Minimum Basic Income

A commonly heard argument against the idea of a basic minimum income is that if everyone were given their living without having to work for it, nobody would work and civilization would collapse. Those advancing this argument tend to be members of the ownership class, and no doubt to them it seems reasonable. Why would anyone work if they did not have to for the sake of survival? Fortunately we do not have to speculate. We have a convenient study population who have in fact been given their living (and, in fact, considerably in excess of a basic living, which if the concept were harmful might be presumed to increase the harm.) Moreover we have data going back centuries and across a wide variety of cultures. I am referring to the children of the wealthy classes. 

Do we find that these people tend to sit around and do nothing useful, or pursue lives of dissipation? Some of them, even many, do indeed. Yet virtually all of the discoveries and philosophical theories that led to the Enlightenment, the age of science and the Industrial Revolution were made by people from this class. They were the ones with time and leisure to pursue studies without having to give consideration to earning a living from them. Very few indeed of those who gave their names to systems of measurement (Volt, Ampere, Pascal) or scientific theories (Darwin, Freud) came from the poorer classes. 

The situation is similar with respect to music and the arts. It is much easier to pursue success in these fields when you do not have to work a job after school, and when your parents can afford private lessons and top of the line equipment. My point, though, is not (here at least) to bemoan the unfair advantage the affluent have over everyone else, but rather to illustrate that people in the fortunate position of not having to earn a living do not have a general tendency to sit around and do nothing, and, to the contrary, such people are responsible for most of the advances that have given us, for better or for worse, the world we live in. 

A defender of aristocracies might say that all of this simply indicates the inherent superiority of the upper classes. They made all the great discoveries because they are smarter then the rest of the population. However there is no correlation between wealth and intelligence, and geniuses of all kinds seem to be distributed evenly across the whole population. The plain fact is that enhanced opportunity yields better outcomes.

If some mad experimenter were to secretly take 100 random newborn infants from African refugee camps, and exchange them for 100 random upper middle class American infants, other than perhaps standing out by their skin color each would grow up a more or less typical product of the environment on which they were raised. If even race is not determinative of talent or the ability to lead a useful life, social class or a wealthy background certainly is not.

Neither are natural talent or hard work and application sure roads to success. They certainly help, but the world is full of starving geniuses. The single talent that does enormously enhance the probability of success is the talent for handling money, or what we call business sense. Someone with this particular skill can succeed even without any other skills, but someone lacking it will seldom succeed even if they are otherwise highly skilled.   

The most important factor in determining success in life is opportunity. That opportunity might be the result of having a wealthy family, or it may be some stroke of good fortune, a chance meeting with someone in a position to give a hand up or any of a thousand possible scenarios that might make the difference between success and failure. Someone who does not get such a boost has a much harder time rising up the social scale.

There is every reason to suppose that among the poor and dispossessed of the world are countless Mozarts, Einsteins, Aristotles that will never have the chance even to know their talents, much less use them in the world, and there is every reason to suppose that if everyone in the world had a chance to shine we could usher in a new golden age.