Basic income or job guarantee? A quick philosophical guide for the 99%

In the very moment the pandemic hit, grand political ideas seemed to gain plausibility due to the impact of the socio-economic crisis. Europeans wrote primarily about Basic Income and petitioned for it, whereas in the anglophone world a Job Guarantee gained more publicity. While activists often claim both programs to be incompatible, academics not seldomly ignore the other side. A quick philosophical look shows similarity within difference and in part mutual complementarity – but only if outdated residues of mainstream ideology are controlled and we compare what is comparable.  By Daniel Plenge

Mega Read – Some Minutes

Authentic philosophy is always subversive. (Mario Bunge, 1919-2020)

Booooooom! “Here we go again” they shout in cheesy 90s dance music. It’s also the crowd-shout of modern society, its functional elites and ideological commentators. Every 4 to 7 years on average, it has its next crisis, according to the US-American economist Richard D. Wolff. After a period of what is also called a “boom” the party is over – at least for some.

Then, within sudden drastic changes, either in rhetoric or reality (or both), ideas gain in plausibility and attractiveness which before would have been judged to be outlandish. The prospect now is universal doom.

Within a deep crisis economists and economic advisers throw their textbooks into the rivers and the political class cash in (some) people’s hands. When they themselves or their relatives suddenly stand at the brink of rapid and even existential social decline, even conservatives grab hastily ideas which would have been called “progressive” before, i.e. dangerous, in order to stabilize their standing, perhaps in a downscaled or downright absurd version. They would have voted against them viciously only yesterday.

As Thomas Paine wrote in 1776, “Time makes more Converts than Reason.” If times are unstable, confessions will follow downwind, and those in economic or political power are seldomly affected by the storm.

At the same time, long-time proponents of those ideas triumphantly enter the stage and say that they have always said it. They present old indicators for the public support for those ideas and combine them with new results of emergency surveys that are supposed to show that the support is now overwhelming.

The pattern is simple:

Either many people – millions per country – are in acute need, or they start to anticipate that they may be so almost any day. That there are no guarantees in life may have been sold as a promise of freedom before. Risks make success in ordinary affairs taste more flamboyant – apparently.

Think – as an arbitrary example – of the grotesque pictures of US-Americans, in their caricatural image proud of cowboy-capitalism and its freedom, lining up in their cars to reach a food bank in what is supposedly the richest country in the world, in 2020, while the homeless are forced to socially isolate on parking lots, enclosed within white stripes like cars, vacant hotels being just across the street. Something similar can be found everywhere, it just takes a little longer, as cunning Marxians may repeat.

Long-time proponents can even argue that the implementation of their grand ideas in grand programs would not only instantly dissolve much of the crisis, it would also help prevent grand ruptures the next time. If they are right, it may seem that basic humanism would make the instant realization of their measures obligatory, while also political wisdom would prescribe it with a view into the future. Some may want to argue that this is the route rationality would take. They could ask:

“What if we had such a tool? But we have it, at least at the disposal of our imagination. What’s missing is action.”

We are talking here about Basic Income and a Job Guarantee. Since March 2020 you could read something similar in different places across the political spectrum of the media.

“History is strewn with cases of politicians reacting too late. Here is an opportunity to take sensible action in advance,” wrote Guy Standing in 2017 about Basic Income. After the pandemic hit, Pavlina Tcherneva (2020) wrote that the design of the Job Guarantee is inspired “by the way policy is supposed to respond to pandemics, by prioritizing preparedness and prevention.” Underline “supposed.”

A survey in Europe from 2016 found out that two thirds of the population are in favor of Basic Income. From the USA it is reported that a survey from 2018 showed 78% in favor of a Job Guarantee. Of course, we all know that the first issue is how the questions were framed exactly, and the second that you can find less dramatic numbers dependent on this.

What happens in reality?

Nothing, of course.

The problem with grand scale political ideas is that they may have consequences which are transformative of the whole social order. As a consequence, whatever the cost, their implementation needs to be prevented by those who think this order is the best that ever happened under the heavens, especially within grand crises, which they refuse to see as evidence against their views. Although their implementation would solve the problem, the risk (or certainty) is that they achieve more.

The pattern is simple. The job of those in political or economic power and the commentators in mainstream media is to make people forget about the scale of emergency measures as soon as possible. Whether within crises or ‘normality,’ they prefer piecemeal reforms, turning minor screws a little, over systemic reform, introducing new screws and adjust other knobs.

Emergency measures are needed to save this system from collapse, not to realize new designs or humanist values. They are especially needed to save those higher up the social ladder.

They neither want to change the system (swap it, or change of) nor significant change within (transformation). They argue that the emergency has to end and ‘normality’ to return. Nothing of substance or new is ever really discussed at all. Within fear, desperation or destitution holding the ladder from below again even sounds like a promise. The ideological beat is repetitive mumble of self-assurance, fantasies of good old days, a merely halted path of ‘progress,’ and future unity that is quickly projected into the past.

However, the problem with all grand ideas is the same as in the case of ideas generally: they are unclear to different degrees and in different respects. If there are two grand ideas that compete over supporters, then even enthusiasts tend to either intentionally or unintentionally use this vagueness to attack the other side.

Some proponents, academics or activists, of a Job Guarantee argue that Basic Income in fact is a neoliberal nightmare, deeply rooted in the status quo and its ideological core, while some proponents of Basic Income may return the compliment or argue that a Job Guarantee is a conservative joke. More often than not, proponents ignore the other side completely in making their case, while many on both sides seem to presuppose that they are contradictory.

Although this is understandable and to some degree necessary from an activist’s point of view, such a clash may be counterproductive in killing the host of the established ideologies. Enthusiasts of the status quo use similar lines of criticism rhetorically to suffocate thought. For instance, when some talk about Basic Income came up and reached German federal government after almost a million people are said to have petitioned for it, the neoliberal minister of finance of the obsolete social democrats, responsible for the poverty of millions, mumbled Basic Income would be neoliberal.

As a further result, an outsider and would-be proponent needs to be unsure about what to think or even agitate for. The trouble for enthusiasts is that the support is in fact not overwhelming.

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The problem

Formulated as an opposition between our two contenders only, the fundamental question is pretty simple:

Where, in which society, would you want to live, if contrary to fact you had a say about it (or in it)?

The question lies more in the field of philosophy for the reason that it is generally about the type of society to be preferred. We could frame it more narrowly and start from the perspective of daily politics, sociology or economics, the interests of some group, the way it is usually done. However, if we would do that, we would in the end necessarily end up in the philosophical field.

Here are two potential answers dressed in the usual language of the two grand policies (‘…’ indicates unclarity):

(Basic Income) In a society that guarantees unconditionally to anyone ‘enough income,’ so that everyone can live a ‘basic’ but self-determined and healthy life (above poverty level).

