Exploitation and UBI (Mandatory Participation on Trial, Part 7)

The exploitation objection to UBI, which goes hand-in-hand with the reciprocity objection, is essentially the following. Most of the goods people might buy with UBI require labor. Therefore, people who receive UBI benefit from the labor of others with no obligation to contribute their labor to production. Opponents say that this feature of UBI allows nonworkers to take unfair advantage of, or exploit, workers.

Winter Life on the Plains. Etching from the 1880s.

This use of the concept of exploitation is very different from the centuries-old class-based conception, in which capital owners, who are not required to labor, are able to take advantage of working-class people who have no legal means to survive other than by selling their labor to capital owners. UBI relieves the source of this vulnerability by giving workers an exit option.

Once we consider giving workers the exit option they need to resist class-based exploitation, people suggest that they can’t use the option without exploiting each other. It’s as if the workers can’t win. The exploitation objection vilifies the people with the least power and privilege in society—people who can’t find a job worth taking.

Like the work ethic and reciprocity objections, the exploitation objection ignores the existing group of people who actually hold power over workers and who are allowed to benefit from labor without an obligation to contribute labor themselves. These property owners are the very people workers have to serve to fulfill their work obligation.

If people who make the exploitation objection to UBI wanted to create a society in which no one benefited from labor without contributing their own labor, they would have to find some way to ensure that every wealthy person contributes labor as well. Again, I’d like to see the plan. If not, the use of the exploitation argument in defense of the existing system is disingenuous and hypocritical.

The exploitation objection relies on the questionable belief that all employed people contribute to society while nonemployed people don’t. These beliefs are clearly false. Many jobs are bullshit jobs that contribute little or no value to society. Other jobs create more social harms like pollution than social benefits. Some jobs prey on people’s irrationalities and addictive tendencies to get them to eat too much, drink too much, spend too much time on social media, or take addictive painkillers. Imagine how many lives would have been saved if all the people who marketed opioids over the last several decades had lived off UBI instead.

Many nonworkers are unable to get jobs as good as yours and mine. I’m skeptical that we’re good enough at ethics to apply the label “exploiter” to people who are unable to get jobs as good as ours and refuse the jobs leftover. In fact, maybe we’re the exploiters if we force other people to do low-paid, low-status jobs, while we enjoy higher-paid, higher-status jobs with better working conditions.

The best way to relieve people with bad jobs from exploitation is to protect the power to quit and respect their choices.

Even if we ignore these problems with the exploitation objection, it is questionable whether UBI causes worker-to-worker exploitation at all. Although production requires work, it also requires other ingredients, such as natural resources. There is no reason all exchanges must be labor-for-labor rather than labor-for-resources. Remember that UBI is basic. People who live entirely off UBI have access to a smaller share of resources and the things we make out of them than everyone else. In a world with 7 billion people and a deteriorating environment, making do with less is an important contribution.

For example, consider people sharing an island that needs a well. One person agrees to dig it in exchange for a larger share of the island’s land. Everyone else who has a smaller share of land gets a UBI with which they buy water from the well. The nonworkers have contributed to the digger’s reward by making do with less land. Just because the digger’s contribution is in the form of labor, and everyone else’s contribution is in the form of land doesn’t mean the exchange is exploitive. In fact, exploitation could go in the other direction: if some authority gave the digger permanent ownership of the entire island in exchange for, say, a few days effort of digging a well, he and his successors would gain privileged control over the island’s resources and effective over its people.

Furthermore, a labor-for-labor trade is not necessarily better for the digger than land-for-labor. If everybody pitched in to dig the well, the digger wouldn’t be entitled to a larger share of land anymore. The digger might prefer the larger share of land rather than the help of a bunch more diggers. Appropriate compensation for working is to receive enough to make you choose work out of self-interest. Appropriate compensation for making due with less resources is to receive services from people who get to enjoy more. Both the worker and the person who lives solely off UBI are appropriately compensated.

“The Prehistory of Private Property” in Spanish Translation

If exploitation is taking unfair advantage, UBI creates no opportunity for it. There is nothing to be taken advantage of. If you want greater access to resources and the things we make out of them, work. If you’re willing to accept less access, we offer UBI as the reward for your modest lifestyle. There must be some price at which this labor-for-resource-access trade is a fair exchange.

Now reconsider the issue of class-based exploitation. Although some people without jobs under a UBI system might happily accept services in exchange for a smaller share of resources, other nonworkers might be willing to work but are sitting out because they’re unable to find a nonexploitive job in a system still tends to over-reward privileged people. If we want to build a society of equals before the law, we should keep class-based exploitation foremost in our minds.

Workers might be suspicious of an authority that is more concerned with the possibility that the lowliest individuals will exploit higher-consuming individuals than it is with the source of workers’ vulnerability to class-based exploitation. People who make the rules might confidently claim they know how to eliminate class-based exploitation with labor-market regulation, but if they don’t respect workers enough to let them decide for themselves, workers might be right to be suspicious.

UBI probably won’t be enough to make up for all injustice against disadvantaged people, but at least it gives them the power to refuse to contribute to a system that they believe takes advantage of them. We cannot eliminate all injustice, but we can respect people enough to say: if you think the work options available to you are exploitive, you don’t have to accept them. I can’t imagine a better tool to fight exploitation.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Most of the posts in this series were written with the intention of going into my forthcoming book, Universal Basic Income: Essential Knowledge for MIT Press, and many, if not most, of the ideas presented here did make it into the book, but the publisher suggest I soften the wording and some of the arguments, because as is, in this version of it, “the anti-UBI crowd seems like a bunch of mustache-twirling robber barons,” and she rightly thought that the antagonistic stance would be less convincing than more confrontational one here. So, for the book, I made those changes, but I liked what was left out as well. I thought there must be a place for it. And I decided that place was on my blog. I refer everyone to the book because it has a different approach; because it benefits from peer review, copyediting, and more extensive proofreading; and because it has important ideas that aren’t here. Also, many of the arguments here are developed more fully in other books and articles of mine, most of which you can find on my website: www.widerquist.com.

Karl Widerquist, Karl@Widerquist.com

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