Progressives and the guaranteed income debate

In the current rush to experiment with guaranteed livable incomes, let’s not forget the hard won battles to decommodify certain things we value like health care.

A person in need looks through a public fridge for food in the middle of a winter day.
Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash.

Seldom does a social policy idea make headlines for weeks. 

But such has been the case, as both the Ontario and federal governments made modest commitments to explore or pilot guaranteed minimum incomes (GMI), sometimes known as a guaranteed annual income or basic income.

Debating the merits of a GMI, like any policy, is important. It is made more so because at this point in time, what a GMI actually is, and what socio-economic aims it is intended to achieve, vary wildly depending on who is advocating for it.

The GMI is conceptualized very differently by free market libertarians, for example, than it is by anti-poverty activists of the Left. And it would look much different in design in either of these groups hands.  

While there must be rigorous discussion of the mechanics and specifics of a GMI, at this point in the nascent public discussion, a critical, perhaps more philosophical engagement, with the concept is warranted.

An onus on progressives

There is certainly reason to be excited about a GMI. The obvious, for those of us on the social democratic Left, is its potential to combat the brutalizing effects of poverty and the social determinants of health. Guaranteeing a minimum income for everyone would speak volumes about us as a society and our commitment to one another’s wellbeing.

Moreover, a GMI has the radical potential to wrestle us out of our slumber and challenge some of the underpinnings of the neo-liberal thinking that holds so much sway today. It is a potential antidote to what the economic historian Karl Polanyi described as our dangerous move from a “market economy” to a “market society”, whereby everything is viewed through an economistic lens.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor warned about the creeping primacy of “instrumental reason”. The kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio, is this ubiquitous rationality’s measure of success.

Taylor points to the ways that demands for economic growth, for example, are used to justify very unequal distributions of wealth and income, or the way these demands make us insensitive to the needs of the environment.The very notion that everyone is entitled to a baseline income to meet their basic needs would seem to cut against this paradigm. 

There are reasons, however, for progressives to be skeptical of the idea and the movement building behind it.

The push for a GMI is not necessarily progressive. Indeed, it could be used both to smash what’s left of the progressive state and further entrench a hyper-individualism that spurns the richness of community and public programs, and blunts the potential for the kind of collective projects social democrats see as so valuable.

There is a reason many of the GMI’s most ardent proponents come from the right, both free-market libertarians like Milton Freedman and Frederic Hayek and conservative communitarians like Canada’s own Hugh Segal. 

As this piece will argue, should progressive movement actors continue to focus on the GMI as a rallying point, they should think from the very outset about advocating for a GMI and, or GMI plus. That means conceiving of a GMI as one tool in the took kit; recognizing that it is not sufficient in and of itself.

For progressives, a GMI must be coupled with the strengthening of other elements of the progressive state.

Why the GMI is an attractive idea

If one cares about tackling the scourge of poverty, the GMI deserves serious consideration. 

Our current welfare systems provide meagre and stigmatizing benefits that leave recipients well below the poverty line. They also create what is known as a “welfare wall” since recipients lose their benefits almost entirely if they take a job, even a low paid or insecure one.

Providing a no-strings attached income that provides meaningful income security to recipients would provide dignity, not to mention the essentials of adequate food, clothing and improved access to housing.

What is so compelling about the GMI idea, however, is something additional. It is its ability to get us to see and think differently about work; about what we value, what we aspire to, and ultimately how we spend our days. 

A GMI exposes harmful elements of how “work” is understood and practiced today; elements we take for granted as natural, status quo, an unchallenged background we seldom question. 

Many reading this would likely agree that there is a worrisome culture in our society around work. Around being busy. Around doing and doing, irrespective of the ends and impacts whether social, ecological or what have you.

By eliminating the imperative to secure paid work to meet the material basics for life, a GMI would change how we think about and actually pursue paid work. It could eliminate the pressure to take jobs just to make ends meet and consequently allow people to make freer choices about what they want to do and towards what ends.

Rethinking work and creativity

Earlier, I referenced the economic historian Karl Polanyi. One of his key insights into the contradictions of unfettered free-markets was what he called the “fictitious commodities.” Here he meant that economics treats land (or the natural environment), money and labour just the same as other inputs. That is, as mere commodities.

Of course, human beings are not commodities. That we are is a fiction. “Labour” are human beings that need to eat, sleep and, I would argue, learn, flourish, sing, dance, love etc…

We are not just workers.

