Automation Is Not a Justification For Universal Basic Income

Hand-wringing opinion pieces on the rise of automation and its impact on minimum-wage jobs have become vogue online. News articles about automated check-out lines, touch-screen fast-food menus, and computer-controlled cars are inevitably followed by editorials predicting an impending collapse of society as workers are replaced by circuits boards and algorithms whose only cost is a monthly electrical bill, and who never sleep or need a vacation.

These authors immediately and without fail give their game away by insisting that this is a problem that can only be solved by imposing a Universal Basic Income, mandating that the government take money from a small segment of the population and distribute it more fairly amongst the entire population.

This is marxism.

Given the historical record and moral repugnance of communism, socialism, and marxism (as these ideas routinely follow each other around), the only thing more shameful than calling for marxism is fear-mongering and feigning concern for one`s fellow man in order to do so. Authors who use advances in technology as evidence for their necessity are as short-sighted and ignorant of human nature as communists, socialists, and marxists have ever been.

Jobs are not an artificially limited resource in finite supply, and subtracting those jobs that can be performed by machinery from the current total does not leave humanity with a permanently lessened sum. Jobs are any activity a person can perform to produce a good or service in exchange for goods or services provided by other people. Jobs are potentially as infinite as human wants and needs, and limited only by our ability to imagine new ways to help and serve eachother, to improve eachother’s lives. So long as humans have the ability to act, they will find goods or services to offer that technology can’t replace. Actors, hair stylists, journalists, all provide services that at one point in history humans didn’t even know they wanted, and to assume that we have achieved the totality of all services that we will ever want is laughable.

Humans adapt to change. This is the same fact ignored by proponents of minimum wages, price regulations, or government subsidies. If an employee costs more to hire, a business owner will adapt by firing employees to reduce costs or raising prices to increase earnings. If a service such as education is made cheaper by government subsidies, institutions like universities can quickly raise the cost without reducing sales, as the difference in cost isn’t absorbed by the customer. Similarly, if a person loses their job to obsolescence of any kind, they quickly adapt to find a new job. This may require learning a new skill-set, working in a different industry, or providing a good or service to the world that has never been explored before, but humans do not sit motionless, waiting for a mystical body to dole out work like rations in a food line.

Technological change is nothing new, and history has seen new technologies supersede entire industries before. There is far less demand today for chimney sweeps and farriers due to electric heating and the automobile, but the demand for electricians and mechanics has grown in proportion. The new jobs that arose are in place of the old are far safer and more comfortable for those who perform them, and the humanity is far better off for the change. The savings incurred in placing robots into the workforce has and will continue to allow companies to undercut each other’s prices, as lowering the cost of production allows for lowering the price of their products, motivated by market competition. The cost of living has and will continue to fall as a result of technological advances, and as this drops consumers are left with more money to spend, and new industries arise to take advantage. Interior decorators and wedding planners would seem ludicrous extravagances back when a solid meal required an entire day’s hard labour, but are now viable careers in an age of plenty.

That the kind of tasks in which robots and automation excel; menial, repetitive, and back-breaking tasks, can and will be replaced by something other than a human is a fact to be celebrated. There is nobility in every kind of work, as every job by definition benefits society, but if less human capital is spent on necessary but monotonous tasks,  countless hours of human life are freed to be spent on tasks better suited to human creativity. If a job can be performed better and more cheaply by a robot than a person, bless the person for doing that job until now, and bless the creator of the robot for making that job obsolete. That the miracle of human ingenuity would be used as justification for the type slavery imposed by marxism would be ridiculous were it not so horrendous.

Occupy Oceania

The ‘Occupy’ protests of late 2011 gave the world many gifts, from delightful up-twinkles and rockin’ drum circles to the creepy cult-like chanting of human microphones. Though the tents have long since been discarded and the cardboard and sharpie placards recycled, the memories linger. Out of months of news stories and heated debate, perhaps the most persistent trope to emerge and haunt us to this day is that of the divide between the 1% and the 99%.

The concept of the 1% grew out of a Vanity Fair article published in the spring of 2011. ‘1% of the people’, wrote Joseph E Stiglitz, ‘take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income.’ From this rather banal drawing of an arbitrary line through an ascending list grew a drumbeat amongst protestors that ‘the 1%’ were a unified entity to be feared and resented. Far from being an arbitrarily chosen group of people sharing only a single attribute, the 1% were a malicious lot, responsible for all manner of evils that plague the world still. Once a certain threshold of wealth was achieved, it seemed, a person would ascend out of the quagmire of noble poverty in which ‘the 99%’ were forced to wallow, and join the hallowed and secretive ranks of the wealthy. (Every time 100 babies are born, is a new member allowed in? If some lucky person wins the lottery, do those on the list below get shuffled down? Is the member on the lowest rung, who suddenly finds himself only in the top 1.000001% kicked back out into the barren wasteland of ‘the 99%’?)

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I didn’t use this image without permission. I ‘occupied’ it. That said, can we agree that cannibalism is wrong?