(Job Guarantee) In a society that guarantees unconditionally to anyone a ‘job’ within the ‘public sector,’ so that everyone can earn a life on a ‘decent’ wage (above poverty level) with ‘benefits’ (e.g. healthcare) for the time he/she cannot find him/herself a job within the ‘private sector.’

Last year I was unwittingly made to see such issues in the following way.

Shortly after our son was born, within about 7 or 10 days, he received his first letter, with his name nicely printed on the envelop. He was also addressed with his name in the document, although it was probably suspected that he cannot yet read. It was the state that officially approached that little fellow. What did the state want from him?

It wanted to tell him what it expected from him in the course of his life: of course, to pay taxes and nothing else. As a celebration of life and an introduction into his citizenship he received his tax-ID number. Quite telling.

Proponents of Basic Income or a Job Guarantee could argue that their story should be written down in more romantic versions of such a letter. That’s why they are grand ideas.

Let’s have a quick look!

From the start it should be clear that there isn’t the one Basic Income proposal, and the same holds for a Job Guarantee. As always, there are only many different variants which are impossible to even get hold of. Some stuff I throw out of the box here from the start. It is no problem to design a downright fascist Job Guarantee program – probably in one form or other they have already been tried – or a reactionary Basic Income scheme. The first would, for example, make the participation mandatory for the members of ‘the nation,’ as a duty to serve it, while it would exclude those who supposedly don’t belong to it. In the latter a poverty income would be accompanied by the destruction of all ‚welfare’ or ‘social services,’ just to tranquilize parts of the population and refurbish the ideology of self-reliance.

Are these policies ‘radical’?

If you are looking for radically revolutionary ideas in the sense that they aim at the abolishment of capitalism and its whole political superstructure, you necessarily need to be disappointed here. Both grand ideas presuppose a capitalist economy (and, trivially, its historical inventor, the state). Though proponents may be critical of it, they don’t attack it upfront. Critics of Basic Income and a Job Guarantee may well argue that the grandest idea in the background is to rescue capitalism, that the aim is ‚merely‘ to change the balance of power within it.

Basic Income shall usually be financed via the fruits that are earned in a capitalist ‘market’ system next to nothing is said about, and the Job Guarantee is also a policy to stabilize a capitalist economy. In the literature on both proposals you find arguments that the measures would have as a result economic growth of one kind or other (whatever that exactly means), which is at least by degrowthers taken to be the most central feature of a capitalist economy. The “business cycle” is taken to be an “inevitable” natural law of capitalist economies, which motivates some Job Guarantee and also Basic Income proposals, not the abolishment of that system.

Next to nobody here wants to swap the system, at least openly, though between the lines some play with the thought that by taming the beast, putting it into a cage, and prohibiting that it enters its surrounding enclave, something new might develop therein.

What is the common ground of both ideas?

A view shared is anti-neoliberalism in at least two obvious ways. In both programs the state shall guarantee something, to (almost) all persons, within what is usually called the ‘economic’ realm, which goes beyond traditional ‚welfare.‘ In one case this requires by far more state activity than the neoliberal consensus would ever sanction, in the other it is not necessarily more activity (organization of social action) but a different institutional framing, a change in socially shared expectations.

In ‘libertarian right’ versions of Basic Income the main aim is not only to reduce all state activity to a bare minimum but to destroy next to all expectations of individuals in relation to the systems they are part of. In ‘left libertarian’ versions Basic Income is just one program among as many as are still needed to satisfy some specific need that is believed to be legitimate. The first assumption is that humans share enough equality to institute Basic Income, the second is that they are different in such a way that further needs may need to be satisfied by their society. Note that this is often ignored by generic criticisms of Basic Income, but that it is essentially the same way in proposals of a Job Guarantee.

Another thought shared is an altogether negative evaluation of the status quo of society and its recent history. The picture drawn is one of decline and crisis, not ongoing progress.

However, the differences are also profound. To find them, we need to take a look at both.

What the fuck is the basic idea behind Basic Income?

A ‘basic’ income paid by the state would come on a regular basis, traditionally monthly, would be paid to everyone or next to everyone one resident on the territory of a state, and it would be unconditional.

That it would be unconditional means that (almost) nothing at all is required to receive it, neither in terms of character, behavior, ancestry or origin. There also would be no restrictions on what to do with it. This is different to means testing in classical welfare, where you have to show that you have nothing or that you comply with the morals and worldviews of some bureaucrat and his superiors in order to be granted some symbols you can exchange to survive.

Notoriously, this also means that getting Basic Income is independent of the income a person receives from somewhere else. The richest (wo)men in the country would have the same right to the same Basic Income as the poorest person.

Because of this unconditionality it is usually referred to as “universal.” If it would be strictly universal, it would be paid to everybody living on the territory of a state, not only legal citizens or long-term residents, which is usually required anyhow, so that the term “universal” is dropped. It does, strictly speaking, not apply until humanity is organized in a way that guarantees Basic Income to everyone.

That the income is “basic” means that it doesn’t make anybody rich in a monetary sense, which is a vague idea, and in part subjective. Enthusiasts for Basic Income usually presuppose that a ‘basic’ income is enough to live as an individual, which leaves open what “enough” and “to live” mean. Bare survival is neither the idea nor the ideal (outside of ‘neoliberal’ or ‘right wing’ versions).

In other proposals it could start at any amount whatsoever, although this might not be taken to be the ideal. Because this is a totally different idea which is not comparable with a Job Guarantee at all we forget about it here. The usual claim by critics is that while a small Basic Income could be financed, but would not reach its aims, the enough-version would be unaffordable. This whole problem is also dropped here for today, because the Job Guarantee is backed by the indefinite financial power of the currency issuing government, which, then, also holds for Basic Income.

What is ‘basic’ would also be different relative to the specifics of a country. Unfortunately, authors seldomly commit to numbers.

A small German study starting this year will pay 1200 Euro. If you deduct costs for full public healthcare, you would end up above 1000 Euro. But this could equally well be free. As a comparison: standard student loans for those whose parents are not rich enough to sponsor the costs of living (although university is free), that is for people who usually also live in the most expensive German cities, are at about 850 Euro this year, plus healthcare.

In 2018 and the same country, supposedly one of the richest in the world, every second pension paid less than 800 Euro, around the (official) poverty level for individuals. The average was 1050 Euro. “Basic security benefits for jobseekers,” that is ‘social security’ for those who have run out of unemployment insurance, pays, in 2021, 447 Euro for singles, plus costs for housing and health care. This includes, for example, 154,78 Euro for food and 1,61 Euro for “education” (Bildung).

In proposals I have in mind here, Basic Income is an add-on, not a substitute for all ‘welfare’ or even public activity altogether.

Where there is what the journalist George Monbiot calls “public luxury” – livable cities, great parks, museums, libraries, playgrounds, sport facilities, public buildings and transport, perhaps free internet, leisure for all, and whatever you might imagine – ‘normal’ people need less income or “private luxury” to meet their basic needs. In a public desert after decades of cowboy-capitalism and neoliberalism everybody needs more even to meet private necessities or to be able to afford inflated costs of healthcare.

