With UBI now very much having entered public consciousness and provoking equal measures of alarm and disdain on the mainstream political right I cannot help but wonder to myself what the right propose as an alternative solution to the challenge of technological displacement? I sympathise with the discomfort at the thought of devaluing the incentives to work and thus being considered a productive member of society, but does society sustain these values if regular employment is no longer an option for a large portion of the population?
Are we still in the denial phase on this matter? Is this just like the horse and cart or the spinning jenny? Do displaced workers just need to learn to code? Am I a Luddite? This attitude is unsatisfactory and short-sighted in my humble opinion, I believe what we are about to experience is unprecedented in human history and I shall attempt to make the case for why this a matter deserving of your consideration.
Since that landmark moment when the Deep Blue computer program defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov machine intelligence has continued its exponential upward trajectory with significant recent advances made in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, machine learning, natural language processing among others. We now appear to be on the cusp of a breakthrough that will have enormous consequences for the economy and society as a whole, it promises to perform tasks even more accurately, cheaply and quickly than humans can do them currently. The first wave of adoption is already becoming apparent with the automation of simple computational and administration tasks through Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and analysis of structured data to be utilised in decision making, i.e. machine learning. This will likely be followed later in the decade with AI increasingly being relied upon to make decisions involving clerical tasks, robotics beginning to replace unskilled manual labour and self driving vehicles and drone usage becoming widespread. The next phase is predicted around 2030 will involve automation of manual labour requiring more advanced dexterity and AI taking on more complicated decision making. From there, who knows? We have all heard of Bitcoin by now, the distributed ledger technology underpinning it could make entire business models based on the role of custodian, record keeper or middleman of some sort obsolete. We are talking about some big players (and employers).
As for analysis of the likely impact on the labour market the most reputable sources I came across were a 2013 Oxford study that said 47 percent of US jobs are at high risk of automation in the next few decades, an OECD study suggesting that 9 percent of jobs in the organisation’s 21 member countries are already automatable, and a McKinsey report that states 400 million to 800 million jobs worldwide could be automated by 2030. If these numbers are even close to being accurate they suggest we are about to experience upheaval of biblical proportions.
Consider for a moment how many jobs at this point in time entail little more than answering or making phone calls, replying to emails and making simple decisions about which spreadsheet and databases to transpose the data into. Those jobs are gone, very soon, and that is just the start. Companies working on machine intelligence technologies and those looking to adopt them will say that the aim is “augment” the efforts of the human worker. I know we all love our corporate overlords here at Going Postal but I doubt any of us are falling for that one and realise that where wage costs can be reduced by replacing humans altogether it will be done, without hesitation.
The inevitable response from the sceptics will be that workers should retrain to where there is demand for human labour, just like the weavers did. OK Ben Shapiro, where? What field of human activity in this increasingly digitised world do you foresee remaining unaffected by the coming technological tsunami? Will all these people successfully retrain and be reabsorbed into the workforce as Data Scientists, AI Developers and Robotics Engineers? I suppose YouTube content creator or grime artist could be a viable career but how many more of them do we need? We don’t need to see 100% unemployment before the strain on the system is visible, what about 20%, 30% or 40%? Do you believe such a society will be stable?
Given the above scenario I believe it is time for the right to embrace universal basic income, it may aid me in my goal to inform that prominent free-marketers such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were both proponents of UBI. Many arguments can be made in UBI’s favour from a rightist perspective, for example it could shrink the state as overly complicated and bureaucratic means testing is radically streamlined. Those are not my arguments, personally I just don’t see an alternative. With the only realistic means of accessing the means of production available to the majority of the population being the exchange of their labour with those who own capital the rapid shrinking of the labour market is going to render the current arrangement untenable. Perhaps a rebranding exercise could be undertaken in order to make the idea more palatable for liberty minded folks, UBI could be referred to as universal basic dividend rather than income, this would clarify that it is not a matter of the state paying you, rather that you as a citizen of the nation are entitled to a modest share of its resources and output. The criteria for citizenship is of course a matter for another time.
What if people become lazy? Where will people find purpose and meaning in their lives? Now listen up, peeps…I know we all feel very important when our boss gives us that pat on the back for entering the big numbers into those complicated spreadsheets correctly, I know we look forward to the stimulating “how was your weekend” small talk with the colleagues we would otherwise cross the road to avoid in public as we wear our rainbow lanyards, the regular diversity training etc., but I know you can do better. The modern work environment is no place to seek fulfilment for the serious man (or woman). Freed from the drudgery of labour I have every confidence you will be dedicating your valuable time to more meaningful pursuits such as spending quality time with your family, helping your community, learning to play a musical instrument, painting, gardening, reading philosophy, physical exercise, bare-knuckle boxing, plotting to overthrow the government (in Minecraft) and more. I realise that being on the right we instinctively appreciate the reality of hierarchy, but does it have to be a hierarchy based on a number on a bank statement accumulated as a result of performing a set of meaningless tasks? Personally I do not find that particularly impressive.
A common objection here is that this hands too much power to the state with your income now contingent on conformance to the ideology of the day. This is problematic I admit, but again, at this point (assuming you found the technological displacement argument convincing) what are the alternatives? You are at risk of dismissal from your employer today for transgressions against our new corporate and state enforced woke religion. The long term solution is for the right to become comfortable wielding power and exercising its will rather than the “live and let live“ classical liberalism that has led us to this subservient position in the first place but I shall resist the temptation to open that can of worms here.
To me UBI is far from perfect, the ideal model is something along the lines of distrubitism which would see the state ensuring the widest possible distribution of capital across the population. This avoids the pitfalls of both capitalism and socialism in that it prevents wealth concentrating among a small elite while ensuring the individual or family unit remains self-sufficient. So why did I previously state UBI was the only alternative? Well while I would be perfectly satisfied with my state mandated ten acres and a cow I expect it would be a hard sell for most people in the information age.
To conclude, mass technological displacement is a fast approaching reality and the right should embrace UBI in the absence of any other viable solution.
Thank you for reading.
© Zombie_Ramboz 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file