If a venture capitalist came to you and offered you, say, $20,000 a year, would you take it?
Yesterday, Sam Altman of the renwoned tech accelerator Y Combinator posted an intriguing (and quickly viral) "Request for Research":
We’d like to fund a study on basic income—i.e., giving people enough money to live on with no strings attached. I’ve been intrigued by the idea for a while, and although there’s been a lot of discussion, there’s fairly little data about how it would work.It’s true that we have systems in place to give people resources, but the bureaucracy and qualification requirements make it a very imperfect approximation of what most people mean when talking about a basic income. We have some examples of something close to a basic income in other countries, but we’d like to see how it would work in the US.
This might seem like a bit of a surprise, but it's not coming out of nowhere. A year ago I wrote an article for Vice about "why the tech elite is getting behind basic income," in which I quoted Altman's statement that the idea of basic income is an "obvious conclusion." Silicon Valley's unofficial, for-profit theological think tank, Singularity University, was hosting discussions about it. Universal basic income (or, as Altman seems to be describing here, just basic income) is increasingly popular among techies for a number of reasons, some of them good: It's a simple, elegant way of addressing lots of complex problems, from poverty to the need to enable innovation; it's a way of addressing the worst inequalities caused by sectors like high finance (and tech itself); and when you give people free money they will probably like you (and be less likely to throw rocks at the Google bus).
But, while I was reporting the story for Vice, I started to get troubled by some of the visions tech folks had for the idea. In some cases, people I interviewed seemed most interested in using it as an excuse to strip away the existing social safety net, which they regarded (both rightly and wrongly) as wasteful and ineffective. In others, what they had in mind seemed to resemble a new kind of feudalism, in which the bulk of the population would be dependent on the largesse, and the business models, of a few.
For instance, an influential novella self-published by HowThingsWork.com founder Marshall Brain, Manna, describes a basic-income utopia called the Australia Project. There, a guy named "Eric" colonized huge swaths of the Australian Outback (no mention of Aboriginal peoples, of course) where immigrants could come and live, invent and imagine with his basic income forever. They all share the resources produced by his corporation, and nobody except the corporation owns anything. The means of production are thoroughly centralized; all benefit from the proceeds, sure, but all are dependent on them as well. Tellingly, in Eric's utopia, there is no privacy whatsoever. Everything you do is logged and monitored. There is, inevitably, no crime.
Traces of this utopia are available to us in the technology that venture capitalists have already provided. We get to use Google Docs and Facebook and all the rest for free, provided we're willing to relinquish the rights to our private data, and we permit these monopolies to do what they like with it all. For the sake of something ostensibly free, we accept unknown hidden costs and very little accountability. If an entity like Altman's Y Combinator were to be the source of basic income, we can expect similar trade-offs. The bottom line for such firms, after all, is massive monetary return on investment. Just as many of us are now utterly dependent on Google's supposedly free services, and thus its extractive business model, it is easy to imagine how people receiving $20,000 a year could become that much more dependent on their investor-benefactors.
Lest you think I am opposed to the idea of basic income in general, see my argument for it in a recent print column for America. In fact, I think it is an idea with a lot of potential, but what matters is how such a policy is implemented. Contrast Eric's colonial utopia, for instance, with an approach in line with Catholic distributist thought, in which the means of production are shared broadly across a society, and ordinary people retain control over the levers of the economy. In the context of shared ownership, rather than centralized ownership, basic income becomes a collective responsibility, not a favor bestowed from on high. Silicon Valley's skepticism of old-fashioned government notwithstanding, I think the approches to basic income being considered in countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, where the payouts come through taxation and elected officials, are far more promising.
We should also ask who receives the income, too. Altman's post talks about trying out basic income on a small number of people, but he choses not to employ the often-used term universal basic income. To me, the universal (everyone receives it, whatever it is) should come before the basic (that the sum is sufficient to meet a person's basic needs).
It's exciting to see the idea of basic income being taken more seriously in more quarters. But this is also a vital moment for us to sort out what we really mean by it, and what forms it might take. We should be careful what we wish for, and careful whose patronage we accept.