The idea is usually that what should be received within “basic” income is food, housing, healthcare, the possibility to educate oneself and taking part in social life. Whether this is satisfied in the examples above is in any case debatable. But clearly this is far removed from ‘neoliberalism.’

The second tweet here by BGEweilAutomatisierung argues that every Basic Income which falls short of the criteria above is no such thing at all.

Part of the idea was best expressed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell some time ago, one of two philosophers to be found in the science hall of fame:

“[T]he plan we are advocating amounts essentially to this: that a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all, whether they work or not, and that a larger income – as much larger as might be warranted by the total amount of commodities produced – should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful […] When education is finished, no one should be compelled to work, and those who choose not to work should receive a bare livelihood, and be left completely free.”

Four points are worth to notice:  

  • In principle it would also be possible to pay more than a “basic” income. The amount discussed is a mirror of the society hosting it, the resources available, the people thinking about it, and the economists consulted.
  • Basic Income is conceptualized as income, not as welfare.
  • One major – or the primary – reason to justify it is that it grants real freedom, though also basic, to everyone.
  • The level of consumption is thought of in terms of resources available in a society (and, today, sustainable), not money.

The biggest problem with proposals that want to implement a Basic Income with only small amounts (say 560 Euro as in the Finnish study) is that they necessarily fail in providing that freedom that is the strongest, most revolutionary reason for it, because they even fail to live up to the promise of the word “basic.”

That Basic Income shall be paid regularly has the function to make it expectable to those who receive it. What is usually called “security” is an expectation. The insufficiency-version of ‘basic’ income is like a grant of the authoritarian but rich father who tells his kid that it is free to live from this, but to reach basic sufficiency or more it should see to be working in his business, otherwise he would disinherit it.

Freedom – understood here as not only the legal right, but the factual capacity to say “No!” inside and outside the ‘economic’ realm – can only be the result of broad safety in any decision made. When you have to bent your will to comply with either a bureaucrat, a capitalist (or ‚entrepreneur‘), your boss or teacher, your family or partner, and you have to adjust your thinking and behavior in fear of any of them because your livelihood is at risk, you are not free.

If this is not the case and in spite of some Basic Income you cannot pay your ‘basic’ bills without saying “Yes!”, probably all the criticisms apply that Basic Income even worsens power relations and merely suppresses wages in dismal jobs while it may increase rents. In the end, those who need it could even be worse off.

In contrast to (neo-)liberalism/libertarianism, real freedom here is not the same as being left alone by “government,” not being regulated. A strong socio-political commitment resulting in Basic Income is taken to be the pre-requisite of free decisions which are neither personally nor structurally coerced. You get it: thus far, this is for the most part the privilege of the wealthy and their offspring.

While (neo-)liberalism and its freedom of the individual from the many in fact opens the door for the domination and exploitation of the many by the few, here the idea is that the many secure the freedom of the individual from domination and exploitation. The requirement is the strict adherence to the principle of unconditionality.

The anarchist ingredient of a strong Basic Income lies in what is usually unthinkable. Namely that a society is so convinced of its values, norms, rules and organization – in summary: its social relations – that it allows its members to depart from them, even significantly, because it thinks it can be sure that the vast majority will stick to most of it.

You can think of it this way: if you firmly believe that your social way of life is the best, and that people are overall free, capable of learning, and rational, why should it be necessary to coerce people into it? If it really is, they will follow by their own will. If they don’t, this might indicate that you are simply wrong, as any society thus far has been to some degree.

Obvious problem: The world is full of people who view only themselves and some group in this way, while they claim the opposite of others, so that indoctrination and outright domination are taken to be not only legitimate but cases of doing good (nationalism, racism, sexism, classism, and what have you).

One aspect that can be classified as anti-capitalist is that a Basic Income that allows real freedom also frees people from either engaging in such market activities that generate profit, or in any activity that is usually called ‘economic’ or ‘productive,’ so that they can spend their time caring for family, others, nature, or even – for a start – themselves.

A socio-political consequence is that a living wage Basic Income is expected to make all dismal jobs and awkward working conditions, which are part and parcel of the history of democratic and authoritarian capitalism, disappear because no-one would be compelled to do them any longer just to survive.

It is as simple as this, in theory: Because they are free, people would need to be convinced by the benefits of social interactions to spend their time on those activities they otherwise would not waste their lives on – not the fear of exclusion, decline, and poverty. In the end, this is one – perhaps the only – route to secure equally for everybody the commandment over the most costly resource of beings with free will: lifetime.

If you prioritize freedom in arguing for Basic Income, the primary aim is not even to abolish poverty, as is often claimed (or the at times anticipated disappearance of paid labour due to automation). The end of poverty is the necessary goal in order to achieve freedom for all, because poverty is the gravest form of insecurity, which grounds all forms of exploitation and basic power relations.

Remember that a power relation is the result of one person having something (stuff, social position, affection, whatever) that another person wants or even necessarily needs while lacking an alternative to turn to, in a nutshell: inequality.

A background idea traditionally to be found in Basic Income proposals is a different understanding of what shall count as work or production.

While the ruling idea still is that only paid activities are work and productive, here the idea is that much of what is currently not paid by anyone, neither market nor state, is work, socially useful and a contribution to overall social wealth, not only what contributes officially and often arbitrarily to GDP. A mother caring for a child at home or a youtuber living from ‘welfare’ may be taken to ‘work’ more and contribute more to society than, e.g., the millionaire spending his time on Wall Street. If you wish, construct quickly an equally plausible but not as stereotypical example.

However, the tricky problem here as elsewhere is to state explicitly what is of individual or social value and why – and who decides about this.

There is much room for terminological and substantial confusion here that is in need of straightening out.

One main advocate of Basic Income, Guy Standing, calls activities that are done to receive a price “labour,” whereas freely chosen activities he calls “work.” He writes:

A basic income system would (…) encourage a shift from paid ‘labour’ to ‘work’ – caring for children and the elderly, doing more voluntary work, community work and spending more time on personal development. And it would reduce the pressure to create jobs solely for the sake of boosting employment, including jobs in resource-depleting or polluting industries.

Note that what he calls “labour” is valued differently than what he calls “work”, namely slightly negatively.

In this context the physician Theo Kuipers is at times quoted: “Among my patients there are guys who are sick because they work too much, and guys who are sick because they are unable to find work.” In Standing’s terminology, Kuipers is talking about labour aka employment. Labour generally, though the highest value in modern society (communist and capitalist), is among the biggest risks to health.

For short, in the eyes of its advocates a really ‘Basic’ Income would allow those who are in a literal sense physically or mentally sick to reduce economic activities or abstain from them, and if they are only sick of it, they may voluntarily retrain for something else.

It would also allow everybody to engage voluntarily in political activities and to associate in whatever form for whatever purpose, for instance to change overall economic conditions, because it is assumed that people would have more time. But this would be left to the people.

