Hedonism and Basic Income

As a hedonist, I have often defended the Welfare State, which includes, for instance, financial assistance to people who are unable to find work (or unable to work at all). The logic behind this is that the relief of suffering that ensues is not counteracted by a similar loss in pleasure by those who are taxed in order to fund such programs.

This kind of assistance can come in different forms. In Sweden, for example, there are unemployment benefits that are determined as a percentage of one’s previous salary (this has all sorts of requirements attached to it), but there is also means tested assistance which is calculated to cover only the necessities of life (rent, food, clothes, etc.). Other kinds of assistance exist for the sick, for students, for parents, and so on.

The idea behind a basic income is that these different kinds of assistance can be replaced by a single type of benefit that all citizens are entitled to. It does not matter whether they are unemployed, sick, students, parents, or simply people who choose not to work – they are all eligible to receive the basic income. The question is whether a basic income is preferable to traditional benefits from a hedonist perspective.

There is no clearcut answer to that question. As I stated at the outset, hedonists should defend some kind of assistance to those that are unable (and perhaps also unwilling) to work. On the plus side, a basic income lets people choose an “epicurean” way of life, which – I believe – can be conducive to increased happiness. Epicurus’s idea was that one does not need much in the sense of material wealth to be happy. More important is leisure and good friends. A basic income also enables engagement in political life (“civic virtue”), which is somewhat in line with John Stuart Mill’s ideals.

A drawback to basic income, however,  is that it may render some people too passive. Empirical research seems to confirm that sitting alone at home all day watching television (or something similar) is detrimental to one’s happiness. This means that a basic income is most beneficial to those who have good ideas about how to use their free time in an active way. Some traditional unemployment benefits require certain activities on the part of the recipient, and this is probably what some people need (whereas the idea behind the basic income is that it is supposed to be totally unconditional).

Is there a risk that a basic income scheme would become to expensive? Of course, hedonists must always take account of the fact that many people are not hedonists, and they will perhaps resent paying taxes to finance a basic income (which means that, for instance, entrepreneurs may “obstruct” these policies). On the other hand, it is not to be suspected that many people would choose to live on the basic income instead of working, because we must suppose that the level of the basic income is set rather low. It will allow people to live modestly by themselves, but it should not be set so high as to allow, for example, the forming of a family (something that most people want).

There is, however, a kind of paradox involved in this. If – as I believe – people could become happier by living in a more epicurean way and renounce many modern pleasures, and if more people realized this, then perhaps more people would want to live on a basic income instead of working. But then we could not afford the basic income scheme. The ideal, then, supposes that most people would not choose the epicurean way to happiness! If too many people choose that way we would have to come up with some other scheme, for instance, shortening the workday for everyone to five hours, which would radically reduce unemployment and increase leisure time (for most people). This compromise would be beneficial both to those who have a hard time finding something meaningful to do in their spare time and those who can’t get enough spare time. At the same time the level of production that is necessary to maintain a decent material quality of life can be kept going.

I have uploaded a longer text on the hedonist case for a basic income on the Social Science Research Network.

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