The 1% were a vague, nebulous enemy, and therefore perfect scapegoats. All manner of evil characteristics were attributed to them. As wealth implies greed, greed implies callousness and a lack of caring for one’s fellow man. Success, it is reasoned, can only come at the expense of all those who rank below them on the ordered list that exists only in the imagination of the mob. The wealthy must be evil, having committed the sin of possessing wealth.

It is obviously ludicrous to cast ‘the 1%’ as a unified, organized group. In any data set there will always be 1% of the total that lies above the rest on some scale. 1% of the population makes some proportion of income compared to the remainder 99%. So does 2%. Or 7%. 17% Or 0.0065%. Why choose 1% as the crucial divide? Why even limit the pool to North Americans (Although including the rest of the world would place a sizeable chunk of the entire continent of North American solidly in the 1%)? There’s nothing magic or significant about the notion that income exists on a scale, and the only reason that 1% was chosen for the Occupy Wall St rallying cry was that it’s an enticingly simple statistic, something crucial when firing up a mob.

The chant of ‘We are the 99%’ is seductive not just for its catchy rhythm and militant tempo, but because it assures the chant-er that they are on the side of good, and part of a larger group. A group made up of 99% of the population is so inclusive as to be virtually meaningless, but this too is part of the siren call. Because the definition of ‘1%’ and ’99%’ are so precise in number but vague in meaning, anyone can convince themselves that someone, somewhere, must be in the group above them, which safely pushes them into the virtuous 99% below. Therefore everyone can claim membership in the side of good. There’s no nagging doubt that they might be on the wrong side, because there will always be someone better off somewhere, to play the role of villain.

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Think there are 100 people in this picture? Could get awkward for one of them…

The irony is that ‘the 99%’ portray themselves as the underdogs, a disadvantaged minority, while having enough clout in a democracy to push through any manner of public policy they want, regardless of its morality or virtue. This is a windfall for politicians, as ‘income inequality’ is a completely invented problem that will never be ‘solved’, but is easy to sell to voters. People will always make different amounts of money, and resent those who make more. Income inequality is a persistent malady that can only be addressed through government intervention, usually in the form of a new tax. It would seem that politicians have yet to discover a problem for which the solution isn’t a new tax or regulation.

Five years later, this catchphrase is still regularly trotted out, and because it’s become so common, we’ve forgotten to question it. Be wary of any political platform which references ‘the 1%’. Dividing the world into ‘Us vs Them’ is old political hat, propaganda that has been used for centuries. The 99% vs 1% angle is a hip new spin for the 21st century, but as despicable as the practice has always been.

Rachel Notley’s Social Tinkering

Premiere and leader of Alberta’s New Democratic Party Rachel Notley has a peculiarly favourite phrase to use when discussing her government. “We have already embarked upon a budget that is geared to giving us levers that we can pull”, she told Metro News in a December interview reflecting on her party’s progress. Discussing her party’s energy policy with The Globe and Mail in January, she explained that “we need to have as many options, as many levers, at our disposal as we can.”

It would seem that, to Mrs. Notley, the purpose of government is to create and finagle ‘levers’, to wrangle its population as one would an ancient steam engine, tweaking and fine-tuning society’s behaviour with a goal of steering it towards a destination decided upon by those behind the wheel. If the release of carbon dioxide is a bad thing, for example, the government must spare no cost in reducing it. If farmers are at risk of injury, it’s the job of the government to protect them. If a worker is at risk of being replaced while on strike, only the government can save them. The question is never ‘why?’, only ‘how?’.

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In the months since their election, these levers of which Mrs. Notley spoke have taken form in new taxes, new regulations, and new reasons for the government to raid and confiscate private property. Is it coincidence that so many of the world’s ills can be solved only by a more powerful, invasive government?

The belief that the world would be a perfect utopia if only the government had sufficient control over its citizens is central to the NDP, a party which only removed references to socialism from their official constitution 3 years ago, not in response to any change in their core beliefs, but because they realized that it looked bad. The NDP is still a socialist party, they just don’t like to brag about it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy this point in history it should go without saying that socialism doesn’t work, but even in the golden-plained, resource-rich western paradise that is Alberta, there are those who stubbornly fight against logic or reason, and strive, heads held high, towards the miasma of human suffering which socialism produces. The economic collapse of Venezuela is a stark, current example, if any more were needed, of a government that tried to control its populace through regulation and taxation. Neither noble nor effective, this philosophy slowly strangles a population while those who work the knobs insist that just a few more adjustments will solve everything (though they are of course shielded from the effects of their own failed experiments).

Parallels between Alberta and Venezuela are few, but they should not be ignored. Oil-rich and once booming, both found themselves with leaders (with similar views on climate change no less) who underestimated just how much havoc an over-bearing government can wreak. Believing that “only socialism can really create a genuine society“, Hugo Chavez was quick install his own levers, to steer his country towards his imagined utopia, with inevitable and dire consequences. Alberta is now similarly flirting with socialism, placing in power those with the same misguided philosophy  that bankrupted Venezuela. Though the outcome will be depressingly predictable, one hopes it will be delayed long enough for sanity to return to the province.