Guy Standing also reminds us that historically what he calls “labour” was not seen as something good and even a source of freedom, but the exact opposite. It was a bloody process of rewriting the collective mind. The process took as long as into the 20th century. Many ‘workers’ in new industries throughout the 19th century only did ‘jobs’ – and accepted or even demanded horrible working hours – because they believed them to be temporal. They refused to identify as workers at all. This we need to remember later because a Job Guarantee is not targeted on humans but – explicitly – on ‚workers.‘

Finally, Basis Income is not welfare when it is framed as an unalienable right and a case of social justice, which is in part justified by a different view of how wealth is generated in modern societies. The standard idea is that what is called “wealth” is produced by the labour/work of individuals, and that therefore, those who don’t work shall not eat, while those who have the most income work the most or work in the most productive way. Exactly: Meanwhile, it would be worth to laugh out loud about the latter.

Here the idea is that today’s wealth creation depends as much on what earlier generations of humanity have done as on what current people do, that wealth is in a sense collective that goes beyond the contribution people make to (re-)production in contemporary social systems, for example corporations. The best examples are all sorts of knowledge (scientific, technological, humanist), social institutions, and infrastructures that individuals, corporations and other organizations use directly or built upon for free. This shall justify the potential redistribution effect of Basic Income. As everything, it is not immune against criticism.

A frequent claim to delegitimize Basic Income is, of course, that people would get something for nothing. This superficially seems to be contrary to the 18th century ideology (and pedagogy, part of the Enlightenment heritage) of industriousness. It should not be a problem in modern societies, because this is the normal way the rich get a hand at their wealth.

The economic argument for Basic Income finally tells us that it would be great for capitalism because it is an „economic stabilizer.“ It would not only generally redistribute resources among social groups and national regions – if the higher incomes would be taxed as a measure to regulate consumptive levels or to pay for it-, in recessions the provision of a Basic Income is believed to hold aggregate demand up to a greater extent than old-fashioned and neoliberalized ‘welfare,’ while a permanent Basic Income could be combined with helicopter drops of fresh cash as an emergency bonus through the same organizational tool, as it has in part and to a minor extent been performed within the Covid-crisis.

In summary, this type of Basic Income would be introduced as a tool to maximize ‘basic’ freedom for all by securing ‘basic’ economic security for all. Though conservatives have been telling us for 200 years that such security would have as a result the total idleness of humanity and moral decadence – the mob supposedly needs insecurity to get up its ass -, studies show that the opposite tends to be the case.

However, the ‘normal’ person has learned his/her ideological lesson. In Germany and Switzerland people were asked whether they themselves would stop working if they received Basic Income. The large majority said “No!”, but a third and even half in representative surveys believed that the others would stop.

Among the legitimate concerns and criticisms is also that implicitly advocates of Basic Income give much weight to negative freedom, the capability to say “No!”, while authentic overall freedom would include the capability to say “Yes!”, which is, on the one hand, fairly restricted within the consumptive realm of what a Basic Income provides, but, on the other hand – and unfortunately – , nothing that can in any respect be guaranteed to a large extent.

However, while its proponents count on the free association of individuals freed from basic insecurity, the question remains if and how such an association could be supported, given that additional resources would be needed, which may in many instances not be available on the ‘free’ market. Furthermore, it may be argued that the optimism here is based on a simplistic psychology in which you just have to remove an obstacle to (inter)action and then it will happen. 

When we now quickly switch to the Job Guarantee, we see that there is similarity within difference. Though I will have more to criticize because the idea is by its nature more complex, this prepares the junction of potential reconciliation. In philosophical matters supposed subtleties make a huge difference which may also affect reality.

 What the fuck is the basic idea behind a Job Guarantee?

While Basic Income starts with the idea that insecurity and unequal basic freedom are policy choices, no necessities or ‘normal’ within modern societies with an increasing precariat but enough resources, the idea of a Job Guarantee starts by stating that unemployment is a policy choice, no necessity or ‘normal,’ and results in insecurity, misery and poverty.

Though similar, our grand schemes clash in the means they advocate: the first wants to provide cash for existence, the latter ‘jobs’ to earn cash. But what about the aims? On first sight, they seem to clash, too.

What Guy Standing calls “labour,” believes to be quite often alienating, a recent historical invention, and wants to reduce, advocates of a Job Guarantee, as it seems, want to expand. They stress, as Pavlina Tcherneva writes, that “paid work in the modern world is life-defining and indispensable,” though “it has, for many, become elusive, onerous, and punitive.”

Accordingly, what is called “work” within Job Guarantee proposals is any paid activity. It is at the same time what is called a “job” and interchangeably “employment,” in a fully positive sense. Within a tradition in philosophies of work that goes back at least to the beginning of the 19th century, the approach is reminiscent of the idea that work has to be freed from its degraded form. (Another tradition has it that the aim of humanity is to be freed from work.)

The “golden economic age” is found in (US-American) postwar Fordism with stable and comparatively good-paying jobs for (male) workers. To the contrary, Guy Standing would stress that “to employ someone” primarily means to use him/her for one’s own purposes, i. e. the purpose of the employer, and – I suppose – that there has never been any golden age. Furthermore, advocates of a Job Guarantee also frame employment as a human right, unfortunately without any argument, which is quickly rebuffed by the claim that for most human history this would have been a ridiculous idea.

The proposal is straightforward: Given that the diagnosis is that there is not enough work = employment = jobs, the cure is to provide jobs = work = employment:

the policy solution to someone unable to find paid work is to provide them with an employment opportunity.”

It is argued, and rightfully stressed, that unemployment (within contemporary culture) has high ‘costs’ in higher levels of depression and suicide. It is even said we should think of unemployment as a disease, and occasionally therefore, that “supplying jobs for their own sake is a worthy goal.”

Unfortunately, not much is said about the harm caused in jobs, from work accidents and stress through mobbing, harassment, reduced lifetime due to permanent subordination, to the pain of boredom. For short: we would need to know more, also because Standing argues the relationships of greater numbers of unhappy or depressive people among the unemployed are statistical artefacts.

Are the aims between the two proposals as different as it appears to be the case?

Here it is important not to directly construct a straw-(wo)man and use unclear terminology to discredit the idea, which is what happens when the other way around ‘neoliberal’ versions of Basic Income are focused on. The same would happen if we would straightaway say that a Job Guarantee is just a reproduction of ‘labour’ aka wage-slavery, as critics do when they suppose that guaranteed jobs would be somehow subsidized in the private sector, different forms of precarious work.

This overlooks that one of the secondary aims pursued in a Job Guarantee is to change the reality of work short-term and our whole idea of work in the long run. This general aim is identical.

The jobs that shall be guaranteed in a Job Guarantee would be public jobs, furthermore ‘service jobs.’ They would neither be publicly subsidized jobs in private for-profit businesses nor, in the version we are looking at here, jobs in infrastructure provided directly by the state or indirectly via government spending.