And the idea of GMI lays this strangely obscured reality bare. It reminds us of our humanity and of the absurdity of the “instrumental reasoning” that underpins so much economic activity and consequently so much paid work

This brings me to the idea of creativity. 

Because the GMI takes away the need for someone to enter the labour market and take a job they have no interest in, merely to make ends meet, it might instead provide time and space for people to rededicate their creative energies, whether it be to volunteering or to child care or to making music, or whatever. Maybe even granting the time to think about and build a resume, and explore the kind of paid work they do want to engage in without the nagging anxiety of bills, or debt payments, or how they will make rent.

I think here of my many friends who are musicians or artists and are forced to work in service industry jobs in order to pay rent, when they could be putting their productive capacities towards their art form. I wager readers can conjure moments in their own lives where they took a job they didn’t want out of pure necessity.

I think of how many people I know would leave their jobs in certain low-paid and degrading work tomorrow if they knew they could meet their baseline needs through a GMI. In fact, it raises interesting questions around unintended consequences: would a GMI disincent work? Would it lead to inflation? Would it lead to higher wages in the service and other low-paid industries as employers try to attract workers that no longer need to take the job? 

Without a healthy minimum wage, it would seem to allow employers off the hook to suppress wages and have the public pick up the tab. Furthermore, one has to wonder if we’d see a trend towards more migrant labourers to fill “unwanted” jobs, and an expansion of the disturbing second class citizenship or non-citizenship we deprive many temporary foreign workers of today.

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But they need to be asked up front, and progressives need to have well-founded and convincing answers to them if we are to push for a GMI.

Beyond individual choice

While the GMI is compelling, and has the radical potential to challenge some of the worst aspects of the narrowly economistic thinking that prevails today, progressives must confront that it could be taken in a decidedly non-progressive direction and with ruinous consequences.

The Left must understand that it could be used by the Right and even by “Third Way progressives” to hack and bash away at welfare state and other public programs. It could be a ruse to attack what both these groups see as a meddling, bloated and ineffective state. 

Fuelling this fear is that the GMI seems to rest on the problematic idea of the primacy in all instances of individual choice, specifically our choices in the “market”.

What do I mean? I mean that the concept of giving a cheque to everyone could reinforce the kind of hyper-individualism that most progressive proponents of the idea see it as fighting in the first place. It could further fortify our atomization and the pervasive ‘to each their own’ morality.

Once the money transfer is made, everyone is on their own to fend for themselves. Society has done its part, people will choose what to do with the money. Responsibility to one another stops and starts there. 

To go back to Charles Taylor, he captures an element of the troubling rise of our individualist culture in his famous Massey Lecture on the Malaise of Modernity. Many people these days experience a sort of malaise in modern life. A sense of decline perhaps, a lack of richness or fullness, the spectre of pressing existential questions and a dearth of meaningful beliefs to lean on.

Freeing up one’s time to put towards other pursuits besides wage labour might well relieve this malaise. But not if it means rolling back or not scaling up those things we do together as a community. Not if it means our commitment to one another and to an inclusive, pluralistic society where everyone has the means to thrive stops and starts at a monthly cheque. 

In the current rush to experiment with GMIs, let’s not forget the hard won battles to decommodify certain things we value like health care. There was good reason to take the provision of health services out of the market and there remains good reason to doubt that merely providing cash transfers to everyone is adequate as a social safety net. 

Ongoing fights to protect all those in the labour market will also continue to matter. We need strong unions, fair benefits and working conditions for all. We need government administered programs like the CPP that ensure a defined benefit public pension at retirement, and accessible employment insurance. 

GMI or not, Canada desperately needs a national child care program. (One can see how easily a GMI could be used in service of troubling social conservative designs to incentivize women to stay home and out of the labour force). We also need national pharmacare and robust investment in other public services — community programs like support for mental health and drug addiction that a GMI will not, cannot, and should not be conceived of as a solution to.

What I am trying to get across here is that the GMI must be the baseline. Not some silver bullet solution. We cannot lose sight of other pressing social policy needs, nor provide a handy opening for more of our social architecture to be dismantled.

Whatever the result of GMI pilots, public provision remains essential to a just, equal and thriving society.

Sign up for Perspectives

Perspectives is a Canadian journal of political economy and strategy by the Broadbent Institute. Sign up today to receive the latest analysis for building a just and equitable society.

Note: you will receive occasional messages from the Broadbent Institute
Opt in to all news from the Broadbent Institute
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.