What makes a human life valuable?
That's a huge question, obviously, and not one that's going to be settled in a magazine column. I just want to examine a small piece of it. I want to examine a particular assumption of US culture: the idea that what makes us valuable is money and work.
I've been thinking a lot about the idea of a guaranteed basic income. The notion is that instead of having a complicated patchwork of support programs (Social Security, disability, unemployment, and so on), everyone would just get a monthly check, enough to cover basic living expenses. Everyone. For most of us, our taxes would go up by about the same amount, and it would be a wash. Poorer people would have a net gain, while wealthier people would get a tax increase. Not necessarily a huge increase, though. The program would be partly paid for by dismantling the massive bureaucracy designed to administer support programs--and designed to throw up barriers to these programs, forcing people to jump through extensive and repeated hoops to get the support they're entitled to.
This column isn't intended to fully examine the economics of a guaranteed basic income (GBI). You can read the pros and cons elsewhere. I'm looking at a different question: Do people have a right to basic life needs, not as an exchange for work done, but simply because we exist? Are we valuable, simply because we are?
One of the most common objections to a GBI--indeed to any entitlement program--is the idea that people shouldn't get money they haven't worked for. Even if a program is cost-effective, even if it ultimately saves more than it spends (the way education and healthcare do), even if it benefits an entire society, many people won't like it. They see it as unfair. For many, a society where everyone works who's capable of it, where nobody gets anything for free, is itself an ideal.
It's a false ideal, of course. Many of the people promoting this ideal also promote tax breaks and other advantages for the rich. Very few of them are against an inheritance tax or estate tax, even though that's the essence of unearned income. And of course, to accept this ideal, you have to accept the patently ridiculous notion idea that our economy is fair. But that's another rant. I'm asking a different question. What would it mean for a society to give basic support to everyone, simply because we exist?
Or, to put it more simply: Why are we valuable?
I've been thinking about this lately because I've been...