Guinea Pigs, Basic Income, and Something for Nothing

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Two Guinea pigs, Gyzmo and friend

In speaking with people about basic income one common response is “Why should people get something for nothing? One response would simply be that civilization is essentially “something for nothing.” Here is the full quote from from James Harvey Robinson:

“One cannot help but wonder at this constantly recurring phrase ‘getting something for nothing’, as if it were the peculiar and perverse ambition of disturbers of society. Except for our animal outfit, practically all we have is handed to us gratis. Can the most complacent reactionary flatter himself that he invented the art of writing or the printing press, or discovered his religious, economic, and moral convictions, or any of the devices which supply him with meat and raiment or any of the sources of such pleasure as he may derive from literature or the fine arts? In short, civilization is little else than getting something for nothing.”

But beyond this somewhat vague notion I believe that it is possible to argue that a basic income is a right that all persons possess and that it most certainly is not “something for nothing.”

In the abstract the basic argument turns on what life is like in what philosophers call the state of nature and what fair terms of the social contract must be.

In the state of nature persons have absolute freedom to do what they like. They can hunt, fish, forage, and find any uninhabited location and live there. They don’t have to get a job, i.e. submit themselves to someone else and forfeit a very significant portion of their freedom, merely to live somewhere and eat.

We currently exist in a society where people are not free to do those things. The most basic freedom available in the state of nature, that of free movement is taken from all persons in society.

So, why the hell would anyone want to live in society? The answer that has traditionally been given by philosophers is that individuals are motivated to come together under the auspices of a social contract because it affords all persons, all persons, a better life.

The basic idea of a social contract is that each person gives up their unlimited freedom for a more limited set of civil liberties.

It is important to remember that this type of theorizing is not about getting the facts exactly right about what happened in the first human societies but rather it is a way of thinking about the fairness of our current laws and political institutions.

Although I read and teach social contract almost everyday and it is second nature to me this type of theorizing doesn’t seem to come naturally to those who don’t study philosophy for a living.

Apparently it is not obvious that because people give up certain freedoms that they had in the state of nature they have a right to certain things, one of those things being a basic income, or rather a basic income is the simplest way to ensure that everyone gets what they have a right to.

As I was thinking about all this in relation to basic income and feeding my daughters guinea pigs it hit me.

Guinea pigs! Thats it! That’s how to explain basic income!

So, to those who wonder why someone could ever deserve to get something from nothing I ask, do my guinea pigs deserve to be fed for nothing?

They are cute but does that really count? No, it is for nothing.

Maybe I just feed them because my daughter would be sad if they died. That is true but even if it weren’t true I’d still think I have an obligation to feed them.

But how can that be? How can they deserve something for nothing!

The answer is that there is an implicit social contract between myself and my guinea pigs. By taking them out of the wild, out of their natural habitat and depriving them of their natural freedom, their natural right to do as they please I now have an obligation to provide adequate food and shelter for them.

Okay, so the analogy isn’t perfect. People aren’t guinea pigs, which is why human experimentation is not okay. But, but it does show that under certain circumstances a person can deserve something for nothing. Or further that the sacrifice of one’s natural freedom is a very significant something.

We are not used to thinking of our current system of property ownership as being something that impedes our freedom. But that is just because we are used to it. My guinea pigs probably don’t think of themselves as unfree either.

Basic income is really not something for nothing. It is something for a person’s willingness to participate in and follow the rules of the social contract. It is something for a person giving up their natural freedom to live anywhere in the world. It is something for what people give up to be a part of society. It is something for the thing that makes us human in the most true sense, our freedom.

For a nice summary of this line of reasoning check out Karl Widerquist’s argument on the topic here. It is also includes references to some actual philosophy papers.

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