Why cash has (almost) no place in a social security system.
Unconditional love is the ultimate expression of our humanity for a reason, because it is the basis of our successful evolution.
The purpose of social security is to provide unconditional support as the expression of solidarity, thereby maximising the output and the quality of our society. Conditionality defeats the central purpose of providing social security, corrupts all participants, and stultifies our society and its economy. Because cash distribution always includes conditionality, it has to be removed from social security.
There are two parts to this: cash benefits, and basic income. The distribution of cash (aka money) as part of our social security system is already in practice, so we will address that issue first, and then move on to review the idea of a “basic income” (aka a “citizen’s income”).
Cash in Benefits
To understand why cash benefits corrupt social security, you have to ask yourself what the point of social security is in the first place. What is the preeminent purpose of a social security system? Social security is the practice of solidarity, and solidarity is the foundation of human society, which evolved over millennia to gain advantage from large, diverse groups in order to become better problem solvers. Supporting diversity within a coherent group is the key, you never know who is going to have the particular skills or insight that prove to be the key to solving a future, new, unknown problem – so we support everyone, so that they can and will contribute their unique qualities to our common good. The success of our strategy is proven and exhibited by our massive population, and social security is the embodiment of that strategy.
Solidarity is an unconditional bond between members of a community. By definition solidarity is unconditional, there is a core to the social contract that is unequivocally guaranteed. There is no such thing as conditional solidarity, it is an oxymoron. As soon as conditionality enters the frame, solidarity exits stage left and notions of superiority and inferiority takes its place.
As soon as cash distribution is included in social security it becomes conditional. Why is that? Why can’t it be unconditional? Because it is not the true expression of social solidarity. Whether we verbalise it or not, the natural expression of solidarity involves the provision of basic life services, of needs, like shelter, food, care and access to the means to contribute. Because money is such a fungible resource (it can be used for anything) there is an automatic recognition that it might be used for something not intended to be part of the bond of solidarity, which is to say to satisfy a desire instead of a need. So conditionality enters the frame, and because it is impossible to impose conditions on money’s use, it becomes about the condition of the person receiving the money. Does this person deserve, and can they be trusted with, this ultimately fungible resource, to use it for its intended purpose? Even that cannot be be absolutely determined, so then the conditionality migrates deeper into the private space of the individual, and starts making demands on their behaviour designed to demonstrate their rectitude, and ultimately their conformance with some typification of common moral standards.
Aside: it could be possible, even necessary, to provide some kind of cash-like credit as part of a package of universal basic services that would not fall into the conditionality trap, such as a credit in a revolving account which sweeps the balance at the end of every period, say 2 weeks. The used value in a year could then be assessed as income for tax purposes.
And so the conditionality arrives at the place where it drives the exact opposite of the purpose of social solidarity in human society: it demands conformity, when the proper purpose is to support diversity. So the freaks and outliers, the people naturally inclined to take the biggest risks and experiment with norms the most, are funnelled like cattle into a system designed to sterilise their oddities. Thus we deprive society of the very means to engage with change, to face new challenges with fresh ideas, and we all stultify, calcify and wither on the vine.
Conditionality is, by definition, an attempt to control behaviour. Attempts by the state to control the behaviour of an individual are naturally resisted, which is why we have a police force. But the rules of social security cannot be deemed to be criminal (then we’d really have to admit that we are not aiming for solidarity), so instead infractions of conditionality are punished with sanctions. How mad is that? If you cut off basic support from someone who needs basic support because they are not meeting your conditions, what do you expect them to survive on? This lunacy results in two very unsocial outcomes: some learn to “play the system”, and others drop out of the system of social support altogether. A small minority, with the skills and aptitude, learn how to appear to be compliant with the conditions, but a larger population do not and they become an under class, a population only tenuously connected to society. Both populations are lost to the purpose of a greater good society, one by distraction and the other by exclusion.
If social security is to be the practice of solidarity is must be unconditional, and it must provide the basic necessities to support not just survival, but also to enable the ability of each individual to make their contribution to the whole. While we might call that a social “contract”, it is in fact only the expression of our evolutionarily inherited nature. There is no quid pro quo, and there needs to be none either. Our need to contribute, to cooperate, is indefatigable and innate, and can be absolutely relied upon without any conscious contractual expression.
