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Psychology of a Guaranteed Income

by Erich Fromm Tuesday, Apr. 18, 2006 at 2:51 AM
mbatko@lycos.com

The main obstacle to a guaranteed income seems to be psychological, the envy triggered by another's good fortune.. People will always work since boredom becomes overwhelming.

PSYCHOLOGY OF A GUARANTEED INCOME

By Erich Fromm

[Erich Fromm, psychoanalyst and teacher, was the author of many books including The Sane Society. This essay appeared as a chapter in The Guaranteed Income: Next Step in Economic Evolution? Edited by Robert Theobald and in The Nation, December 6, 1965.]




Until now, man’s freedom to act has been limited by two factors: the use of force on the part of the rulers (essentially their capacity to kill the dissenters), and more important, the threat of starvation against all who were unwilling to accept the imposed conditions of work.

Whoever rebelled against these conditions, even if no other force was used against him, was confronted with hunger. The principle prevailing throughout most of human history (in capitalism as well as in the Soviet Union) is: “He who does not work shall not eat.” This threat forced man not only to act in accordance with what was demanded of him, but also to think and to feel in such a way that he would not even be tempted to act differently.

The reason that past history is based on the threat of starvation has its source in the fact that with the exception of certain primitive societies, man has lived at a level of scarcity. There were never sufficient material goods to satisfy the needs of all, usually a small group of `directors’ took for themselves all that their hearts desired, and the many who could not sit at the table were told it was God’s or Nature’s law that this should be so. But it must be noted that the main factor in this was not the greed of the `directors’ but the low level of material productivity.

A guaranteed income, which becomes possible in the era of economic abundance, could for the first time free man from the threat of starvation, and thus make him truly free and independent economically and psychologically. Nobody would have to accept conditions of work merely because he feared hunger; a talented or ambitious man or woman could learn new skills in preparation for a different kind of occupation. A woman could leave her husband, an adolescent his family. People would no longer learn to be afraid, if they did not have to fear for their bread. (This holds true of course, only if no political threat inhibits man’s free thought, speech and action.)

A guaranteed income would not only establish freedom as a reality rather than a slogan; it would also establish a principle deeply rooted in Western religious and humanist traditions: man has the right to live, regardless! This right to live – to have food, shelter, medical care, education, etc. – is an intrinsic human right that cannot be restricted by any condition, not even the one that the individual must be socially “useful.”

The shift from a psychology of scarcity to that of abundance is one of the most important steps in human development. A psychology of scarcity produces anxiety, envy and egotism (to be seen most drastically in peasant cultures the world over). A psychology of abundance produces initiative, faith in life, solidarity. The fact is that most men are still geared psychologically to the economic facts of scarcity when the industrial world is in the process of entering a new era of economic abundance. Because of this psychological “lag,” many people cannot even understand the new ideas implicit in the concept of a guaranteed income.

A further effect of a guaranteed income coupled with greatly diminished working hours for all, would be to make the spiritual and religious problems of human existence real and imperative. Until now most men have been too much occupied with work (or too tired after work) to be seriously concerned with such problems as “What is the meaning of life?”, “What do I believe in?”, “What are my values?” and “Who am I?”. If work ceases to be the main concern, man will either be free to confront these problems seriously – or he will be driven half mad by boredom. It should follow that economic abundance would mark the transition from a pre-human to a truly human society.

To balance this picture, one must raise some objections against, or at least questions about the concept of a guaranteed income. The most obvious question is whether it would not reduce the incentive for work.

It is a fact that even now there is no work for an ever-increasing sector of the population, and that for these people the question of incentive is irrelevant. Nevertheless the objection is a serious one. I believe however that it can be demonstrated that material necessity is by no means the only incentive for work and effort. Pride, social recognition, pleasure in work itself – examples of the force of such alternate incentives are not lacking. An obvious one is the work of scientists, artists, et. Al. whose achievements were not principally motivated by the need for money but by a mixture of factors, interest in the work, satisfaction in the achievement or the wish for fame. But obvious though this example may be, it is not entirely convincing because it can be said that such outstanding people will make extraordinary efforts precisely because they are extraordinarily gifted, hence they give no clue to the reactions of the citizenry at large. This objection may be overcome, however, if we consider the incentives for people who are not notably creative. What prodigious effort is expended on sports, on recreation, on hobbies, from which no material rewards are to be expected! Prof. Elton Mayo closely demonstrated the extent to which interest in the work process itself can be an incentive for working for the first time in his classic study at the Chicago Hawthorne works of the Western Electric Company. The very fact that unskilled women workers were drawn into the experience of work productivity of which they were the subjects, the fact that they became interested and active participants in the experiment, resulted in increased productivity. As a corollary, their physical health improved.