On a par with Basic Income in this respect, those public service jobs would be unconditionally open to everyone, independent of character, behavior (past and present), education, ancestry or origin. It is not strictly universal because it is a program for people of working age. (Probably there are more restrictions on universality such as permanent and legal residency, but not passport-citizenship.)

This means that there would equally be no ‘means testing’. It doesn’t matter whether you have some savings on the bank or a partner that could assure your livelihood independent of the Job Guarantee offer. As a result, also people who are not registered as unemployed could equally show up to instantly get a publicly guaranteed job. The same is true of anybody who wants to quit his recent ‚private sector‘ job for whatever reason. As in the case of Basic Income, a Job Guarantee would be permanent and expectable.

What I call “unconditionality” is expressed in sentences such as “a basic job offer will always be available to those who seek it,” that the program offers a job “to all who are ready and willing to work,” that it provides “an opportunity for millions of Americans who want and need jobs” or that it is “a public policy that provides an employment opportunity on standby to anyone looking for work, no matter their personal circumstances or the state of the economy.”

For short, strictly speaking there is one central condition, which is not trivial in our context: you need to be in need of a ‘job.’ We will come back to this.

At times proponents talk of “basic jobs” or a “basic job at a basic wage”, at times of “good jobs” or “decent jobs.” You are allowed to anticipate that here, again, it is unclear what “basic,” “good” or “decent” mean. It is to a degree subjective (and not explicitly defined).

Although the Job Guarantee is also justified as a measure against poverty, it is not targeted merely at those classified as poor. Accordingly, and as in the case of Basic Income (which is often stressed in criticisms), it ‘costs’ more money than would be necessary if the goal would be restricted accordingly. The husband of a billionaire wife could be sure to have the possibility to take a job within the Job Guarantee and would get it. But it is in comparison more targeted than Basic Income because of its restricted aim, namely to abolish what they call “unemployment.” Trivially, those happily working within the ‘private sector’ would be largely unaffected by it, although also their expectations would change.

The criterion or empirical indicator for readiness and willingness is simply whether someone shows up at the Job Guarantee office or not while (s)he does not receive unemployment compensation. “Full-employment” – the central aim of the program – is consequently defined as that moment when no person asks for a job within the Job Guarantee. Who does not show up is taken not to be in need. However, this can also mean that people who just don’t want to work within the conditions of the Job Guarantee are not counted.

Note also that those who neither work in the private sector, nor as normal public servants, nor in the Job Guarantee, are not working at all, e.g. the favorite case of feminist argumentation, the caring woman at home. This simply follows from an implicit definition of „work“ as anything done within a contract for cash. (Contrary to Standing above, here „work“ = „labour.“) For short, while the caring person at home would receive Basic Income, (s)he would have herself nothing directly from a Job Guarantee unless she wants a ‘job.’

The job guarantee shall not offer any job, but jobs that set the standards that would then, hypothetically, become the base level within the whole ‘private’ economy, in terms of the minimum wage, but also other job conditions.

The wage is usually debated at $15 per hour (at times, in older publications, $8 or $6.25), 40 hours/per week in full-time, while part-time shall also be available. Furthermore, the wage shall be equal for all those jobbing within the Job Guarantee.

The US-American context of most of these proposals becomes obvious in “benefits” which are suggested but elsewhere taken for granted for decades, such as paid leave and healthcare, while a working year of 50 weeks shall also be guaranteed. This would result at ‘living wages’ or ‘living family wages’ above poverty level within the US-American context.

Remember that across history huge shares of the human population might run away from such conditions, in full time at least (40 hours/week, 50 weeks/year). However, this provides us with an occasion to note that such specific conditions could be set differently, they are not essential, i.e. unalterable, to the proposal, and would even today be unacceptable in other parts of the ‚free‘ world, which shows that it is not so clear what is basic or even good about a ‚job.‘ The same holds for Basic Income.

Part of this is, again, similar to ideas within Basic Income proposals. The aim is the same, the means are different.

The idea is that people could leave any job that doesn’t suit them as soon as they have an alternative that has higher standards, and this alternative is guaranteed by the state. If employers want to make use of a person as a “resource” or “commodity” – as humans are also called in Job Guarantee literature – within ‘production’, they need to meet these standards.

In this respect also a Job Guarantee shall increase the freedom of everybody by allowing people to say “No!” within the private sector.

The similarly revolutionary consequence could be that millions of the employed and self-employed would turn their back on their former jobs (and employers) the minute a Job Guarantee is installed. With a view to the USA of 2017, it was estimated that 2,5 times the number of the currently officially unemployed would enter the Job Guarantee, because many would just leave their poverty-wage jobs, while others would see new opportunities after having dropped out of the ‘work force.’

In the US, for the year 2017, the number was estimated to be between 12 and 17 million people. In the German economy the number would be roughly 5,75 million for 2019, in total about 13% of the labour force, if we use the above factor. And such numbers are only educated guesses. Numbers could be higher.

It could well be that many in official or ‘normal’ public services would say farewell to the bullshit they have to do or the conditions they have to tolerate, and this could also be the result of Basic Income.

The Job Guarantee program, permanent as it is, is also seen as a permanent handle to rethink and change the standards of what is believed to be a decent job. This means that those who are in charge of the conditions of the Job Guarantee are hypothetically in charge of those standards and conditions, in the end (federal) government. (At least in theory a living wage Basic Income would also significantly raise the bargaining power of individuals as such and potentially via new association.)

One more similarity is that one function of the Job Guarantee is to be an “automatic stabilizer” of “the economic ride” because it is expected that within a crisis the newly unemployed – at least those who don’t qualify for unemployment insurance – would instantly join the Job Guarantee, and that aggregate demand would therefore not collapse as rapidly, with more unemployed as a consequence, which is likened to the spread of a pandemic. (It is also argued that Basic Income has no such function and therefore the Job Guarantee is superior from an economic point of view.)

In times of economic ‚recovery‘ people would swap sides again, rejoin private employers if they find one, whereas the state is always ready for the next downward turn, but reduces spending on the Job Guarantee until it happens.

In organizational terms this is sketched in the following way: The highest level of government would fund the program by providing the exchangable symbols, because it has the monopoly over the currency and cannot possibly run out of it, no matter what. It would also draw up general principles those who implement the program on the ground would need to adhere to.

The program would be implemented and executed on the governmental levels below, the states and cities, in the end the unemployment offices or agencies. The boundaries of state and government are transgressed by the co-organization of the jobs in NGOs or non-profits, those classified as working for the common good.

The inspiration here are theories of participative planning and democracy, which usually include the ideas that needs as well as specific means and appropriate ways can only be known at lower levels of organisation.

Jobs within the Job Guarantee shall not only set standards, they shall also be socially usefull and satisfy local needs.

