No such thing as free lunch

Photo by Casey Gomez

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

When millionaire venture capitalist Andrew Yang promises you $1000 a month, be skeptical. One of many candidates in a crowded Democratic field, Yang’s core policy is the “Freedom Dividend”, a guaranteed monthly payment from the government. It’s what helped him go from long-shot to … well, still a longshot — the most recent polls have Yang polling comfortably around 1-3%. But Yang’s importance has not been with his viability as a nominee, rather, it has been to inject the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) into the discussion. It’s equally important to understand, then, the true danger of a UBI and how it arguably speeds us along to the culmination of late-stage capitalism.

Anand Giridharadas describes in his 2018 book, Winners Take All, that philanthropy has become all the rage among the uber-wealthy for good reason. In their swashbuckling quest to become unfathomably wealthy, capitalists have found that despite ruining entire communities, environments and economies in their wake, by using their wealth in a charitable fashion, they present not only an argument that they should exist, but even that they are beneficial to society — “Look at all these charitable programs that might not exist had I not destroyed people’s livelihoods en-route to accumulating more wealth than any man ever should own,” they can say!

These charitable endeavors do little to change the imbalanced power dynamics between the wealthy and those that they have stepped on — the wealthy might give away money on their own terms, forcing a sort of reliance on charity while depriving others of the means to earn their living themselves. For example, many African countries are attempting to ban the import of second-hand clothing, donated by well-meaning individuals from more prosperous nations, as the imports have harmed the local textiles market, making it more difficult for individuals to earn their wage. When these individuals are deprived of the means to provide labor, they are deprived not only of their autonomy, but of their voice at the table when it comes to labor power.

A universal basic income accomplishes the same thing — ensuring the necessity of billionaires without changing the imbalanced power dynamic between the uber-wealthy and everyone else. Yang is repeating the same rhetoric espoused by countless other millionaires and billionaires — automatization is coming for your jobs.

The truth is far more complex, and a literature review by MIT concludes that “no one seems to be on the same page” when it comes to how many jobs will be lost to any automatization in the coming years. But for capitalists, removing pesky laborers from the equation — laborers who might strike, ask for a living wage, demand a seat at the table, etc. — may well be worth the price of the higher taxes used to pay for such a dividend.

It’s no surprise that noted anti-union billionaire Elon Musk harps frequently on the notion that automatization will replace jobs — if that vision comes to fruition, it’s far better for his bottom line, even if he’s paying more taxes for a UBI.

Members of the non-elite class should not fall victim to this kind of rhetoric — the discussed technology does not in any way create progress. Having a machine create your burger at McDonalds will be little faster or more efficient than when a human does it — its only benefit will be to cut costs and line the pockets of some of the wealthiest individuals in the world. The march of human progress is not found in a burger-flipping machine — it is found in improving the lives of individuals and granting them the means to make their own living, a fairer share of the profits produced by their labor, and more rights when sitting at the table with ownership.

The Freedom Dividend — a step to butter up Americans to yielding their own power as laborers — represents a dangerous step towards neo-feudalism.

Understand that labor, despite years of eroded privileges, still yields considerable power. Now understand that in accepting a universal basic income, accepting that your job will be replaced by technology and accepting your new role as a citizen who lives at the whim of the wealthy elites, you yield that power, and there is little you can do to bring it back.

Now understand this: there is no such thing as a free lunch.