Like “King of the Road”, I too am by no means a man of means and yet, thanks to the generosity and foresight of my great aunt Jocasta, I do not want for anything. In theory at least I need not work. A trust set up in my name when I was a boy assures me a regular, if modest, income. Over the years, this has enabled me to pay off a mortgage on a house that nobody wanted when I bought it, but which is now quite a desirable residence. It has also enabled me to run a car that demands more love than most and pay a pittance to my housekeeper who demands nothing more than that I keep out from under her feet when she’s busy.
It’s not fair, of course, but then nothing is. I could have been born in Afghanistan, or had penniless relatives. Though curiously enough, the reason that I do have my trust income derives directly from Jocasta and Haviland’s desire to keep some of the family money from disappearing into the black hole that was the legacy of my great-grandfather Sir Tristan, who did indeed die penniless. Although Haviland suffered at one remove from this shameful chapter, the fact that he was only two and a half years younger than his aunt, and adored her above all things, made anything that affected her affect him deeply.
It was his legal training, coupled with Jocasta’s determination that managed to wrest a remnant of Sir Tristan’s estate, a remnant that was in some way entailed and thus not directly under great-grandfather’s control, from the jaws of the bank and preserve it in a trust fund for posterity. Posterity turned out to be mainly me, as my three sisters, subject to a clause we would now consider deeply sexist, lost two thirds of their interest the day they married. How Jocasta, the prototypical feminist, signed up to this I cannot imagine. I fancy it was an example of Haviland’s taste for realpolitik and reflected his and Jocasta’s desire to preserve what little was left of the estate … you might recall that in 1951 Haviland persuaded Churchill to restore Blake Atherton to the family, after it had been commandeered from the egregious bank during the war.
Surely all this affluence, however modest, must have prevented me from doing a real day’s honest work? Actually, not: but it has freed me from abject necessity and enabled me to spread the wings of my imagination to consider “work” in the largest sense of the term. Thus I have, in the course of a little lifetime, served as a volunteer on several overseas projects, worked as a freelance journalist and writer, aided a number of friends and associates in the renovation and or restoration of their homes, gardens and various decrepit but classic vehicles, helped to replant a riverbank, to rebuild a chapel, restore a disused railway, raise money for diverse charities and in general given freely of my time, energy and substance. I did all this, not because I’m an especially good person, I’m definitely not, but because I was available, interested and had some limited skills. I might have done a great deal less “work” over the last 4 decades if I’d had a normal paying job!
Recently there has been some debate, but mostly jeering and hissing, over an idea initially floated by the various Green parties in Europe, to introduce a Minimex subsistence grant. This minimum income would be the birthright of every adult citizen, regardless of their job status or lack of same. Nor would any gainful employment over and above this amount disqualify them from that right. The idea, in principle, is a good one as it separates the work ethic from pecuniary necessity. It also frees up the human spirit to imagine all the ways in which one might be of service to one’s fellows, were it not for the drudgery of meaningless toil. And let’s face it; a lot of toil is indeed meaningless. True, many of us have interesting and rewarding jobs. But we are the lucky ones. If our survival were secure we might even choose to do those interesting and rewarding things for free or for much less than we are currently paid. We are very fortunate that we are paid for doing something we enjoy most of the time. However, the majority of humanity works hard at jobs that are less than rewarding.
Some of these jobs are counter productive: only aimed at undermining the abilities and skills of others in a futile spiral of competition. Some of them are socially valueless: producing meretricious stuff that nobody would really need if demand were not artificially stimulated by advertising. Some of them are parasitic, insofar as they serve to institutionalize and create a clientele for the very ills they are nominally dedicated to fighting. Some of them are inhumane: actually producing “goods” and “services” that are damaging to our health, genetic patrimony, social fabric, or even life itself. Some jobs harm the environment. Some jobs are by their nature demoralizing. Some jobs only serve to enrich those whose wealth is already obscene, while some jobs – far too many – account for, regulate and dispense the largesse of a state that would be significantly leaner if people’s independence from the system were more encouraged than their dependence upon it.
