Hear Alan Watts’s 1960s Prediction That Automation Will Necessitate a Universal Basic Income

One of the most propul­sive forces in our social and eco­nom­ic lives is the rate at which emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy trans­forms every sphere of human labor. Despite the polit­i­cal lever­age obtained by fear­mon­ger­ing about immi­grants and for­eign­ers, it’s the robots who are actu­al­ly tak­ing our jobs. It is hap­pen­ing, as for­mer SEIU pres­i­dent Andy Stern warns in his book Rais­ing the Floor, not in a gen­er­a­tion or so, but right now, and expo­nen­tial­ly in the next 10–15 years.

Self-dri­ving cars and trucks will elim­i­nate mil­lions of jobs, not only for truck­ers and taxi (and Uber and Lyft) dri­vers, but for all of the peo­ple who pro­vide goods and ser­vices for those dri­vers. AI will take over for thou­sands of coders and may even soon write arti­cles like this one (warn­ing us of its impend­ing con­quest). What to do? The cur­rent buzzword—or buzz-acronym—is UBI, which stands for “Uni­ver­sal Basic Income,” a scheme in which every­one would receive a basic wage from the gov­ern­ment for doing noth­ing at all. UBI, its pro­po­nents argue, is the most effec­tive way to mit­i­gate the inevitably mas­sive job loss­es ahead.

Those pro­po­nents include not only labor lead­ers like Stern, but entre­pre­neurs like Peter Barnes and Elon Musk (lis­ten to him dis­cuss it below), and polit­i­cal philoso­phers like George­town University’s Karl Widerquist. The idea is an old one; its mod­ern artic­u­la­tion orig­i­nat­ed with Thomas Paine in his 1795 tract Agrar­i­an Jus­tice. But Thomas Paine did not fore­see the robot angle. Alan Watts, on the oth­er hand, knew pre­cise­ly what lay ahead for post-indus­tri­al soci­ety back in the 1960s, as did many of his con­tem­po­raries.

The Eng­lish Epis­co­pal priest, lec­tur­er, writer, and pop­u­lar­iz­er of East­ern reli­gion and phi­los­o­phy in Eng­land and the U.S. gave a talk in which he described “what hap­pens when you intro­duce tech­nol­o­gy into pro­duc­tion.” Tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion enables us to “pro­duce enor­mous quan­ti­ties of goods… but at the same time, you put peo­ple out of work.”

You can say, but it always cre­ates more jobs, there’ll always be more jobs. Yes, but lots of them will be futile jobs. They will be jobs mak­ing every kind of frip­pery and unnec­es­sary con­trap­tion, and one will also at the same time beguile the pub­lic into feel­ing that they need and want these com­plete­ly unnec­es­sary things that aren’t even beau­ti­ful.

Watts goes on to say that this “enor­mous amount of non­sense employ­ment and busy­work, bureau­crat­ic and oth­er­wise, has to be cre­at­ed in order to keep peo­ple work­ing, because we believe as good Protes­tants that the dev­il finds work for idle hands to do.” Peo­ple who aren’t forced into wage labor for the prof­it of oth­ers, or who don’t them­selves seek to become prof­i­teers, will be trou­ble for the state, or the church, or their fam­i­ly, friends, and neigh­bors. In such an ethos, the word “leisure” is a pejo­ra­tive one.

So far, Watts’ insights are right in line with those of Bertrand Rus­sell and Buck­min­ster Fuller, whose cri­tiques of mean­ing­less work we cov­ered in an ear­li­er post. Rus­sell, writes philoso­pher Gary Gut­ting, argued “that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is vir­tu­ous.” Harm to our intel­lects, bod­ies, cre­ativ­i­ty, sci­en­tif­ic curios­i­ty, envi­ron­ment. Watts also sug­gests that our fix­a­tion on jobs is a rel­ic of a pre-tech­no­log­i­cal age. The whole pur­pose of machin­ery, after all, he says, is to make drudgery unnec­es­sary.

Those who lose their jobs—or who are forced to take low-pay­ing ser­vice work to survive—now must live in great­ly dimin­ished cir­cum­stances and can­not afford the sur­plus of cheap­ly-pro­duced con­sumer goods churned out by auto­mat­ed fac­to­ries. This Neolib­er­al sta­tus quo is thor­ough­ly, eco­nom­i­cal­ly unten­able. “The pub­lic has to be pro­vid­ed,” says Watts, “with the means of pur­chas­ing what the machines pro­duce.” That is, if we insist on per­pet­u­at­ing economies of scaled-up pro­duc­tion. The per­pet­u­a­tion of work, how­ev­er, sim­ply becomes a means of social con­trol.

Watts has his own the­o­ries about how we would pay for a UBI, and every advo­cate since has var­ied the terms, depend­ing on their lev­el of pol­i­cy exper­tise, the­o­ret­i­cal bent, or polit­i­cal per­sua­sion. It’s impor­tant to point out, how­ev­er, that UBI has nev­er been a par­ti­san idea. It has been favored by civ­il rights lead­ers like Mar­tin Luther King and con­tro­ver­sial con­ser­v­a­tive writ­ers like Charles Mur­ray; by Key­ne­sians and sup­ply-siders alike. A ver­sion of UBI at one time found a pro­po­nent in Mil­ton Fried­man, as well as Richard Nixon, whose UBI pro­pos­al, Stern notes, “was passed twice by the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.” (See Stern below dis­cuss UBI and this his­to­ry.)