Individuals are not mentioned as qualifiying to directly apply for funds and to create their own jobs. But they could probably associate with others, found some formal organization, and then apply for funds to create jobs. Private firms are excluded because they are expected to use the Job Guarantee to substitute their personnel to reduce wages.

In some way that I could until now not find spelled out in detail, the cities and non-governmental local organisations would invent jobs, report them to the unemployment offices, which would turn into employment offices to distribute “on-the-shelf jobs.” In between is the delicate moment in which it is decided who gets the cash and who not, which organisations can apply and which not. Of course, who pays the piper calls the tune, so that the highest level of government still has a say about which jobs can be created and which not, what is socially useful and what not.

The idea is that this shelf, the “community job bank,” would always be packed to such an extent that unemployed flooding in could always find a job, even if they are more than 20 million within some major crisis and within just a few weeks.

As we have already seen, only those “willing” and “in need” are targeted. Participation in the Job Guarantee is consequently claimed to be voluntary. People show up because they want jobs and the program provides them. In this perspective it just helps to achieve what people otherwise wouldn’t:

Instead of leaving millions jobless, the government would establish an open-ended commitment to provide job seekers with access to the currency in exchange for performing service work. Participation would be purely voluntary. No one is required to work in the program.”

Note that the primary function of work and jobs is to provide “access to the currency.” This is a central part of the background philosophy of work and also clear from the only explicit definition of “joblessness” I could find, namely “as the inability to secure a job at a living wage”.

This seems trivial at first sight, but consider an alternative, e.g. to define joblessness as being unable to find a job within the field of one’s studies, one’s profession, sector, at the level of one’s experience, pay-level and position in a hierarchy, and what have you. If you define “joblessness” in any more ambitious way, it becomes more difficult to find a satisfactory solution to a joblessness-problem “in every corner of America for every eligible person who desires to work.” If you use the unambitious one, you just have to give someone a paycheck “at a living wage.”

However, this is only one side of the medal and what is written. The Job Guarantee shall not only raise the working standards generally and satisfy community needs, it shall also provide jobs which are tailored to the individual jobseekers. For instance, it is said that the Job Guarantee would be “matching employment opportunities to people’s abilities,” and that the jobs are created for the seeker.

If in reality this would all be the case, certainly there would be nothing or not much to object to. Individuals and ‘community’ would always be in harmony and merely satisfy each other’s needs. But would it?

The Job Guarantee – on a par with Basic Income – is an add-on program to existing ‘welfare’ or ‘benefits’ and could be, according to its proponents, combined with any other that is compatible.

Accordingly, people are said to have a “choice,” for instance, whether they want to receive unemployment insurance (if they qualify) or join the program. Also other conceivable benefits are not conditioned on participation, so that their potential loss cannot be used to blackmail and harass those who need them. Therefore, the Job Guarantee is taken not to be workfare:

If they choose [to receive unemployment insurance] but still have trouble finding conventional private or public sector work once UI benefits have been exhausted, they will still have the option of enrolling in the PSE program [Public Sector Employment].”

We should be clear what this means or might mean: it amounts to a form of structural coercion to join the program in the frequent case that people have no other chance to ‘earn a living’ than to join the program.

With the private sector in view, we read:

A worker has no power to say ‘no’ to a bad job unless they are guaranteed the option of a good job with decent pay.

Though the thing to notice first is that the statement is false, the second is that this also applies to jobs within the Job Guarantee.

If there is nothing (subjectively) better, including the possibility not to ‘work’ at all (for pay), you are forced to take that ‘opportunity.’

That it is false is obvious in our context: one alternative is Universal Basic Income, the other is living wage Basic Income only targeted at unemployed as a welfare substitute (not universally paid), and the third is the neo-liberal or conservative favorite, one’s family or charity.

The problem in assessing the proposal or its different formulations is that it combines top-down paternalism and what could be called “aggregate workfare” on the one hand with bottom-up empowering of individuals on the other.

Top-down paternalist workfare is occasionally openly advocated when it is – somewhat surprisingly – stated that people would only work to earn the currency that the state issues to be able to pay taxes, so that the state would have the duty to provide its subjects with “the opportunity” to do what he wishes them to do by guaranteeing and providing jobs. This – at best – paternalism is at times described in an open analogy to a father and his children.

Three points need to be noticed here:

(1) It is paternalism because it is presupposed that something good is done to the subjects of the authority (which is the monopolist on the legitimate use of force to enforce its impositions on their will), namely that people are made to labour/work or ‘make a living’ (which may be what they want) and to pay taxes, so that something morally good is believed to be done.

(2) If something believed to be bad would be intended by those who install the practice, it would be exploitation and doing harm.

That taxes have been used to make people work has many kernels of truth. Among them are colonial crimes of installing taxes to ‘civilize’ people of different cultures into Christian and white morals of ‘work’, market behaviour, and bourgeois obedience. (Economists at times call it the „monetization of economies through imposition of taxes.“)

(3) If the other side does not share the valuation, it is also a form of oppression and doing harm.

The direct historico-ethical rebuttal of this narrative by advocates of Basic Income could simply be that the state, or benevolent Leviathan, simply has to give its people the currency directly, because first of all he once did deprive people together with capitalists of the means of production and the chance of ‘earning a living,’ so that under different circumstances they perhaps would neither need Leviathan’s currency nor work.

The moral is an old one:

A durable and good organization of the social fabric – or a philosophical sketch of it – does not only need to protect people from those who want to do harm, but also from those who want to do good. This holds especially in cases where the potential and probable discrepancy between any one individual and the social system is overpainted by some form of implicit communitarianism.

To formulate the problem openly is the route to solving it and partial reconciliation.

Clearly, the problem is easily remedied if people are allowed to choose between living wage Basic Income and a living wage job in a Job Guarantee, which could be higher in accord with Russell above.

From my perspective, Job Guaranteers are at times on the verge of something like that, but they cannot allow it for two reasons that are mostly implicit. Here, silence is at times more telling than writing. One is moral, the implicit idea that nobody should get something for nothing by the currency issuer without proven handicaps (which is at times made explicit here or there). The other is aggregate workfare as a socio-economic policy motivated by a technocratic impulse.

For both reasons, Basic Income is seen as incompatible with their policy (and therefore often not mentioned).

You can find the statement that a “generous safety net should be in place to support or supplement incomes for families whose members cannot or should not work.” Allegedly, this group of people shall be under the spell of ‘means testing,’ because someone, who chooses the criteria, has to assess in any single case who those are “who cannot or should not.” They are still allowed something without a job.

In relation to those who for whatever reason want to refuse the offer to work in the Job Guarantee there is only silence. The silence includes the question what they are entitled to if they refuse the Job Guarantee, or an answer to the question why they should be structurally compelled to work.

The implicit answer is that those who refuse would fall back on those ‘social security programs’ that are currently installed in a specific country, which may quickly reduce to nothing. And there goes the freedom to choose, and workfare enters through the back door. (The same will happen as soon as the rules need to be laid down about what to do with people who ‚misbehave‘ within Job Guarantee jobs.)

