A Moral Argument for Basic Income by David Williams

Essays for a Guaranteed Income

This week, I am publishing a series of essays on Guaranteed Income and the ways it would change five people’s lives. Today, an essay from David Williams, edited by Meg Pillow.

David is currently working at a company committed to distributing ethically produced food, while writing his PhD thesis. David studies ethics and believes that some of our most significant ethical challenges concern the systems and supply chains we use to keep ourselves fed. These challenges range from concern for animal welfare, to access to affordable nutritious food, to worker safety and security. David strives to do meaningful work that take these challenges seriously while offering a compelling vision of the future.

I was working at a co-op in Minneapolis when the pandemic started. I saw people wear masks below their noses, below their chins, around their necks. I saw folks enter the store and immediately remove their masks. I saw a couple try on the masks we sold, pressing the cloth barrier up against their exposed noses and grinning lips, checking to make sure the style fit. 

I saw customers wearing 3M respirators with pink multi-purpose cartridges. These masks entered the store in May 2020. They were the same style and color as those worn by both the people who marched in protest of George Floyd’s murder and the arsonists who set Lake Street on fire. Humvees patrolled at dusk, seeming to pursue both groups indiscriminately.

Prior to April, the CDC hadn’t yet clarified its nuanced mask guidance. Masks were crucial, essential even, but there was a shortage of the kinds of masks which are more crucial, more essential, for medical professionals. So in April and May we had only just begun to appreciate that we were risking our lives simply by breathing, shopping, working near one another. In April and May, shoppers, employees, arsonists, and protestors chose for themselves how seriously to take the global pandemic. Customers made new decisions each day.

We worked dutifully. We stocked the shelves with marshmallows, macaroons, and almond milk; with flour, rice, and toilet paper. We understood that we were doing valuable work to keep our community fed. We understood this when we talked with diabetic customers who needed low-sodium bread; we understood this when we helped customers parse labels for signs of gluten, eggs, or dairy. And we were happy to help people nourish themselves. That was our job. We didn’t expect that our work would ever involve a persistent chance of grievous harm. We believed there was no reason for our parents and our partners to tell us to be safe, no reason for them to wish or pray for us to come home. 

Sometime between the riots, the burning of Lake Street, and the brief moment where food workers, postal workers, teachers were cheered as heroes, the manager of my store offered me a purple cloth mask which a customer had sewn and donated to the store. My glasses fogged as I exhaled; the mask softened, moistened. I inhaled, and I smelled stale saliva, the odor changing as it evaporated and rehydrated over the course of several hours. My first donated mask pressed against my nose in a way that required my jaw to hang slightly open in order for me to breathe fluidly. I worked my shift, the mask holding the day’s moisture, my jaw stiffening, my glasses in the breast pocket of my overalls.

Several times in May, we were sent home early or asked not to report to work—for riots, for COVID-19 exposures. We closed earlier and opened later than usual so we could sanitize the store and staff could walk or take public transportation without fear. We were handed documents which explained the apparent breach of curfew, should the police stop us: we were essential workers, reporting for service. I biked to work, south, down Portland Avenue, past Lake Street; smoke rose in the air behind me. Before we had finished preparing the store for the morning, the manager decided we would not open that day or the next. Someone made arrangements to donate food that would expire in the meantime. Black smoke continued to fill the sky as I biked home. A book store was burning on Chicago Avenue.

The strangest part of this experience was the way in which my team and I continued to show up. Despite the pandemic, the riots, the general chaos, the uncertainty, we came in and continued to do our best. Several times per week, the manager of the store would lay on the floor so that he could access the lowest shelves as he stocked them with pasta, curry, and refried beans. We worked dutifully. We kept the store tidy. Every hour we sanitized the handles of the freezer doors. A line formed outside ten minutes before we opened.  The air often felt as it does just before a summer storm: suddenly the pressure changes and the world feels heavy and light at once, the sky darkens and a cooling breeze builds. For eighteen months, this feeling lingered; it didn’t climax in any flash of lightning. It lingered as case counts went up, as one moment of unrest blended into the next, as votes were counted, recounted, as window were boarded up, un-boarded, boarded again and spray-painted: children live upstairs. We kept doing our job, customers kept coming, we kept people fed. We did essential work. Some of us persisted precisely because the work was essential, precisely because our community depended on us.

