The Wages of Wages

For many years now, I’ve been talking with folks about universal basic income and the need to divorce health care from employment and other ideas to assure that everyone can meet the basic needs of their bodies. Our current system is, shall we say, not working. Most people agree that we need to change things. We need to find a way to alleviate hunger and homelessness. We need an arrangement that guarantees everyone appropriate medical care and assists with elder care and child care. We need to ensure that every body has the necessary time to care for themselves and to develop relationships with others. These are not negotiable needs. Denying them is deadly. Most people understand this.

But then most people turn around and staunchly refuse to consider any potential plans that would make meeting basic needs independent of wages. Even when there is agreement that one’s capacity to earn income is limited by racism and sexism and all manner of cultural inequity, there is still no agreement that humans should maybe not have to rely on this deeply and intolerably unjust system for basic needs. Why is that?

When you talk about universal basic income with most people, there is a very typical reaction. First there is blank confusion. Then, when they grasp that the idea is actually to give everyone money sufficient to pay for a decent living, there is open hostility. Almost always. I find this so very confusing.

I understand that leveling policies like universal basic income will destabilize status and privilege. People feel threatened when their position in life is rendered equal to everyone else’s regardless of previously accepted definitions of merit. Even when they acknowledge that those definitions are based on structural bigotry and in no way actually measure merit, they still seem to believe that granting everyone a baseline level of worth makes everyone, including themselves, less worthy. I understand that industry will have a hard time attracting people to fill the worst sorts of work. Most useless positions will have to die a quiet death, and many necessary but arduous jobs will have to pay much higher wages. Obviously, this reduces both what can be done for wages and the profits made on that labor. Yes, I understand why businesses and privileged groups do not want any guaranteed common welfare, because they see this — perhaps rightly — as undermining their position. 

What I don’t understand is why people who are not employers or in high status groups — those who stand to gain, not lose, from granting everyone basic human rights — are also so reluctant to consider removing welfare from wage dependency. Why is there this almost universal resistance to universal basic income? Why isn’t this something most people want? 

I don’t understand.

And yet there is an even deeper question. Why is our current order ok? Why do we in this culture believe that it is acceptable to base the ability to meet basic human needs on this spurious ability to earn wages? Why is wage earning allowed to be the measure of a life? Why is this incredibly unfair system seen as an ethical arrangement of society? How is it that we’ve turned morality so completely upside-down?

Once again, I understand the roots. Our culture was founded by people with disturbing ideas about worth. They believed that their god had chosen them for paradise and that this divine favor was reflected in earthly success and wealth. Moreover they defined ‘favor’ in terms of material wealth, not to meet needs but that which could be turned to monetary profit — and that which was largely forcibly taken and held from others. In their world, a materially prosperous person was, by definition, a good person. On the other hand, those who were poor and miserable, by their limited definitions of abundance, apparently lacked godly approval. They were stamped with divine opprobrium, presumably because they were bad people. According to this philosophy, a person’s state was always deserved. If chosen, they merited riches; if rejected, they merited poverty. I understand how these ideas would warp any ethical consideration of welfare. What I don’t understand is why anyone who was not a member of this strange cult would accept their illogic. Why, in over four centuries, haven’t we called bullshit on the whole Puritan project!

Yes, it is a measure of just how much messaging the ruling class has put into maintaining their position. But I am not the only one to have noticed that there are discrepancies between dogma and reality. So why continue to believe what we know to be false?

I don’t really expect any answers. However, if there were ever an auspicious time to try to convince other people to at least examine these beliefs, to put some conscious thought into preconceptions, then I think this is it. So much pain, so many disasters are demonstrably grounded in this idea that people do not deserve a basic measure of welfare. Just for starters, if people didn’t have to earn wages to pay for life, there would be a whole lot less destructive activity — like, say, invading the Ukraine — merely because far fewer people will choose to engage in these destructive behaviors if the motivation of wage-earning is removed. And those that do choose will likely demand wages proportional to the risk they are taking on, making things like paying soldiers prohibitively expensive.

So these days I’m trying to talk to more folks more frequently. More often than not, I still get the typical blank stare followed by angry dismissal. But I think I might have breached a few walls… and perhaps, once they get over the effrontery, even those people who are initially hostile might find themselves chewing these things over in the back of their minds. Or that’s usually how erstwhile unacceptable ideas take root anyway. Maybe enough effrontery will eventually start to change how people think… hopefully, before this whole messed up system comes crashing down.

What do you think?

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

Wednesday Discourse

This is the part where you can respond. The rules of engagement: No rudeness. Absolutely nothing foul. Also nothing personal. If you want to talk direct to me, there is the contact page linked on every post. Send me email. I will always respond.

You can also take these ideas “home with you” and mull them over. Journalize about them. Meditate. Talk with your family and friends — and co-workers! These are questions that we all need to answer for ourselves, so that we have something bright and solid to hang on to as we slide into the murk.

Might as well get started.

1 thought on “The Wages of Wages”

  1. This is a very insightful article on UBI. There is a perception that UBI would be an incentive for people not to work. But what should work be for? Work should be for building a better world, not to destroy it. When people realize that they can work to build a better world, rather than just survive, then UBI can become a tool for social and ecological justice.

    Liked by 3 people

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