Cooking the Books: Free is Cheaper
In 1964 a group of American liberal intellectuals calling themselves the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution submitted to President Johnson, on their own initiative, a set of proposals to deal with the impact of what was then called 'cybernation'. They argued that the coming of machines that didn't require a large labour force to operate them would lead to increasing unemployment and so less paying demand for goods and services. To remedy this, they proposed to break the link between income and having a job by instituting a guaranteed income for everyone, employed or not.
The socialists of the time saw the 'problem' the Committee perceived of industry being able to provide plenty for all with less living labour as reinforcing the case for socialism, making possible the application of 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs' on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. They regarded what the Committee proposed as pitifully inadequate and impossible under capitalism.
Now, over fifty years later, another group – University College London's Institute for Global Prosperity – has come up with a similar proposal to deal with the same drop in employment and income they expect to result from growing automation. Their proposal is in fact more radical: that 'free housing, food, transport and access to the internet should be given to British citizens in a massive extension of the welfare state':
'The recommendations include doubling Britain’s existing social housing stock with funding to build 1.5m new homes, which would be offered for free to those in most need. A food service would provide one third of meals for 2.2m households deemed to experience food insecurity each year, while free bus passes would be made available to everyone, rather than just the over-60s. The proposals also include access to basic phone services, the internet, and the cost of the BBC licence fee being paid for by the state ' (Guardian, 11 October).
This 'universal basic service' is offered as an alternative to the 'universal basic income' that others have proposed to deal with the same perceived problem of the impact of advancing technology of employment and incomes. From a socialist point of view, it is more attractive as it would reduce rather than pander to money-commodity relations. There were some members of the Socialist Party members in the 1950s who saw extending free services as the way to socialism (they left).
The trouble is that, as a reform of the 'welfare state', it is envisaged as being implemented under capitalism to deal with the problem of how to deal with people without an income from employment. Its proponents claim that it is 'fully costed' as all reforms have to be these days. They say that 'the value for an individual using all services would represent £126 of net weekly earnings' which could be funded by reducing the personal tax allowance; in other words, by reducing net weekly earnings. Which sounds like the 'redistribution of poverty' that the 'welfare state' has been all about.
A weekly saving of this amount would have the same effect as a weekly basic income of the same amount. It would be a wage subsidy to employers and so would exert a downward pressure on wages. Much better to go the whole hog and abolish the wages (work for money) system through making the means of production the common property of all, so that everyone can have free access to all of what they need.