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"Unemployment is a Victory"

by Ulrich Beck Friday, Feb. 23, 2007 at 10:47 AM

Higher productivity allows a maximum in prosperity to be realized with a minimum in human labor. Freedom, not full employment, is the alternative today.


The sociologist Ulrich Beck seeks to liberate people – with an unconditional basic income

[This interview published on: Tagespiegel online 11/30/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]


Mr. Beck, the theme of unconditional basic income, basic financing for everyone, is even discussed in the CDU (centrist party of Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel). The Thuringian prime minister urges introduction of a “solidarity citizen money.” How would this help the citizen?

Everyone would receive a fixed amount irrespective of his age and social situation assuring his existential security. All worries about the simple basic needs of existence would be gone with one blow.

How high should this amount be?

There are different concepts from 600 to 1500 Euros. I personally think 800 Euros a month would be proper. Until age 18, the parents would manage the basic income of their children as administrators.

Isn’t this idea a utopia?

Yes, a realistic, not an illusory utopia. Full employment about which our society still dreams is illusory. By stimulating the economy, everyone would work again. After an unsuccessful 20-year battle against high unemployment, we must ask again: How can one lead a meaningful life without a job? Looked at closely, unemployment is a victory, not a defeat. Higher productivity allows a maximum in prosperity to be realized with a minimum in human labor. Freedom instead of full employment is the alternative today.

Let’s assume the basic income was introduced. Who would still want to work?

Many will want to work for the first time because they wouldn’t have to accept the wage dictated by the employer but could independently negotiate just compensation. They would risk nothing because they have their basic income.

What about the “cheap” jobs no one wants to do?

They will cost more because they must be done and no one can survive with a starvation wage. That is what is special in the basic income. It makes the employee into an entrepreneur, particularly the one who does hard and unpleasant work.

What about those who don’t want to work any more?

Certainly some will only sit in front of the boob tube and do nothing. They also do this today. There is no causal connection. Whoever wants to work – the majority – will work in a freer and more self-determined way than today.

Some regard Hartz IV as a preliminary form of basic income.

That is wrong. The Hartz concept is backward-oriented. It expands the control of work and evades the key question: How do we create a system in which the enormous possibilities of automation and the creative forces of persons can develop?

Nevertheless people suffer when they have no job.

The problem is not unemployment but lack of money, the coupling of work and income. While paid work offers little meaning and less economic security, there are still many things to do in education, training and environmental work that many people would love to do if they weren’t also forced to secure their existence. Basic income could liberate us in two ways – from work coercion and to meaningful work.

Why hasn’t politics seized this tool?

The gossip about paid work as the only giver of meaning and our existence as an instrument of rule is responsible. Everything for us is oriented in paid work, the rhythm of the times of the day, training, and the transition from puberty to adult existence. The individual defines himself through paid work and therefore forces himself to adjust. If this self-pressure becomes unnecessary, one can on longer control freedom, many fear. When work ends, many of the titans of the work society lose the foundation of their power.

Do politicians fear losing their control?

Unfortunately, it seems so. The large majority of the population is regarded as lazy and weak-willed. The basic income fits capitalism. It could develop an enormous economic mobility, productivity and creativity. Many obstacles greatly slowing down the production process would fall away.

Don’t neoliberal thinkers also want this?

There is a giant coalition of supporters of the basic income. Milton Friedman who died recently, father of neoliberalism, alongside the socialist Andre Gorz, the archliberal Lord Dahrendorf and the East Berlin sociologist Wolfgang Engler are found there. They show how capitalism can be social when work is independent of income and self-determined.

What are the consequences of basic income for the economy?

A new legitimation basis for the economy would be created. Today’s corporations live in a paradoxical situation since acting economically is acting disloyally toward the state and the national workforce – and vice versa. Since insisting on the patriotism of managers hardly helps, managers must be trained who act in a German way.

How should the basic income be financed?

I regard the model of a universal consumer tax as reasonable. Capitalism would be promoted and tamed at once. Taxes are evaded everywhere except where goods are sold. Thus the entrepreneur is relieved and shares in the public interest. Whoever earns much should pay additional direct taxes.

The businessman Gotz Werner sees this differently. The consumer tax would be enough for the financing, he says.

I don’t want to commit myself too early. We are at the beginning of the discussion. In any case, the non-wage labor costs could fall. That would be the first step.

What are the political chances?

I see chances with the Greens and the FDP although the FDP strangely clings to full employment. It is hard with the SPD. Their power position as the party of paid work would be endangered by basic income. In the CDU, there are some divergent thinkers like Kurt Biedenkopf but usually they hold back. If we continue as in the past, we drive the lower third of society into hopelessness, criminality and violence. That will also be uncomfortable for those who own anything.

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