Erich Fromm and Free Access

Those confronted with the Socialist proposition that goods and services should be freely available for people to take according to their needs often react by claiming that this wouldn’t work because, first, nobody would want to work and, second, people would grab more than they needed so that shortages would again develop.

There are simple answers to these objections. First, the threat of starvation is not, and certainly should not be, the incentive to work. If some work is so unpleasant that nobody would freely choose to do it then it ought to be done by machines or not at all. Second, people only tend to be greedy and to grab in conditions of scarcity. If food and clothing were freely available in abundant quantities people would soon adjust to taking only what they needed just as they do now with tap water.

We are not alone in putting these arguments. For instance in 1966 Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst and writer, wrote a short essay in a book called The Guaranteed Income. Next Step in Socioeconomic Evolution? edited by Robert Theobald. This is the idea that, in order to maintain consumer demand in the face of the mounting unemployment some expect automation lo bring, every American citizen should be guaranteed a minimum income. This is in fact a futile proposal to try to reform capitalism so that it can cope with abundance. Fromm wasn’t too keen on the idea, but did answer the possible criticism that a guaranteed income might reduce the incentive to work. He wrote:

“I believe, however, that it can be demonstrated that material incentive is by no means the only incentive for work and effort. First of all there are other incentives : pride, social recognition, pleasure in work itself, etc. Examples of this fact are not lacking. The most obvious one to quote is the work of scientists, artists, etc., whose outstanding achievements were not motivated by the incentive of monetary profit, but by a mixture of various factors : most of all, interest in the work they were doing; also pride in their achievements, or the wish for fame. But obvious as this example may seem, it is not entirely convincing, because it can be said that these outstanding people could make extraordinary efforts precisely because they were extraordinarily gifted, and hence they are no example for the reactions of the average person. This objection does not seem to be valid, however, if we consider the incentives for the activities of people who do not share the outstanding qualities of the great creative  persons. What efforts are made in the field of all sports, of many kinds of hobbies, where there are no material of any kind !”


“It is a fact that man, by nature, is not lazy, but on the contrary suffers from the results of inactivity. People might prefer not to work for one or two months, but the vast majority would beg to work, even if they were not paid for it.”

Precisely. The guaranteed income would, however, reduce the incentive to be exploited by an employer — which of course is why it will never be introduced.

Fromm went on to propose what he considered a better idea: “the concept of free consumption of certain commodities”.

“One example would be that of bread, then milk, and vegetables. Let us assume, for a moment, that everyone could go into any bakery and take as much bread as he liked (the state would pay the bakery for all bread produced). As already mentioned, the greedy would at first take more than they could use, but after a short time this ‘greed-consumption’ would even itself out and people would take only what they really needed.”

Despite his good refutation of the objection that free goods and services would lead to widespread grabbing, Fromm is still thinking in capitalist terms as can be seen by his reference to the State paying the bakery money.

Fromm regards himself as a socialist, but is really only a member of the reformist Socialist Party of America. But what we can’t understand is why, having taken the argument this far, he doesn’t go all the way and advocate Socialism where, on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all the people, wealth would be produced in abundance and voluntary, enjoyable work and where money would be abolished with everyone having free access to what they needed to live and enjoy life. After all, he has no argument to put against this.

Leave a Reply