Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Free Money for Everyone!

When I was younger, one of my mother's favorite admonitions was: "Money doesn't grow on trees." In this article in Dissent Magazine, Sean Butler argues that my mother may have been wrong. Butler supports the institution of a "basic income", which is "money paid by the government to its citizens." "Ideally, this income comes without conditions . . . and is sufficient to provide for basic necessities."

Where does the money come from?

Trees! Well, sort of:
Perhaps the strongest argument for a universal basic income comes not from a claim of utility, but one of rights. This concept is legally enshrined in Article 25 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family . . . ” If this right cannot be met with a job, the thinking goes, it must be met with some form of basic income.

This right is based on what one needs to survive, but there is another approach to rights, based on Paine’s notion of “natural inheritance.” In his essay “Agrarian Justice” he argues that the value of agricultural produce comes partly from the labor of the farmer, but also partly from the land itself. While the farmer is entitled to the value he added to the land by growing crops, he should share the base value of the land, which is the natural birthright of every person. Paine was writing at a time when farming was the main source of wealth, but today, we can apply his principle to many forms of natural and social capital. This “unearned wealth” includes the air, water, land, sunlight, the ecosystem, the ozone layer, mineral resources, and the body of knowledge, infrastructure, and institutions built up by civilizations over the centuries. According to many economists, this common wealth is worth more than the total of private wealth. Whenever it is taken over by private interests—justified by the greater productivity this usually produces—its previous owners, the people, should be compensated. This argument for a right to a share of the common wealth points to a way of funding a basic income.
There's too much here to unpack. For now, I'll just say that I disagree with Mr. Butler's justification for digging his hands into the pockets of the productive.

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