The case for a basic income for the poor

The case for a basic income for the poor

In 1848, in The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Karl Marx praised capitalism for having created, within a short time of its existence, “…more massive and colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together” and for continuing to advance technological, organisational and scientific systems of producing, thereby, further increasing its capacity to create wealth.

This progress continued and 173 years after The Manifesto, capitalism has created enough wealth to end all want and hunger. Importantly, we need to realise that, these massive productive forces mean that there will be fewer and fewer jobs for humans to perform. And, therefore, that, there is no reason to link incomes to work, because these productive forces create enough wealth for all of us.

We have reached a point in human development where even the poor and the unemployed deserve incomes from states sheerly because they are human and as reward for making the humanity of all of us complete, including the humanity of the wealthy.

Despite availability of wealth in modern society, the majority of humanity suffer poverty, want and hunger. This is because in capitalism, wealth is created by impoverishing many, and denuding them of their dignity; and by plundering natural resources, to the benefit of a few individuals and groups, leading to creation, maintenance and deepening of socio-economic inequality.

For over 500 years now individuals and groups have rejected exploitation of others by some, plundering of earth’s resources to the benefit of a few, and the resulting socio-economic inequality. Instead, they called and worked for establishment of systems that can ensure fairness in the distribution of wealth in human societies.

They have done so not only to secure the material well-being of the poor but, also, to restore the dignity of those, in unequal societies, who lose their humanity as a result of exploitation, poverty and want.
That in majority of societies these calls have not been heeded is attributable to resistance by groups and individuals who derive benefit from inequality while paying lip-service to the human dignity of the poor.

Today, few would argue against doing things differently post-pandemic, including distributing wealth differently. Providing the poor with socio-economic security is possible, given the enormous wealth that capitalism has generated. What makes it difficult is the fact that most of this wealth is property of a handful individuals who resist change.

It is arguable that even Lesotho’s petty-capitalism generates enough wealth to go around. It is seen in the salaries of the ruling elite and the perquisites they give themselves at public expense: international travel and per diems; wasteful expenditure; public funds that are stolen every year; the fact that, a government Minister has more vehicles for personal use, than some hospitals, and some police stations; the number of people each Minister is allowed to place on public payroll; and many others.

These are monies that could be marshalled to provide socio-economic security to Lesotho’s poor against effects of unemployment, Covid-19, and the unregulated prices of food that go up every day.
Lately, a number of societies have experimented with ideas intended to address socio-economic inequalities and thereby restore or maintain human dignity of those afflicted by poverty and want. The most-talked-about experiment is the universal basic income scheme tried in Finland between 2016 and 2018. In the experiment, 2 000 people were given a basic income, regardless of whether they were employed or not.

After the experiment was halted in 2018, some assessments praised it as a success and findings were reported to suggest that contrary to claims by opponents, a basic income did not lower the desire to look for work among unemployed recipients.

People who received the income reported that they were happier and that they experienced improvements in their material, physiological, mental well-being, and sense of dignity.
In other assessments—likely to find favour among our politicians—the experiment was criticised, and described as a failure. Critics claimed that if implemented, a basic income from the state would lead to higher taxes for the wealthy in order to fund basic income for the needy; and that unemployed recipients would have no incentive to look for work.

These critics never tell us what happens to the money that is not paid in tax, and which the wealthy keep. The answer is that it pays for the wasteful and boastful lifestyles of those in whose hands it remains.
Regarding people’s desire to work, no decent human being would be incentivised away from work. Work and working are not God’s punishment, as the Book of Genesis tells us: working is an integral part of what it is to be human.

Under the right circumstances, human beings work not just for income but seeing products of their labour also enhances their well-being.
Even if some individuals would be disinclined to look for work if they received a state’s basic income, there wouldn’t be fairness in using their attitudes to withhold basic income from even those who would work, if work was available. Also, we ought to establish what sort of work would be preferable to individuals who would be disinclined to look for work if they received a state’s basic income.

The now fashionable advice from politicians asking all of us to ‘self-employ’ seems disingenuous when these advisers are themselves occupying public service positions without even a Spaza shop to their name. Many would fail to make a profit from selling a bag of oranges. Businesses of those who self-employ experience difficulties caused by politicians and their governments’ failure to pay services obtained from such businesses.

Dr Motlatsi Thabane

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