At the World Government Summit 2017 Elon Musk declared that the global economy will eventually move towards adopting the “universal basic income”. He stressed that the struggle would then not be to earn a living but to find meaning in one’s life.
Universal Basic Income refers to a substantive amount of money given periodically to everybody regardless of their work status. Or simply put, free money for everyone, no strings attached.
Even though the concept of Universal Basic Income has been abuzz recently, the concept itself is quite old. The roots of the basic income can be found in early 16th century, where Thomas More (1516) suggested it as a better cure for crime than punishment.The debate on Universal Basic Income has attracted a wide variety of people, ranging from economists and political thinkers to feminists and philosophers. Amongst the diverse supporters of Universal Basic Income was also Martin Luther King Jr.,he believed that the government’s approach to solving poverty had been indirect and a more effective solution would be to grant each American a ‘guaranteed income’, which they can spend as per their needs, like education, housing, food etc.
However, the recent and strongest push towards realising a Universal Basic income has come from Silicon Valley, from tech entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Some like Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar have even funded their own Universal Basic Income programmes.
As we get closer to automation UBI becomes even more relevant. The number of robots in workplaces is increasing exponentially as their installation costs are reducing. The developing countries are at a greater risk, it is estimated that 69% of all jobs in India, 77% in China and 80% in Nepal are at risk of completely being replaced by robots.
In the coming decades, 57% of existing jobs around the world will be non-existent for humans.
Such mass unemployment in a relatively short period could spell doom for the global economy, as incomes fall and demand for goods decreases, along with rising crime and wide economic disparity. The dream of a techno-utopian society that silicon valley has presented us with might soon turn into a hellish nightmare.
This realisation has led the Silicon Valley to take this 16th-century seemingly improbable idea and turn it into algorithms to make it a reality.
Yet we must question the motives of the people behind this recent rush towards UBI, as Vice’s Nathan Schneider points out:
“A basic income designed by venture capitalists in Silicon Valley is more likely to reinforce their power than to strengthen the poor. But a basic income arrived at through the vision and the struggle of those who need it most would help ensure that it meets their needs first. If we’re looking for a way through the robot apocalypse, we can do better than turn to the people who are causing it.”
The pilot projects of Basic Income in India has shown promising results.Villages spent more on food and healthcare, children’s school performance improved in 68 percent of families, time spent in school nearly tripled, personal savings tripled, and new business startups doubled.
Whether it was to combat poverty or crime and now mass unemployment, the idea of Universal Basic Income has always found a voice in prominent leaders and the general population alike. But for the first time in human history, we’ve come this close to implementing an idea which might radically change our goals both at a societal and individual level. As Fox Piven suggested that an income guarantee will free us from the “tyranny of wage slavery” and allow the development of new talents and unbound expression of creativity. Sciences and Arts which till now did not offer strong financial rewards will be able to flourish. We may very well be at the beginning of a second renaissance.
The real struggle then, the struggle to find meaning, not just individually but as a species will then begin.