That this problem of people refusing job offers is not considered has its reason not only in the implicit work ethic but also in the tendency to use a simplistic psychology in which people are supposed to be in any case willing and ready to take any ‘job’ that pays (“a paycheck is a paycheck”), and in the end not every individual is considered as such, but the dominant case is seen in people with “lower skills and education.” At times we also read: „The Jobs must be accessible to the least skilled workers (…).“ In this latter case, it should be no accident that after the usual give-them-a-shovel cases one of the first examples given are „creativ artists“ who „could contribute to public education as peripatetic performers.“ (Nota bene, there are not only different proposals but also different ideological tones we cannot dissect here.)

But people are known to compare themselves with their peers, and working for the minimum wage in a Job Guarantee, not with people of one’s kind, perhaps on a par with people with lower formal qualification or none, maybe overseen by someone with less qualification, or an impractical academic, in a local organisation, will be judged to be unacceptable by many, a shameful experience and social decline, whatever the outside observer may think about it. For the similar reasons people don’t apply for the ‘benefits’ they would be entitled to within current welfare. Full employment might only be illusory.

While the official argument for the Job Guarantee is that it would secure the minimum wage for all by setting it, in passing it is admitted that this will not be the universal case because employers could meet the wage of the Job Guarantee “either by paying at least that wage or by offering other benefits or opportunities in compensation for a lower wage.” For similar reasons out of which people may accept jobs that earn less cash they might refuse participation in a Job Guarantee.

If the aim really is to help as many individuals as possible and not to take a paternalist and authoritarian stance, as I believe is the aim of many advocates, then it should be accepted from the start that people may have good reasons to refuse any such offer and should receive sufficient Basic Income. “You create the job to fit the person” is quite an objective for such a program, and laudable, but impossible to achieve in many cases. As long as any human counts, it does not matter how many these are, and we cannot know because next to nothing is in detail said about the organization of those jobs.

Furthermore, arguably nobody can be required to do something for the ‚common good‘ (or ‚community‘) for minimum wage when at the same time nothing similar – pace the Smithian myth – is required of the rest of the population or ‚work force,‘ that to a large extent causes the social and ecological destruction that shall be cleaned up by the unemployed, while nothing essential is usually done at all – „essential“ in relation to basic human needs.

Now, you might want to say that my point about paternalism and freedom here is far fetched. Some proponents ask the following question themselves: „So is a compulsory JG overly coercive?“ Elswhere it is said that „there is some degree of economic coercion that induces most people to work“ in any capitalist economy, such that still „out of economic necessity, some individuals may feel forced to accept an ELR job“ (employer of last resort).

Aggregate workfare is to be found in the idea that it can be anticipated that for everybody there is something “socially useful” to be done, that there are always enough jobs. It is simply impossible to know if at any given time there are enough ‘jobs’ to be done, not only because you cannot know the number of people becoming unemployed or seeing themselves as unemployed, but because you cannot anticipate the needs, neither of communities nor of individuals. Because this is obvious, that there are ‚enough‘ jobs or ’needs‘ is simply assumed, but never spelled out. This is the usual fallacy inherent in any policy of full-employment, where the biggest need is one of ‘jobs.’ Before you know the specific aim you imagine you have the generic means.

Is there really a dearth of useful things that might be done by our (?!) unemployed workers?”

This is the wrong rhetorical question, though it is the one conservatives have always asked.

What would be needed is to show that real-world people and their communities have in fact a (permanent) need, which would require making explicit the values that are implicit in the use of the word “need” (which we don’t find explicated), that to organize it as a ‘job’ is the best way to do it, and to make a case in relation to the question why “our” unemployed shall be subtly required to become enthusiastic about satisfying them by making their lifetime available.

It is done the exact opposite way, in the way of the technocratic imagination. The figures of unemployed are freely multiplied with the number of working days and working hours, and assumed that a need will be found or constructed to fill that time with ‘work’:

8 hours per day x 5 days per week x 50 weeks x 12 million = 24,000,000,000.”

To me it sounds miraculous: If there are suddenly even over 20 million people unemployed and joining the Job Guarantee, there are suddenly as many needs and ’socially useful‘ deeds as people looking for ‘a job.’ One telling example: writing “oral histories of COVID.” The usual trick is to rhetorically invoke climate change and potential measures against it.

This is aggregate workfare. It is, as we have learned within the pandemic, only necessary because all income is connected with ‘jobs’ within the modern mindset. Here, again, the quickest solution is a form of Basic Income. It frees society from the necessity to create ‘employment’ just in order to distribute symbols, while it also frees individuals from being made the tools of those who think something good needs to done, and are in a better position in relation to others.

In some central respects the Job Guarantee appears furthermore to be slightly inconsistent.

It is on the one hand claimed that no job within the Job Guarantee shall interfere and compete with private sector undertakings. This is also one reason why wages shall be rather low. It shall operate “without competing for employees or displacing private sector undertakings.”

The result, however, would be that next to nothing could be done because it conflicts with private businesses, as ‘liberals’ will be quick to argue. The principle is otherwise useless.

For instance, you cannot employ anyone to serve meals in schools, not even to plant trees, not to mention “solarizing homes,” building playgrounds, or the notorious cleaning-up of parks. Why “flood control,” or whatever measure to deal with the environmental disaster, is not infrastructure (outside a Job Guarantee) but something else (inside a Job Guarantee) is hardly comprehensible.

In the end it remains unclear which of the few examples for such jobs – in relation to the immense number that would be necessary – is not excluded by the very principles of the program itself.

If, then, it is suggested that jobs in the Job Guarantee should satisfy community needs that are thus far underfunded, which, of course, sounds great to those who give something about ‚communities,‘ then the question arises why these deficits are not dealt with in ‘normal’ public services, from which the Job Guarantee is also strictly separated.

Any need whatsoever could, before the Job Guarantee has any offer to make, be met by regular public employment (even above minimum wage). To take up the above examples: historians could do historical research proper, not kindergarten oral history in temporary Job Guarantee jobs at minimum wage to the amusement of whomever, and art could be a well-funded permanent public good.

Although it is overall a pro-capitalist program, it also has an anti-capitalist side, as advocates on ‘the left’ argue. Projects within the Job Guarantee could satisfy some needs without the need to be profitable in a monetary sense. However, the same holds for normal public employment. Critics may argue that the Job Guarantee is totally unnecessary to meet needs.

That the proposal beyond question has some appeal is also due to its ambition to create a “care economy,” including care for people, communities, and the environment. Who could have anything against that? However, a bit of scepticism is in order again.

If this work is about satisfying needs of “the community” and highly useful, why then pay for it the minimum for full-time laboring and draft the jobs as temporary intermediaries on the way of people into something better, namely into ‘the private sector,’ so that apparently the needs disappear the moment ‘the economy’ increases its business again? Infrastructure is explicitly not supposed to fluctuate with the state of the economy, but care for people, communities, and nature? Are the needs of individuals and communities ready to be put back on the shelf? Do they disappear?