The situation becomes even clearer from the study of older forms of society. The efficiency and incorruptibility of the traditional Prussian civil service were famous, d3espite the fact that wages were very low. In this case such concepts as honor, loyalty, and duty were the determining motivations for excellent work. Still another motivation appears in pre-industrial societies (like medieval Europe or the half-feudal Latin-American states at the beginning of this century). In these societies the carpenter, for instance, wanted to earn enough to satisfy the needs of his traditional standard of living, and would refuse more work, when he had reached that point.

Aside from the multiple incentives to work, it is a fact that man, by nature, is not lazy. On the contrary, he suffers from the results of inactivity. People might enjoy loafing for one or two months, but the vast majority (except for the very sick or the most philosophic) would after that beg to work, even without pay. The fields of child development and mental illness offer abundant data in this connection. What is needed is a systematic investigation in which the available facts are organized and analyzed from the standpoint of “laziness as disease.” Modern alienated man is deeply bored (usually unconsciously) and hence has a yearning for laziness, rather than for activity. This yearning, however, is itself a symptom of our “pathology of normalcy.” Presumably, misuse of the guaranteed income would disappear after a short time, just as the new clerk in the candy store ceases to filch caramels after a few weeks of gorging.

Skepticism as to the benefits of the guaranteed income is also expressed in the observation that those who earn a comfortable living are probably just as afraid to lose a job that gives them, say, ,000 a year, as are those who might go hungry if they were to lose their jobs. If this objection were valid, the guaranteed income would still increase the freedom of the large majority, but would do little for the middle and upper classes.

In order to deal responsibly with this objection we must consider the spirit of contemporary industrial society. Man has transformed himself into a homo consumens. He is voracious and passive, and tries to compensate for his inner emptiness by continuous and ever-increasing consumption (there are many clinical examples for this mechanism in cases of overeating, overbuying, overdrinking, as a reaction to depression and anxiety): he consumes cigarettes, liquor, sex, movies, travel, as well as education, books, lectures, and art. He appears to be active, “thrilled,” yet deep down he is anxious, lonely, depressed and bored (boredom can be defined as that type of chronic depression that can successfully be compensated by consumption). Twentieth-century industrialism has created this new psychological type, homo consumens, primarily for economic reasons, i.e. the need for mass consumption, which is stimulated and manipulated by advertising. But the character type once created also influences the economy and makes the principle of ever-increasing satisfaction appear rational and realistic.

Contemporary man thus has an unlimited hunger for more and more consumption. From this follows several consequences. If there is no limit to the greed for consumption and since in the foreseeable future no economy can produce enough for unlimited consumption for everybody, thee can never be true “abundance” (psychologically speaking) as long as the character structure of the homo consumens remains dominant. For the greedy person there is always scarcity – he never has enough, however much he has. Furthermore he feels covetous and competitive toward everybody else. Hence he is basically isolated and frightened. He cannot really enjoy art or other cultural stimulations since he remains basically greedy.

It follows that persons so oriented who lived on the guaranteed income level would feel frustrated and worthless, and those who earned more would remain prisoners of circumstances because they were frightened and had lost the possibility for maximum consumption. For those reasons I believe that guaranteed income without a change from the principle of maximum consumption would take care of only certain problems (economic and social) and would not have the radical effect possible from its implications.

What then must be done to implement the guaranteed income? Generally speaking, we must change our system from one of maximal to one of optimal consumption. This would mean a vast change in industry from the production of commodities for individual consumption to the production of commodities for public use: schools, theaters, libraries, parks, hospitals, public transportation, housing, in other words an emphasis on the production of those things that encourage the unfolding of the individual’s inner productiveness and activity. It can be shown that the voraciousness of homo consumens is directed mainly toward the things he “eats” (incorporates): the free public services, which enable the individual to enjoy life, do not evoke greed. Such a change from maximal to optimal consumption would require drastic changes in production patterns, and also a drastic reduction of the appetite-whetting techniques of advertising.

