also be a set of people for whom it would fill an emotional need, just as programming does mine, so they might get performed even without payment.  If not, a society in which entertainment and luxury items can be purchased may well let a salary be an effective incentive for people to work even when they don’t have to.  Socialism need not completely replace capitalism to eliminate poverty.

Such a society would probably have a few people gaming the system to collect more guaranteed income than they should.  That shouldn’t stop us from trying it out, once we can afford it.  I once heard part of a podcast in which the idea was floated that the strength of a society can be measured by the number of parasites it can support.  (The original idea may have been Nietzsche’s.)  Yes, cheaters exist, but we should grow up to the point where we can brush them off like mosquitos.  Okay, in this case the punishment should be more like garnishing any earnings they obtain beyond the minimum until their debt is paid, as opposed to the death that comes to any blood-sucker found in my house, but all analogies break down somewhere.

In some ways, we’re already moving toward such a point.  There are already welfare systems in many states, and some form of government-backed health care in most first world countries.  France in particular has an easily abused employment insurance program. But there is still a social stigma to living off of the government, probably because society would collapse if we all tried it at once.  What will it take to see loafing as a perfectly acceptable lifestyle?  Can it happen gradually?

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Written by eswald

12 Nov 2012 at 5:45 pm

Posted in Lifestyle, Politics

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