It sounds great that children, the elderly and the environment are especially targeted by the jobs, but this may be taken to be indicative of a grand scandal, not of the necessity of a minimum wage jobs program. A drastic general reduction of working hours, socializing the care sector where it is private, or Basic Income, would perhaps achieve as much, e.g. that there are people who want to be “a companion of the elderly people, helping with housework and errands.”

Synthesis?

Do you remember how we got here? I don’t. It is lockdown 2.5.

The question was where you would want to live if you had a choice, in a Basic Income world or a Job Guarantee world. That was a good move. That question you can only answer yourself.

If there is only the option of choice without combination, my answer and what I would write in the above letter should be obvious. But this is not in every respect satisfactory. You might have the (correct) impression that there is much to criticize in proposals of a Job Guarantee. But there is also much to criticize in Basic Income, especially those versions that were excluded here. If we at least try to make the strongest case for both, the best strategy might be to look for some combination. Furthermore, advocates of both stress their policies are no panaceas.

We might have seen in the sketch that a fruitful on-paper-approach is to combine them, which avoids some traps to be expected in reality. We have also seen that both grand schemes not only share many aims but also many enemies, and that some mutual criticisms have their roots in philosophical assumptions and historical narratives which, though substantial, need not in principle stand in the way of combination.

Details and quarrels notwithstanding, which are unavoidable in matters transgressing the boundaries of philosophy, the separate implementation of both schemes would improve the lot of millions a lot, dependent on the country. Unfortunately, you and I know that nothing like that most probably will happen, not even if the pandemic takes another year, because of the reasons sketched above.

In a sense at least, the idea was already there in the quote from Bertrand Russell. In combination with Basic Income some problems with a Job Guarantee vanish, while the latter’s component of participatory democracy in distributing resources, though not spelled out in detail, could be used to strengthen the case of Basic Income in relation to the question what people who would enjoy Basic Income could further do – but then really voluntarily.

Such a ‘Job’ Guarantee could not only provide choices – opportunities to say “Yes!” – from a mostly readymade shelf of ‘jobs’ to those who want them, but distribute (monetary) resources more openhandedly to create. This is clearly a great approach. It is on the one hand openly there, for instance when in passing cooperatives are mentioned as fundworthy (but only until they become “self-sufficient”).

Dependent on organizational details and the solution of problems above, a Job Guarantee might be something in this direction, more an ordinary bank than a ‘job’ bank. Its main function is to distribute cash. (Proponents estimate that 20% of the costs would be for material resources needed in doing those jobs.)

To do this reconciliation, nothing more is necessary than to clean a Job Guarantee proposal from 19th to 16th century conservative ideas about something called ‘work’ or ‘jobs,’ and to prefer a more radical notion of freedom over moralistic and communitarian paternalism and technocratic concerns, which are due to the full employment fetish of the last century and the idea to save a biosphere that was destroyed by work with more work. If its conservative ingredient is erased, the idea only has to be rebranded.

The focus on jobs and piling up working hours could simply be substituted by needs only, which might necessitate and be a cultural revolution. Their satisfaction will in any reasonable society be independent of any effort to increase or maximize working time to create and fill ‘job’ positions – the counterpart of the insanity of GDP. (However, some proponents of a Job Guarantee explicitly want to maximize economic output, and the question then is what that exactly means.)

Without authentic freedom, the common communitarian good proponents of a Job Guarantee pursue is elusive and any real-world implementation is bound to slip down the slippery slope into open authoritarianism, simply because those who will be in charge will not be those academic proponents that are, as I believe, for the most part really motivated by a humanist cause. However, it can hardly be denied that one major motivation behind the scheme is social control, which shades all other aspects of the idea from the perspective of those who don’t share the worldview.

Social change has to happen bottom-up. But without structures that help people to associate, Basic Income and its focus on the individual is also of less worth and perhaps in part illusory. Individuals are always individuals-within-systems. Similarly, perhaps there are some Basic Income proponents who need to get rid of the illusion of a society without any power relations or pure cooperation without any competition. If you want (basic) freedom, you need Basic Income. But if you want to satisfy democratically agreed upon needs within freedom, you may need something more and resourceful social systems, especially within pre-given overarching power structures.

Some people think they need cash and cannot get it. Give and guarantee them cash and see what ingenious and disingenious things they may do, what types of social arrangements they create. Some people think they need jobs and cannot get them. Let them choose among guaranteed public jobs and see what ingenious and disingenious things they may do. The problem is in any case whether those not directly concerned would really back any of this, and that those in economic or political power don’t and most likely won’t – ceteris paribus.

In a sense and although the idea is utterly naive, a combination of both is perhaps a good way to at least partially step outside of ‚history‚ and to in part circumvent the biggest problem that seems hard to openly address: that there is hardly any substantive overall agreement about values in contemporary societies, as we are learning almost any day, contrary to its ceremonial self-image. This won’t be changed by talking about ‚communities.‘

Although it is interesting, it is not surprising that something called ‚work‘ is the last shared hope of the collapsing political spectrum.

It is at times argued that advocates of Basic Income would adopt the view of mainstream economics that ‘work’ is a curse while advocates of a Job Guarantee would bet on the socialness of ‘work’ and its inherent pleasures. I have no statistic of what all such advocates believe. What many of them see in a critical light is not doing something useful or delightful or ‚dignified,‘ which is grotesquely in our Orwellian languages identified with work and jobs, but power relations taking the form of work = jobs = employment or welfare and bureaucracy. Accordingly, such advocates of a Job Guarantee should welcome Basic Income enthusiastically because it would to a large part eliminate the problem of alienated ‘labour,’ but it would also limit the technocratic imagination and elitist impulses. After the above, it is (not) surprising that you can find JG-advocates see „obvious incentive problems“ in paying unemployed for not working.

That advocates of Basic Income would want people just to sit around is clearly false. It would leave it to them. It is also false that people would in fact just sit around. The failure here is rooted in absurd individualist thinking (in a philosophical sense of the word), which imagines people as totally isolated atoms who need some force to be made to interact.

The overall problem of both approaches remains. It is their stance in relation to capitalism and its future, also in relation to the idea of ‚economic growth‘ and what comes with it. Any serious step to create an economy that serves sustainable needs that are democratically discussed and decided is taken back in the preference for ‘the private sector’ within the Job Guarantee, where a small (national) planned economy coexists simply to moderate the market’s externalities, while within Basic Income everything (national and international) is left to free association or taken for granted. Here ‚radicals‘ might in fact search for ideas that go beyond this.

Finally, a private joke: Two predators meet in the prairie. Says the one to the other: “How do you make a living?” This happens in bourgeois society until today.

(c) Daniel Plenge

The picture at the top of this post was created by Nick Youngson and is licenced unter Creative Commons 3. Thanks for that! Here you can find it.

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