Scott Santens has been thinking a lot about fish lately. Specifically, he’s been reflecting on the aphorism, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” What Santens wants to know is this: “If you build a robot to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?”
Santens is 37 years old, and he’s a leader in the basic income movement—a worldwide network of thousands of advocates (26,000 on Reddit alone) who believe that governments should provide every citizen with a monthly stipend big enough to cover life’s basic necessities. The idea of a basic income has been around for decades, and it once drew support from leaders as different as Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. But rather than waiting for governments to act, Santens has started crowdfunding his own basic income of $1,000 per month. He’s nearly halfway to his his goal.
Santens, for his part, believes that job growth is no longer keeping pace with automation, and he sees a government-provided income as a viable remedy. “It’s not just a matter of needing basic income in the future; we need it now,” says Santens, who lives in New Orleans. “People don’t see it, but we are already seeing the effects all around us, in the jobs and pay we take, the hours we accept, the extremes inequality is reaching, and in the loss of consumer spending power.”
Many experts believe that, unlike in the 20th century, people in this century will not be able to stay one step ahead of automation through education and the occasional skills upgrade. A recent study from Oxford University warns that 47 percent of all existing jobs are susceptible to automation within the next two decades. Worries about robots replacing human labor are showing up more frequently in the mainstream media, including the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Recent books, such as The Second Machine Age and Who Owns the Future, predict that when it comes to robots and labor, this time is different.
People in other countries, especially in safety-net-friendly Europe, seem more open to the idea of a basic income than people in the U.S. The Swiss are considering a basic income proposal. Most of the candidates in Finland’s upcoming parliamentary elections support the idea. But in the U.S., the issue is still a political non-starter for mainstream politicians, due to lingering suspicions about the fairness and practicality of a basic income, as well as a rejection of the premise that automation is actually erasing white-collar jobs. Hence Santens’ do-it-yourself approach.
“My solution was to turn to crowdfunding, so as to immediately empower myself and others to advocate for the basic incomes of everyone else,” Santens says.
Unlike most crowdfunders, Santens is not asking for seed money for a specific project, like a tech startup, a nonprofit organization, or a feature film. Nor is he asking for money for a specific problem like unpaid medical bills. He’s asking for free money to live his life. Any additional money that he crowdfunds, above $1,000 per month, will be donated to other basic-income activists who are doing the same thing. However, he will keep other money that he earns from working as a freelance writer. He says the same thing would happen with a government-funded basic income: People would keep the additional money they earn from their jobs.
The crowdfunding approach to basic income has shown some promise: A group of more than 19,000 basic-income advocates in Germany have funded 11 people so far with living stipends of 1,000 euros per month, no strings attached. The first few winners, chosen by a lottery, started receiving their basic incomes in September 2014. The eleventh winner was announced May 7.
Jason Burke Murphy, a basic-income activist and philosophy professor at Elms College in Massachusetts, has been following the German project with delight. “This project worked better than I thought it would,” he says. “The numbers of visits and the media response was really impressive.” Indeed, the stories told by the winners are inspiring. For example, one recipient is using his newfound freedom to write his dissertation. Another winner quit his job at a call center to study and become a teacher. Perhaps one anonymous commentator summed it up best: “I did not realize how unfree we all are.”
Santens’ crowdfunding foray has been embraced not only by liberals or progressives who are warm to government benefits but by some libertarians as well, such as Matt Zwolinski, a philosophy professor at the University of San Diego. In his view, a basic income would shrink the bureaucratic nightmare of the current $1 trillion social safety net. He applauds Santens’ effort because it provides proof that basic income can work without government involvement.
“A lot of people assume that if social insurance, or mail delivery, or a basic income is a good idea, then it automatically follows that we ought to have the state administer it,” says Zwolinski. “But it doesn’t automatically follow at all. Sometimes—I think a lot of times—important social goals are better realized through voluntary decentralized action than through the kind of coercive centralized control characteristic of the modern state.”
However, other basic-income advocates are skeptical of crowdfunded projects. “If this helps a few activists to get visibility for the concept and spend their time drumming up support, then I think it could be a positive, but likely very marginal, development,” says Martin Ford, a basic-income advocate and the author of The Rise of the Robots—which predicts a rapidly expanding takeover of jobs by automated systems. “The sad reality is that a lot of the people who will most need a basic income are not likely to generate a lot of sympathy among volunteer donors,” Ford says. “You see this already with charitable giving—people will give for families, children, and pets—but not so much for single homeless men.” Ford cautions against what he calls the “libertarian/techno-optimistic fantasy” of a private market solution. “Government, for all its deficiencies, is going to be the only real tool in the toolbox here.”
Those skeptical of basic income might ask: If you give people enough to live on, won’t they stop working? Won’t they get lazy? Evidence from pilot studies by Guy Standing, a professor of development studies at the University of London and a co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, points the other way.“When people stop working out of fear, they become more productive,” Standing says.
Karl Widerquist, a leader of the worldwide basic income movement, applauds Santens’ project, but says the goal of the movement is not to create privately financed basic income. “We need a publicly financed basic income for everyone; private charities can’t—and shouldn’t have to—do that,” says Widerquist, a philosophy professor at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University, and the author of several books and papers about basic income. Widerquist also organized the most recent North American Basic Income Guarantee Congress in New York in March. “The point of a private basic income is to show how well it works, draw attention to the issue, and further the movement for a truly universal basic income,” Widerquist says.
Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, Santens is asking basic-income advocates on Twitter to daydream a little bit and imagine what they would do with their time if they had a basic income. “I would be free to write (now with added dignity),” tweeted one respondent. Another wrote, “Twenties in musicians’ tip jars. Local artists’ work on my walls. Wads of cash to pedi-cab drivers. I would love sharing #mybasicincome.”
As for Santens himself, he will continue to be a freelance writer, but with a new peace of mind. “The only difference between now and then, really, will be my quality of life in being able to afford my most basic needs without worry,” he says. “That’s a big deal … knowing that money for rent and food will always be there at the beginning of each and every month, and that I may just be able to finally climb out of debt and even start saving some day.”
“But as far as pursuing my passions with a basic income,” he adds, “I’m already very fortunate to say that’s exactly what I’m already doing.”