No more “deserving” vs. “undeserving”: why we need a guaranteed basic income (and a parallel to intuitive eating)

farm with ducks and chickens and barn in background

What would you do, if you could do anything? I have a few ideas…

David Graeber (of “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” fame) has a great interview on PBS about the need for a guaranteed basic income to replace our current system of complex, dehumanizing bureaucracies. He says:

The problem is that we have this gigantic apparatus that presumes to tell people who’s worthy, who’s not, what people should be doing, what they shouldn’t. They’re all about assessing value, but in fact, the whole system fell apart in 2008 because nobody really knows how to do it. We don’t really know how to assess the value of people’s work, of people’s contributions, of people themselves, and philosophically, that makes sense; there is no easy way to do it. So the best thing to do is just to say, alright, everyone go out and you decide for yourselves.

I agree, so hard, with his critique of bureaucracy. From personal experience with unemployment benefits, I can tell you it’s a little bit soul-crushing to have to keep proving, week after week, that you’ve done enough job-hunting to deserve to pay your rent; and that’s just the tip of the government-benefits iceberg. There are so many poor and working-poor people for whom navigating the bureaucracies of food stamps, housing assistance, heating assistance, welfare, etc. is a full-time job of its own. See, for example, this piece about the ridiculous, invasive, confusing hoops that food stamp recipients have to jump through in order to eat.

Let me be clear: right now, while there is no alternative, we need those bureaucracies. We need to defend them against attacks from the Right, and push to expand them when possible. Right now, food stamps keep people from starving.

But in the big picture, in the long term, we can do better. I envision a society in which a guaranteed basic income is considered a right. I envision a society in which no one has to justify themselves, a society that doesn’t divide people into “deserving” and “undeserving”–a society that doesn’t make people jump through hoops for their basic human rights. A society that recognizes that, by virtue of being alive, everyone deserves enough money to live. (For what it’s worth, there’s plenty of empirical evidence that giving money directly to poor people decreases poverty and has other positive effects.)

Such a system would free people to follow their passions, whatever those are. Graeber gives the example of a friend who was a talented musician, but gave up music and became a corporate lawyer in order to make a living. If we had a guaranteed minimum income, society would benefit from his friend’s musical talent, just like it benefited from the Beatles and other bands that formed while their members were on public assistance:

Why are there no amazing new bands in England anymore? Ever since the ’60s, it used to be every five, 10 years, we’d see an incredible band. I asked a lot of friends of mine, well, what happened? And they all said, well they got rid of the dole. All those guys were on the dole. Actually in Cockney rhyming slang, the word for dole is rock and roll — as in, “oh yeah, he’s on the rock and roll.” All rock bands started on public relief.

dahlias and sunflowers in white buckets at farmer's market

Graeber also addresses a common criticism of guaranteed basic incomes, the idea that without being forced to work to survive, people will just sit around all day. He gives the examples of prisoners, who often work even though their basic needs are provided for, and concludes:

So the first misconception we have is this idea that people are just lazy, and if they’re given a certain amount of minimal income, they just won’t do anything. Probably there’s a few people like that, but for the vast majority, it will free them to do the kind of work that they think is meaningful. The question is, are most people smart enough to know what they have to contribute to the world? I think most of them are.

This is where I see a parallel to intuitive eating (IE). I’ve read so many stories of of people who tried IE after years of dieting. When they first stop restricting, they often eat a ton of previously forbidden “junk” food, or just get overwhelmed and have a hard time figuring out what they want to eat. But over time, they learn how to listen to their bodies’ signals, and find that they want to eat a diverse variety of foods–sometimes, even traditional “diet” foods like salad or cottage cheese. IE doesn’t work for everyone, especially people with medical issues that require a restrictive diet and people who can’t afford to eat whatever their bodies want, but this story is such a common one.

I think it would be the same way with work. When freed from tedious, meaningless, exhausting jobs, people might at first sit on the couch all day–because they’re burned out and need to recover, because they’re so overwhelmed by suddenly having the freedom to follow their passions after years of burying them. (I can’t even imagine the peace of mind, the profound freedom of knowing that I could do whatever I wanted…actually, I try not to imagine it too often.)

But the vast majority of people want to be productive, to contribute to society in one way or another. And people who spend their first few weeks or months of freedom sitting on the couch, binging on Netflix would eventually reconnect with their desire to be useful. They might start a band, or teach sex ed, or grow a permaculture garden, or go WWOOFing, or study urban planning, nursing, art therapy, aerial acrobatics, cooking…

There is so much work the world needs, and so many types of fulfilling work that people could do if they weren’t limited by the need to make wages to survive.

solar panels next to a muddy stream on a farm

Graeber also makes an important point about the unexpected nature of scientific and other breakthroughs, which would be encouraged by a basic income:

The other point we need to stress is that we can’t tell in advance who really can contribute what. We’re always surprised when we leave people to their own devices. I think one reason why we don’t have any of the major scientific breakthroughs that we used to have for much of the 19th and 20th centuries is because we have this system where everybody has to prove they already know what they’re going to create in this incredibly bureaucratized system.

…So they have to get the grant, and prove that this would lead to this, but in fact, almost all the major breakthroughs are unexpected. It used to be we’d get bright people and just let them do whatever they want, and then suddenly, we’ve got the light bulb. Nowadays we don’t get breakthroughs like that because everybody’s got to spend all their time filling out paperwork. It’s that kind of paperwork that we’d be effectively getting rid of, the equivalent of that.

This deserves a whole bunch of neon flashing arrow signs. If we gave everyone the money and freedom to follow their interests, who knows who might come up with a cure for cancer?

We–both as individuals and as a society–would benefit immensely from giving everyone enough money to live, and letting people do what they will. It’s time to start talking about it.


10 thoughts on “No more “deserving” vs. “undeserving”: why we need a guaranteed basic income (and a parallel to intuitive eating)

  1. Back in the 60s, the Canadian government experimented with guaranteed income. They found that when left to their own devices, only a small subset of the sample population opted to “do nothing.” Most people were still productive, by choice.

  2. I’m with you…I wish this was how we treated people in this country. It also made me think of how much I gave up to follow my dream and do what I wanted. And now I fear I’m not doing as much with it as I could. Thank you for giving me something to think about.

  3. Interesting… personally though, I’m one of those people who definitely NEEDS external motivation to do productive things.

    I’m glad I have to jump through hoops to get assistance, because that motivates me to eventually not need to anymore.

    In the meantime, I do spend way too much time doing nothing, and feeling terrible about it. I can’t wait until I can get a job again; I really hate not having one, and it has nothing to do with income in my case. I lack the motivation and ability to structure my own time without someone telling me I HAVE to, rewarding me when I do and punishing me when I don’t.

    Intuitive eating, likewise, doesn’t work for me either. I need structure and rules to survive and thrive.

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  5. I’ve been advocating guaranteed basic income since I was a kid in the 1980s. Amazingly, it was also advocated by famous right-winger Milton Friedman! (And ignored by all his followers.) The question is how to convince enough people to actually support it, in order to get it implemented. It seems like people should support it, but too many people don’t…

    My fiancee blames the Puritans. She says that Puritan ideas about reward and punishment and the idea that constant, brutal fieldwork was somehow “morally uplifting” infect our culture and cause people to vote to make other people (or even themselves!) slave-or-starve.

    • Oh, that’s awesome that you’ve been advocating it since you were a kid! Hopefully people will finally listen to you. 😉 I think your fiancee is right that the American Puritan work ethic would make it really hard to convince people to support it…I don’t know how to get around that.

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