Written circa 2000

“5,000 fewer jobs in Centrelink will make the Department more responsive.”

NASA had just announced that it was putting its Mars flights programs on hold following the loss of two recent missions, it was also reviewing its motto “Cheaper Faster Better” on the back of a report which found that NASA’s excessive cost cutting had substantially contributed to the demise of both Mars flights.

Basic income and citizenship

Many writers have argued that a minimum income guarantee should be a right of citizenship. Most, when questioned on this point, say that they would include all people who have permanent residency. As the Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre puts it:

Our support for the (Universal Basic Income) UBI has always been on the basis that it should be a basic right of residency, a recognition that we are all stakeholders in society and that a UBI would provide choices and flexibility for people to participate in and contribute to society (1998, p.6).

I share the view that all permanent residents of a country should have an entitlement to a Basic Income and would argue that in a mature democracy in relation to the need for and the right to be provided with a basic income of both citizens and permanent residents are not significantly different.

Ensuring both citizens and permanent residents have a right to a basic income is an act of inclusion, even incorporation. Installing a UBI will be a small step not a panacea for all social ills.  Even if we succeed in putting in place in our country a universal basic income this will only mean the removal of one obstacle (albeit an important one) to introduction of a socially just society.  For as disability activist David Morell (1998), warns “Citizenship is more than ‘inclusion in the community’.” (p.16) He says:

‘inclusion’ in the ‘community’ is not enough. Indeed, the very concept does not make sense. The ‘community’ itself is so full of oppression, separation, exclusion, diverse interests and conflict for many of those who are already ‘included’ in it as to render the uncritical use of the of the concept positively misleading and the pursuit of the goal of inclusion disempowering (p.17).

A Basic Income is just that – an income floor guaranteed to all permanent residents.  For it to be meaningful it has to be set at a level sufficient to ensure everyone sufficient to maintain them above the Henderson poverty line.

Economics of surplus: are we attacking the wrong problem?

It would matter little what level of unemployment existed in Australia if we were able to find a way to provide all permanent residents with a basic income sufficient to sustain them provided we were prepared as individuals and as a society to allow people to define their own social meaning outside the paid workforce and to be willing to recognise others evaluation of their importance to self.  

Perhaps this is a pipe dream in a country where:

  • the Federal Government’s response to the High Court’s exposure of the myth of terra nullius and the Court’s determination that native title and lease holders rights could co-exist but that where the two conflicted the existing rights of leaseholders prevailed, was to remove indigenous people’s rights over property in order to “provide certainty to pastoralists and miners” (in fact to expand the existing property rights of national and transnational owners of capital),
  • the Prime Minister John Howard chose the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week to push through Native Title Amendment Act in the Senate,
  • we participated in an eight year blockade of Iraq – the imposition of sanctions in that country resulted in the death of over 1 million Iraqi children (Arbuthnot 1998, Simons 1998), and connived with the Indonesian dictatorship in the subjugation of East Timor for 23 years,
  • we seem more intent upon negotiating Multinational Agreement on Investment (MAI) treaty (DEETYA 1998 p.10)than in meeting the United Nations foreign aid targets so as to help assist the 1,000 million people living on the brink of starvation,
  • the nursing home user pays regime which the Government imposed on frail aged Australians undermined the confidence of the majority of the elderly (Macklin 1998),
  • we display an uncaring attitude towards fellow Australians experiencing disadvantage and disability, and
  • we denigrate people excluded from paid employment reinforcing the impression that we as a nation are oblivious to the suffering of our less advantaged comrades.

If we are to build an alternative way of relating to our fellow citizens then we will need to jettison much of the economic rationalist ideas which now clutter our intellectual saddle bags.

Stripped of its finery economics is about how we exchange our surpluses, whereas as a science it has somehow been transformed into an economics of scarcity where everything is expressed in monetary terms. …We have created the shadow of scarcity, the polar shadow of which is greed. This is fuelled by  the dominant world paradigm based on rationality and self-interest. … Fortunately we are not always rational and will cooperate when we really come to know and trust each other and have the power and resources to implement solutions. This is the foundation to an economics of abundance – of labour, goodwill and renewable resources (Fricker 1998, p.1).

The last part of this paper will examine the obstacles to the development of such trust.

