Cholbi and Weber (eds), The Future of Work, Technology, and Basic Income

Michael Cholbi and Michael Weber (eds), The Future of Work, Technology, and Basic Income, Routledge, 2020, vi + 193 pp, hbk, 1 138 31606 5, £115

To get an important criticism out of the way: This book really ought to have started with some definitions and then stuck to them. It is not until chapter 9 that we find a definition of ‘work’: ‘a physical or mental activity done in order to change a current state of affairs or a condition in the world that is experienced as unsatisfactory or defective’ (p. 153); but that is not how most of the authors understand ‘work’. In most of the chapters ‘work’ means ‘paid employment’, and ‘paid employment’, ‘work’, ‘labour’ and ‘employment’ tend to be used interchangeably. This is problematic, because it does not leave the word ‘work’ free to take on such additional meanings as ‘unpaid care work’, ‘voluntary community work’, and so on. The definitional problem relating to ‘Universal Basic Income’ is different. ‘UBI policies provide a minimal level of income to all individuals without condition and, arguably most importantly, without requiring them to work’ (p. 2). So far, so good: but then as we work our way through the book we find authors suggesting that ‘basic income’ might be both means-tested and work-tested. This is a significant problem because it means that when an author uses the term ‘basic income’ we cannot sure what they mean by it. All of this is something of a surprise, because most of the authors are philosophers, who ought to know that in an edited collection of this kind it is essential that authors should agree on definitions and then stick to them.

But having said that, as long as the reader is clear that this is a book about the relationships between paid employment, technology, and a variety of unconditional, means-tested, and work-tested incomes, it is a useful contribution to the field. At its heart is the idea that artificial intelligence could make a significant difference to the amount and types of paid employment, that the changes could be both liberating and traumatic, and that ‘UBI policies’ could be a useful response.

Some of the chapters offer arguments for Basic Income from ideological perspectives. Chapter 1 argues that Hayek’s libertarianism commits him to advocate a Basic Income, even though he did not do so; chapter 2 argues that anarchists should advocate for Basic Income on the basis that it would provide more protection for natural rights than existing property conventions can, and would promote egalitarian relationships between citizens; chapter 3 argues that Basic Income would be a good basis for relationships of respect throughout society; and chapter 4 proposes an anti-paternalist case for Basic Income.

Then follow chapters more closely related to the title of the book. In chapter 5, Evelyn Forget discusses the social and personal value of work (understood as paid employment), and asks whether a work requirement should be imposed on recipients of ‘basic income’. Chapter 6 discusses the benefits and burdens of employment, the ways in which technology might change employment and disadvantage workers, Basic Income’s advantages over current benefits, and the fact that a Basic Income would not be able to substitute for many of the social and personal aspects of employment. The author assumes that a Basic Income would substitute for employment, whereas the lower marginal deduction rates that it could deliver could increase employment incentives and therefore both increase paid employment and create new businesses; and also assumes that providing a Basic Income entails the provision of additional income, whereas it could perfectly well be funding by reducing tax allowances and means-tested benefits. If a Basic Income were to be funded on this basis, then there is no reason to think that consumption and its ecological consequences would necessarily increase. Chapter 8 offers a rather different perspective by recognising that motivation is diverse, and that a Basic Income would improve employment conditions and therefore motivate employment.

Chapter 7 defends an argument that work is bad and leisure good, and therefore that automation is desirable – and in this chapter the definition of ‘work’ is extended to include such creative ‘higher forms of activity’ (p.123) as craftwork and political engagement. Chapter 9 discusses ‘bad work’, Basic Income as an exit option, and ways of sharing socially necessary work; and chapter 10 discusses such ‘intimate labour’ as sex work and commercial surrogacy, and argues that the autonomy that a Basic Income would provide would be preferable to criminalisation.

There is no concluding chapter to draw together the threads; referencing systems differ between chapters; the index is rather skimpy; and the book is expensive.

While it is true that the authors have tackled their subject in a rather haphazard manner, and the book is more a collection of essays on subjects that interest the authors rather than a planned and coherent book, this is an important subject, and the book is an invitation to other researchers to take up the debate. It might be helpful if the next group of scholars to do that were to be by social policy academics rather than philosophers.