Contra Musk: There are Other Futures Besides a Governmental UBI

by Nick Ford

You’ve likely heard of Elon Musk, he’s a huge venture capitalist who helps run companies such as Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity. Being such a huge name in the tech industry and especially Silicon Valley the things he has to say about the future of…well anything, is likely to garner some attention.

Back in November, Musk stated that:

“There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation,” says Musk to CNBC. “Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen.”

For someone who claims to be a “futurist” I find this vision of the future to be rather limiting and simplistic. If the future is made up of people being able to do what they want, to experiment much more with leisure, to have technology work in synergy with them, what would we need government for? Or, at the very least, wouldn’t we need government oversight of society a lot less than we do now?

My reasoning for this stems from the idea that automation (with the proper safeguards) can lead to an explosion of self-directed learning, playing and creating by both individuals and groups who may not be able to do so otherwise. Those proper safeguards are important (as UBI folks also think) because we need it to survive and (more importantly) flourish if we’re modeling the future on a monetary based economy.

But whereas I think the question of what those “proper safeguards” is a wide open one, folks like Musk (and many others) seem to think it’s an open and shut case. It’s the universal basic income (UBI), right? What else could it be? In this blog post I want to explore a few alternatives and criticize the argument that the UBI (or at least the governmental version) is the solution for the future.

To do that, let’s start with the definition that CNBC provides for us:

In a country with universal basic income, each individual gets a regular check from the government

This is a rather narrow definition of the UBI, admittedly, but it does seem to fit the mainstream definition in practice. Whether it’s from the Swiss, Finland or Canada, the idea that the government should be funding our activities as we move away more and more from jobs we hate, seems to be one of the biggest ideas.

On one hand this makes sense: Who else could fund this sort of large-scale endeavor besides the government? There aren’t many organizations that have as much funding as governments tend to, though how they get that wealth to begin with seems ethically dubious to me. But pushing that aside, what other organizations could help with a UBI within an entire country?

I’m not going to disagree that when it comes to efforts on the national scale that governments are likely the “best” institution we have to engage in such an effort. Which isn’t to say I support it, but more to say that it likely makes more sense than trying to get a multi-national corporation or a small business.

So what organization should do it on the national scale?

As an anarchist, the UBI folks are often coming from the wrong framework. And that makes them ask questions like the above with the presumption that we should have nations. I’m aware that it’s a deeper point and perhaps doesn’t speak as much to our needs now, but I’m also aware that some things are worth perpetuating as little as possible and to me nation-states are one such idea.

When UBI folks in the US talk about giving the US government (you know, the one run by Donald Trump?) the power to control our incomes , I don’t become optimistic about our chances of doing any better than we are right now. The point I want to make here is that we should move away from seeing the UBI as a national and governmental program and instead a community based program that’s voluntary.

And there are several reasons why a national UBI wouldn’t happen anyways.

Besides the fact that Trump has never (to my knowledge) even discussed the UBI, the most attractive feature of the UBI is a huge reduction in the bureaucracy of the federal government. And this feature would eliminate much of the income that government workers currently make from their jobs within the welfare system. It would, at the very least, reduce their own necessity which would ensure heavy lobbying from them and other groups who benefit from the welfare system to dismiss the UBI.

And fighting for any of those things seems wildly counter-intuitive for the federal government much less to discuss in any serious manner or apply on any serious level. Remember unicorn governance and that we need to treat government as a regulatory body made up of people with interests, incentives and conflicts of interests, perhaps many of them.

Keeping that in mind (as well as public choice theory) we can safely assume that the government isn’t likely to (at least on its own) reduce its control over the economy. Now, it’s possible we could use some sort of large-scale movement to support the UBI and propagate belief in it, but I think we can use that energy towards more productive and ethical ends.

Here’s an example of a potentially better idea, that I’ve shared before from writer Chris Shaw:

Outside statist/governmental action, a UBI is still possible.

In cryptocurrencies there are mechanisms built in which encourage the development of a basic income amongst its users. Altruism is developed within tight-knit networks of consumers and producers who use the currency for transacting[8].

In Bitcoin protocols, there exists the ability to “periodically pay dividends to all of its members” through “an opt-in method of efficiently distributing funds free of coercion”[9]. These are based around webs of trust and certification that get recorded on the Blockchain. Such schemes allow for risky entrepreneurial activity in an environment where banks aren’t even lending to conventional small businesses.

There are other models besides this, such as the mutual aid lodges that used to exist in the US as a sort of social insurance for those worse off. There’s no reason why such models couldn’t be extended to other forms of social insurance, say for the rise of automation. Networks of people distributing into collective funds within a given community could likely do a better job distributing the incomes than a national government. Their localized knowledge is much higher and their ability to discern the utility of what income goes where has a much higher chance of being correct than bureaucrats in DC.

Generally, I don’t think the UBI itself is a bad idea. And when I think about having even $1,000 a month for myself, my eyes enlarge and I wonder at what I could do with that money. Even at just making $600 a month I can easily afford rent, afford food and pay for electrolysis and music lessons.

So then I start to imagine what I could do with more…but then there’s also this:

The [Swiss] government estimated the proposal would have cost 208 billion Swiss francs a year, significantly weakened the economy  … Much of the cost could have been covered by existing social security payments, but sharp spending cuts or tax increases would have had to make up a remaining gap of 25 billion.

I seriously doubt that the projections would be so much better for the US, but maybe I’m wrong. I know there’s some UBI FAQs out there and hundreds of different UBI proposals and perhaps there’s one out there that the US could somehow adopt, without either bankrupting themselves, the country or us.

But I’m not optimistic.

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