These considerations lead to other problems that require further study: Are there objectively valid criteria to distinguish between rational and irrational, between good and bad needs, or is any subjectively felt need of the same value? (Good is defined here as enhancing human aliveness, awakeness, productivity, sensitivity; bad as weakening or paralyzing these human potentials.) In the case of drug addiction, overeating, alcoholism, we all make such a distinction. Study in this area should lead to the following practical consideration: what are the minimum legitimate needs of an individual? (For instance, one room per person, so much clothing, or so many calories, so many culturally valuable commodities such as radio, books, etc.) In a society as abundant as the United States today, it should be easy to figure the cost for a decent subsistence minimum and also what the limits for maximal consumption might be. Progressive taxation on consumption beyond a certain threshold could be considered. All this would mean the combination of the principles of a guaranteed income, with transformation of our society from maximal to optimal individual consumption, and a drastic shift from production for individual needs to production for public needs.

I believe it is important to consider along with the idea of a guaranteed income the concept of free consumption of certain commodities. One example would be that of bread, then milk and vegetables. Let us assume 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). The greedy would at first take more than they could use but after a short time this “greed consumption” would wear itself out and people would take only what they really needed. Such free consumption would, in my opinion, create a new dimension in human life (unless we look at it as the repetition on a much higher level of the consumption pattern in certain primitive societies). Man would feel freed from the principle, “he who does not work shall not eat.” Even this beginning of free consumption might constitute a novel experience of freedom. It is obvious even to the non-economist that the provision of free bread for all could be easily paid for by the state, which would cover this disbursement by a corresponding tax. However we can go a step further. Assume that not only all minimal needs for food were obtained free – bread, milk, vegetables, fruit – but that everybody could obtain, without paying, say one suit, three shirts, six pairs of socks, etc..per year, that transportation was free (requiring, of course, vastly improved systems of public transportation), while private cars became much more expensive. Eventually, one imagines, housing could be solved in the same way, by big housing projects with sleeping halls for the young, one small room for older, or married couples, to be used without cost by anybody who chose.

This leads me to the suggestion that a way of solving the guaranteed-income problem would be by free minimal consumption of all necessities, instead of through cash payments. The production of these minimum necessities, together with highly improved public services, would keep production going, just as would guaranteed-income payments.

It may be objected that this method is more radical, and hence less acceptable than the proposal to guarantee everyone an income for life, but it must be noted that free minimal services could theoretically be installed within the present system, while the idea of guaranteed income will not be acceptable to many not because it is not feasible but because of the psychological resistance against the abolishment of the principle: “he who does not work shall not eat.”

One other philosophical, political and psychological problem to be studied is that of freedom. The Western concept of freedom was to a large extent based on the freedom to own property, and to exploit it, as long as other legitimate interests were not threatened. This principle has actually been punctured in many ways in Western industrial societies by taxation, which is a form of expropriation, and by state intervention in agriculture, trade and industry. At the same time, private property in the means of production is becoming increasingly replaced by the semi-public property typical of giant corporations. While the guaranteed-income concept would mean some additional state regulations, it must be remembered that today the concept of freedom for the average individual lies not so much in his freedom to own and exploit property (capital) as in his freedom to consume whatever he likes. Many people today consider it an interference with their freedom if unlimited consumption is restricted, although only those on top are really free to choose what they want. The competition between different brands of the same commodities and different kinds of commodities creates the illusion of personal freedom, when in reality the individual wants what he is conditioned to want. A new approach to the problem of freedom is necessary; only with the transformation of homo consumens into a productive, active person will man experience freedom as the opportunity to do what is most fulfilling and not as an unlimited choice of commodities.

The full effect of the principle of the guaranteed income is to be expected only in conjunction with:

(1) A change in habits of consumption, the transformation of homo consumens into the productive, active man (in Spinoza’s sense).

(2) The creation of a new spiritual attitude, that of humanism (in theistic or nontheistic forms).

(3) A renaissance of truly democratic methods (for instance, a new lower house of Congress in which would be integrated decisions arrived at by hundreds of thousands of face-to-face groups).

The danger that a state that nourishes all could become a mother goddess with dictatorial qualities can be overcome only by a simultaneous, drastic increase of democratic procedure in all spheres of social activities. The fact is that even today the state is extremely powerful, without giving these benefits.

In sum, together with economic research in the field of the guaranteed income, other study must search out the psychological, philosophical, religious and educational parallel effects. And it must not be forgotten that the guaranteed income can succeed only if we stop spending 10 percent of our total resources on economically useless and dangerous armaments, if we can halt the spread of senseless violence by systematic help to the underdeveloped countries, and if we find methods to contain the population explosion. Without such changes, no plan for the future will succeed, because there will be no future.



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