Happiness is a relational experience, satisfaction is a relational experience, we are relative creatures – these are truths we should not need reminding of, but perhaps it is worthwhile to revisit them from time to time and re-digest them. In its proper form, social security is a guarantee of basic, life sustaining services, provided without condition, as an expression of our mutual solidarity as common members of a cohesive society. That expression, that version of social security, automatically attracts broad political support without conditionality. It is affordable and renders a multitude of indirect benefits that further reinforce its essential superiority over any system that includes conditionality.
What then of unconditional cash? Can we not provide an unconditional income to every member of our society as an expression of our solidarity?
No, because we cannot afford it, and perhaps that suggests its unnatural foundation. Before even considering issues such as effectiveness (is the income big enough to make a difference) and appropriateness (meeting the different needs of different citizens), let’s consider the more fundamental issue of affordability.
An unconditional cash income must always be in addition to a set of guaranteed services, such as shelter, food and healthcare. (This is a fact, only disputed by the libertarian advocates of BI.) Those services must be provided as the expression of our solidarity, irrespective any individual’s ability to pay. First we must determine our ability to provide those basic life sustaining services, comprehensively and properly, before we can entertain adding a basic/citizen income on top.
Once you have figured out how much effort and burden is required to guarantee those services, you find that there is no spare capacity to deliver a basic income. Certainly the additional tax burden to provide a guaranteed citizen income is self-defeating: who wants to pay more tax so that the state can hand it back to you as an income? Delivery basic LIFE sustaining services, and you find that you have already delivered all of the benefits attributed to a citizens income. More importantly, you find that you are availed of advantages that make it all affordable, advantages that would be directly overturned by providing a cash income. A basic income is the ultimate fantasy derived from the “money myth” born in the crucible of the industrial revolution – the truth is that we cannot buy our society, and we do not need to buy our society, our society predates money, and it is an aberration to believe that money can substitute or equivalate for society.
Let’s look at the advantages that a basic income expects to provide to society. First, it frees each individual to make their best intended contributions. Next, it rebalances the power in the labour market, empowering individuals to negotiate their compensation. It also encourages responsibility and prudence. But all of these advantages are also true when universal services are provided instead of cash income. And as we have established, the universal services must come first, so a basic income must be in addition to the those services, not a substitute for them.
The nail in the coffin for basic income is its distortion of the value economy. Whatever level the basic income is set at becomes the floor for the incentive to add economic value. Basic needs have been guaranteed, and cash distributed on top of that, so now desires can be filled through consumption transactions without exchange for labour or contribution. The monetary incentive needed to solicit contribution is elevated to the floor provided by the basic income and the monetary cost of everything in the economy is inflated to accommodate that barrier. Soon the cost of everything in the economy rises to meet with the value of the basic income and the freedom that the basic income was supposed to provide is squashed against the cost of everything. It is an unachievable circle of madness because it is founded on a myth, the myth that money is an expression of solidarity.
Even more importantly than the self-reduction in the value of the basic income is the effect that it has on investment. At exactly the time when we need to make massive investments to reach environmental sustainability, a basic income increases the monetary costs of those investments by raising labour rates, increasing the tax burden required to pay for them, and placing unsupportable pressure on the real value economy. Providing basic universal services is expensive enough that it pushes the tolerable tax burden to the maximum, a basic income tops that and puts investment for our survival out of reach.
See also this open letter to the Basic Income community.
There is a reality of dependency in our modern state that needs to be considered when implementing universal services: the fact is that many people are dependent on some “small mercies” to make their lives tolerable for themselves. For some this is a drink, others a cigarette and others some other inebriating substance, and all of those are not included in the universal services. With a cash benefits system they can “work the system” to cover these expenses, but without cash benefits and entirely relying on services, they would not be able to access these small mercies without doing something to earn a little cash.
The vast majority will be able to find sufficient work to earn enough cash to cover their preferred personal expenses, but there will be a minority who will face difficulty in doing so. It would be nice if they could rely on the same charity that provided the food banks for people when they did not have enough to eat, to provide “pleasure banks” instead, and help people with these small mercies, but that cannot be depended upon (excuse the pun). If you’re someone who feels that it would be cruel to deprive people of their small mercies, I hope you will make donations to your local pleasure bank.
So dependency services must be part of the universal services rollout, available in every community to assist these people. LIFE’s policies include the legalisation of various substances currently banned, and so it is not a point of legality, but rather a combination of health and care.