The great merit of the Minimex idea is that it would be universal and inalienable. In other words, it would require no complex apparatus of means tests and applications, of appeals and deferments, to function correctly. If you were over 16, born here, or born within the EU, you would qualify. If you have lived here blamelessly and legally for more than five years, you would qualify. To those who would argue that this would make us all dependent on the state, I would say that our health services already do that, and it doesn’t seem to cause us any sleepless nights. In return we might sign up to a citizen’s charter that would commit us individually and collectively to certain values and oblige us to participate in the democratic process. This would have the salutary effect of massively increasing suffrage and giving back a modicum of pride to the disenfranchised among us who currently have to spend so much of their lives in queues or filling out forms or getting something or other rubber-stamped or reporting to some nosey authority just to prove they have the right to exist.
It would also have a dramatic effect on the employment market. The boring jobs would not all at once disappear, but they would surely get more interesting. Meaningless, meretricious employment would find itself threatened with extinction. If they didn’t have to take it in order to survive, people would think twice before taking a job that hurts others or the environment, or one that only serves to inflate the wealth of plutocrats. Work as a form of service would become more commonplace, as would all forms of cooperative enterprise, whether social or economic. We would quickly learn the value of pooling our resources and skills to advance our own aims and the good of society. A Minimex, far from plunging us all into communism, might be the start of a whole new chapter in human enterprise.
Yet the simplicity and brilliance of the idea is also its Achilles heel. If the Minimex stimulates the non-monetary economies of cooperative exchange, of barter, of voluntarism, then who is going to pay all the taxes needed to fund the system? Of course, the side benefits might be so significant as to enable the state to dismantle a large part of its current costly machinery of social management. If the Minimex became the only entitlement one received as an able bodied citizen, then healthcare, for one thing, could be partially refinanced via Minimex vouchers. Minimex would also largely replace unemployment money. One would receive severance pay from one’s employer, but after that, the responsibility would entirely be one’s own to find further work. I do not think this would increase the number of shirkers. As one who has received such a sum all his adult life, I can only confirm that it has made me more, not less diligent, more, not less productive and more, not less altruistic. Though I cannot guarantee such an effect on the broad mass of humanity, I can at least hope that it lies more in the realm of the probable than the possible. The rule of thumb with financial endowments is well expressed by George Clooney’s character in The Descendents
. These should represent “enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing”.
Calculating exactly what that sum might be, as a proportion of average living expenses, would be the first challenge facing the future of the Minimex as a political and social tool. It should cover bare necessities and avoid encouraging luxury or the non-essential. Yet the terms “necessity” and “essential” need some radical definition if we are to avoid an expensive white elephant on the one hand, or a drip feed to misery on the other. The essential, in other words, must include things of the mind and spirit, not merely of the body and the physical fabric of life.
A system of cash and vouchers might take care of all these requirements: food vouchers, service vouchers, housing vouchers, transport vouchers, energy vouchers, health vouchers, education vouchers, culture vouchers and a little solid money for unforeseen and individual needs. The quantity or value of each type of voucher might vary, depending on circumstances such as age, location and family situation, the aim being to give everyone, everywhere parity, while tailoring the Minimex to meet real circumstances. Or one could grant everyone within a certain zone (urban capital, urban provincial, suburban capital, suburban provincial, rural north, rural south) and a certain demographic exactly the same number or value of each voucher and simply allow these to be traded freely. That would save the state the bother of policing the system: two birds with one stone. I’d vote for it. I’d be stupid not to. I’d be better off. Maybe I wouldn’t have to work so hard...
© Edwin Drood
, August 2014
The original logo for the German organization Bürgerinitiative bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen
(Citizens' Initiative for Unconditional Basic Income). Logo design: © David John