Volume 2 Issue 3 Fall 2018

Does Basic Income Assume a Can Opener?

An old joke has a physicist, a chemist, and an economist stranded on a desert island with a can of beans but no tool to open it. While the scientists try to actually forge a tool, the economist proposes they “assume” a can opener. For Alex Gourevitch and Lucas Stanczyk, this is more or less what’s happening in the basic income debate: in economistic fashion proponents assume the existence of a social movement that is already powerful enough to make this massive social policy proposal a reality.1

Gourevitch and Stanczyk pour some much-needed cold water on the “utopian-cum-realist” discussion of basic income. Although I ultimately disagree with central parts of their essay, their contribution to the debate is very much welcome. Refreshingly, it avoids the common trap of the laundry list approach to critique: “Not only do I deplore eating meat on moral grounds, but also steak just tastes bad — plus it’s bad for your health!” Gourevitch and Stanczyk do not bully all the arguments into line; they have one central critique and argue for it persuasively.

The authors emphasize just how expensive a generous version of the policy really would be, and they stress that it requires a powerful coalition to cull the resources to fund it and take us from here to there. Thus, proponents such as myself have it backwards: it is not that basic income would empower people to demand more, but rather, any generous basic income demands resources that presume in advance the existence of a movement to extract them. Proponents assume a can opener. We assume our conclusions. Instead, for Gourevitch and Stanczyk, job one ought to be expanding the social power of poor and working people. And this happens not through social policy, but more or less in the usual way: traditional labor organizing.

My own view is that basic income is roughly about as expensive as Gourevitch and Stanczyk suggest, although I dispute aspects of their rundown of costs and funding. And I also agree that the move towards a generous basic income is something akin to the move towards a genuinely democratic economy, although I see this as a feature, not a bug. Where I disagree strongly is with their imputation of the basic income strategy. I do not see any reason to assume there is some congenital feature among basic income proponents that leads them to embrace an apolitical, ingenuous strategy of simply legislating the thing tomorrow. Gourevitch and Stanczyk criticize a pathway from here to there that is assumed to be a core property of basic income, but in fact, is not. The following remarks will suggest an alternative to the And Voila! theory of basic income achievability that at least I, for one, do not hold.

Here is the core of my disagreement with Gourevitch and Stanczyk: I believe that the political system is not so monolithic and closed as to rule out the empowering effects of social policies that harness the interests of broad social forces. They do seem to believe this and cite Martin Gilens’s work as evidence that American democracy is insulated from the interests of low- and middle-income citizens. Political change for Gourevitch and Stanczyk is a matter of “traditional forms of labor organizing,” just more of it. I read a voluntaristic streak in their model of social change; they doubt that social policy might function as a “stepping stone to more effective labor politics,” and believe the political system is too ossified to implement policies that will provide us a better footing for further social changes.

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