The bludgers wouldn’t work in an iron lung

The most frequent response I have encountered when discussing the introduction of a Basic Income with people who have not thought a lot about Australia’s system of income support is: “If everyone could get ‘the dole’ for doing nothing then none of the bludgers would work they’d just go and lie in the sun on Surfers Paradise beach.”and when I ask: “Why do you think that?”  They say “Well I wouldn’t go to work if I could get away with it.”  Usually when pushed on this response people say that they’re bored with the work they are doing and would like to have time to write, read, do further study, spend more time with the family, do more interesting work or that they just need a break.  But at the moment, they are working too hard or doing too much unpaid overtime (which they claim they to need to do either to keep their job or to do their job well).  If pushed further many admit that going to work provides meaning in their lives and that they work, for reasons in addition to economic necessity. They may even agree they couldn’t manage anything like their current standard of living on an income at the Henderson poverty line and would work to maintain their  current consumption level.  Some accept that in large part their identity is tied to their conception of themselves as someone who works, who produces, who contributes to the society and even to the type of work that they do.  Almost invariably, when they reach that point of analysis, they revert to their first statement “Yeah, I’d still work but if you had a Basic Income in place, we’d be overrun with dole bludgers and very soon there’d be hardly anyone working and the whole society would be bankrupted.”

The issue of work withdrawal and affordability has been debated ad nauseam and there is no compelling evidence to support the assertion that people provided with a UBI would desert work in droves. (See NZUBI Web Site, Van Parijis 1992, VCOSS and Good Shepherd 1995, Tomlinson 1989, Ch. 3, 1991, Watts 1995, contra Pixley 1993).  Nor is there any evidence that a UBI is unaffordable (Rankin 1998, VCOSS and Good Shepherd 1995).  There is an  abundance of  contrary evidence to the assertion that if a UBI were in place then people would leave work in large numbers and that a UBI would be unaffordable. The interesting feature is the resilience of such beliefs.

An explanation

The most compelling explanation of the resilience of these myths is that it is our failure to trust ourselves which in turn leaves us unable to trust others.  Our reluctance to trust ourselves or to trust others to continue to contribute to the society derives from a central conservative ideological position which conceives of humans as inherently imperfect.  The belief in the flawed nature of humans derives from either the concept of original sin or from the belief that though we might start off life without blemish on our journey we become corrupted -as we are sinned against we learn to sin.  Robert Theobald (1998) suggests that “Today we are largely driven by a belief in original sin; we feel that most people, most of the time will behave destructively unless constrained by coercive power” (p.1).

The lack of optimism about fellow humans found in the ranks of those who oppose the introduction of a UBI, their conservatism, their need to blame and coerce the least affluent / advantaged, their denigration of the very people from whom they extract surplus capital and the those who constitute the reserve army of labour, is only matched by their fervent desire to exploit to the maximum the environment and their fellow humans for individual gain (Tomlinson & Lincoln 1995).  The exploitative belief structure which seems to be driving both economic rationalist and anti-UBI agendas is a unique, sometimes contradictory, blend of classical conservative and market liberal thought.  It takes unto itself beliefs in the sanctity of privately owned property yet can legislate to abolish indigenous people’s property rights (Native Title Amendment Act 1998).

The Benthamite principle of greatest good for the greatest number is supposedly arrived at as the end result of intense individualised competition. Liberty is, for economic rationalists, a freedom from restraint. Freed even from the restraint of tradition, good form or the ‘common good’. The promotion of the individual’s right to exploit, which economic rationalists define as freedom, reduces the ‘common good’ to the end results of trickling down prosperity – a urinary  rather than a unified economic theory.

The promotion of ‘self provision’ over collective provision suits those with the capacity to provide for themselves but is a statement of intending neglect of those unable to afford to provide for themselves. Beyond this basic criticism of self provision several writers (ACTCOSS 1991, Pha 1992, ACOSS 1998)have pointed out that many of those who are allegedly providing for themselves are quite wealthy individuals who receive a considerable subsidy from the state. The better off superannuates receive far greater assistance from the state than do pensioners.

The very Governments (of the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia) who are flirting with an international treaty to guarantee international capital (MAI) protection are those engaged in removing existing rights of workers and welfare beneficiaries.  They want industrial relations deregulated but want to maintain the highly regulated modes of distribution.

The adoption of economic rationalism and globalisation with its associated downsizing and job exportation, its user pays and self provision, its denial of citizenship (exemplified in Maggie Thatcher’s “There’s no such thing as Society” statement) coupled with the plunder by transnational corporations of the third world’s labour and ecological resources constitutes this celebration of extreme individualism.  All of this goes under the name of world best practice. In the Australian context world’s best practice means:

  • cheapest: accomplished by non-unionised labour, long (12 hour) shifts, lack of environmental protection, gutting of award conditions, unsafe work sites-all of which add to the increased likelihood  work place injuries, that is industrial murder,
  • deregulation,
  • competition,
  • individualised contracts,
  • low paid, casual / insecure of employment, in a word in immiseration.

There is an alternative and that alternative starts with the introduction of a Universal Basic Income.


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