Some of us persisted because we saw no real alternative. If we had taken our health seriously—if we had decided not to work after the nights we only slept for five hours because helicopters were flying overhead, if we had refused to engage with people who refused to wear masks, people who refused to do this even as the thinnest, most meager sign of solidarity, if we had cared adequately for ourselves—we would have lost our incomes at the worst possible time. We understood this. We understood that there was no real protection for a person who might have said to themselves that the work, the wage, was not worth the chance of death. Instead, we understood that we must either wear the mask, be a hero, or take a chance without a wage, perhaps also without health insurance. In this way, a hero is someone who is obliged to do what is essential for others, even at the cost of what is essential for herself. This state of affairs is incredibly banal; we usually imagine that someone who resigns does andshould lose their income and health insurance. And we tolerate that with the loss of income comes also a loss of housing, food, and transportation; with the loss of health insurance comes also a loss of insulin and all sorts of pre-emergency care.  We have an opportunity now to reconsider whether this should be the standard.

I am telling this story to see if can employ our imagination in the service of an alternative to this standard. We do need an alternative, and not simply because grocery store workers risked their lives without meaningful alternatives, adequate protection, or commensurate compensation. We need an alternative because we consistently behave as if the interests of certain people are tertiary to a perhaps otherwise shared sense of stability and comfort. We behave as if it is more important that we have stable, consistent access to tomatoes and almond milk than it is to make sure no farmer or grocery store worker dies along the way. 

The present state of things is that folks regularly risk their lives for $15 dollars per hour, $30,000 per year and less, and we need to find an alternative. There are folks in our society who understand that they must either work some dangerous or undignified job or take a leap into abject destitution. And many of those jobs are essential for the kind of society and the standard of comfort we want to have. On its own, this is neither alarming nor problematic. People are willing to do all kinds of things if you pay them. And so we often suppose that in a free market people freely choose which risks to accept for a given wage, or that workers simply won’t accept work which isn’t adequately remunerative. These frameworks are profoundly inapt once we acknowledge that there are precarious workers who labor without dignified alternatives to destitution. It is not feasible for a worker to shop around for work freely, as it were, if he is unable to pay his bills and feed and house himself. There is no sensible way to refuse a job which pays a starvation wage if starvation or homelessness is the alternative. We need to ensure that no person need jeopardize their welfare in exchange for basic goods.

A number of us have spent the last 18 months, and counting, in a sort of somnambulant horror show. And we are coming to grips with the broader, longstanding inadequacies of our social safety net. Heroes and civilians alike continue to die from Covid-19, from wildfires, from working without rest and water in the summer sun while harvesting hops; folks continue to go homeless. Never before in my life have I seen so many people living in tents as I have seen in Minneapolis during this last year and a half. This moment—the pandemic, the unrest, climate change—represents the collision between an expectation of consistent, material comfort and certain social and environmental limitations. The society we imagine, the society we expect, is one where certain things are always available; it is essential that there be nurses, servers, chauffeurs, meat-packers. It scandalizes us to lose access to these things. And the obscenity of such a deprivation is heightened if we are forced to consider the fact that bad weather, a virus, or police brutality against unarmed African Americans can dispossess us of our civil comforts.

It is a shock for some of us to learn that the human will is so fragile. We cannot deal with these frustrations by ignoring the reality that nurses, servers, chauffeurs, meatpackers and others deserve to work in dignified conditions. Dignity should mean they can work without grievous threat of death or injury; dignity should mean folks can save for emergencies, celebrations, retirement. Hence, we are not doing enough to foster even the mere possibility that each person could live an appropriately dignified life in this society. There are folks for whom the bare minimum requires a dance with death.

This essay presents a moral argument. It is obscene that we expect people to risk their lives, to put into question whether they can return home without harming their families, for $15 per hour. We must try something else because we cannot tolerate an economic arrangement in which some of us have no meaningful alternatives to undignified, dangerous work. The pandemic did not create the conditions of this arrangement. Instead, it revealed that there is a sort of automatic mechanism by which people become fodder for abstract economic growth when we do not explicitly prioritize human welfare. We can strive to guarantee that each person in this country has access to basic necessities and conveniences of modern life.

This is a moral case for a guaranteed income: we should secure for each person the means necessary to live a modern life of dignity, and no one should be asked to take on an inordinate risk to enjoy such a life. I call this a moral argument and a moral case specifically because I am not making an economic argument for any specific economic policy or any specific form of guaranteed income. I am, instead, asserting that we should first commit to securing a level of human dignity and then figure out which specific policies get us there. If we think this is impossible or too costly, we should remember that we do impossible, costly things all the time by changing our grasp of what is worthwhile. Before we put a human on Mars, before a car drives itself across the country, we ought to figure out how to guarantee each person access to a dignified life.