Dur­ing the six­ties, a live­ly debate over UBI took place among econ­o­mists who fore­saw the sit­u­a­tion Watts describes and also sought to sim­pli­fy the Byzan­tine means-test­ed wel­fare sys­tem. The usu­al con­gres­sion­al bick­er­ing even­tu­al­ly killed Uni­ver­sal Basic Income in 1972, but most Amer­i­cans would be sur­prised to dis­cov­er how close the coun­try actu­al­ly came to imple­ment­ing it, under a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent. (There are now exist­ing ver­sions of UBI, or rev­enue shar­ing schemes in lim­it­ed form, in Alas­ka, and sev­er­al coun­tries around the world, includ­ing the largest exper­i­ment in his­to­ry hap­pen­ing in Kenya.)

To learn more about the long his­to­ry of basic income ideas, see this chronol­o­gy at the Basic Income Earth Net­work. Watts men­tions his own source for many of his ideas on the sub­ject, Robert Theobald, whose 1963 Free Men and Free Mar­kets defied left and right ortho­dox­ies, and was con­sis­tent­ly mis­tak­en for one or the oth­er. (Theobald intro­duced the term guar­an­teed basic income.) Watts, who would be 101 today, had oth­er thoughts on eco­nom­ics in his essay “Wealth Ver­sus Mon­ey.” Some of these now seem, writes Maria Popo­va at Brain Pick­ings, “bit­ter­sweet­ly naïve” in ret­ro­spect. But when it came to tech­no­log­i­cal “dis­rup­tions” of cap­i­tal­ism and the effect on work, Watts was can­ni­ly per­cep­tive. Per­haps his ideas about basic income were as well.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Rus­sell & Buck­min­ster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

Alan Watts On Why Our Minds And Tech­nol­o­gy Can’t Grasp Real­i­ty

Charles Bukows­ki Rails Against 9‑to‑5 Jobs in a Bru­tal­ly Hon­est Let­ter (1986)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Brian says:

    Uni­ver­sal basic income can­not work for a coun­try unless the pop­u­la­tion has sta­bi­lized. This is the prob­lem with most econ­o­mists; they are short sight­ed and don’t have the abil­i­ty to see the. If pic­ture.

  • Elio Hong, PhD says:

    “We should do away with the absolute­ly spe­cious notion that every­body has to earn a liv­ing. It is a fact today that one in ten thou­sand of us can make a tech­no­log­i­cal break­through capa­ble of sup­port­ing all the rest. The youth of today are absolute­ly right in rec­og­niz­ing this non­sense of earn­ing a liv­ing. We keep invent­ing jobs because of this false idea that every­body has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, accord­ing to Malthu­sian Dar­win­ian the­o­ry he must jus­ti­fy his right to exist. So we have inspec­tors of inspec­tors and peo­ple mak­ing instru­ments for inspec­tors to inspect inspec­tors. The true busi­ness of peo­ple should be to go back to school and think about what­ev­er it was they were think­ing about before some­body came along and told them they had to earn a liv­ing.”

    ― R. Buck­min­ster Fuller 1970

  • anon says:

    As the above quote near­ly asserts, a soci­ety dri­ven by a cor­po­rate hege­mo­ny mod­el is bound to reach an unsus­tain­able con­clu­sion. Think of the many coun­tries who are able to cre­ate a health care infra­struc­ture where com­pa­nies are for­bid­den to make a prof­it, and the cit­i­zens who such a sys­tem helps are much less vul­ner­a­ble to a myr­i­ad of man-made dis­eases which plague coun­tries with a for-prof­it health care sys­tem. As for the machines, when they even­tu­al­ly cre­at­ed to have a more advanced form of rea­son­ing than humans, the humans will become the virus to be eridi­cat­ed.

  • Chris Mentzel says:

    It will be hard for many to adjust to an idle life. Take a truck­er’s job from him and you remove his iden­ti­ty. What will he do with the free mon­ey? Buy more beer?

  • NoShitSherlock says:

    Watch the dam of cre­ativ­i­ty break when peo­ple get to stsy home and cash their ‘basic income’ check. First a par­ty in the street.

  • Steven Samuels says:

    The begin­ning of the end for mankind as we know it.
    The nuclear threat is US.

  • Viktor Thorell says:

    That’s what’s so trag­ic. That work is peo­ples iden­ti­ty…

  • mike hire says:

    Rus­sell, writes philoso­pher Gary Gut­ting, argued “that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is vir­tu­ous.”

    Imag­ine if we had philoso­phers and priests
    serv­ing us at fast food restau­rants …

    If every­one gets a wage
    so they can buy what­ev­er is made
    and they have enough mon­ey
    so they can fill their tum­my
    with desert after they’ve fin­ished their meal

    like chil­dren they’ll be
    hap­py and free

    just make ‘em go to school till they’re fifty

  • A Texan says:

    If we were not taxed to death via the pro­gres­sive income tax sys­tem, a lot of us could have mon­ey in the bank and pass some of those jobs onto oth­er peo­ple. We should have had 3 or 4 day work weeks decades ago.

  • Steve Caskey says:

    True I have always iden­ti­fied myself by my work, but in a future with­out work for oth­ers, for pay there will be many oth­er works, social ser­vices, vol­un­teer, small craft­ing, becom­ing more involved in your own food pro­duc­tion.

  • Marc Meinzer says:

    Greedy peo­ple won’t be sat­is­fied with the basic income or oth­er mass enti­tle­ments like basic man­u­fac­tured dwelling pods or what not. Oth­ers will still want pow­er over oth­ers in the form of hav­ing employ­ees. Also, var­i­ous ser­vice work­ers will always be need­ed. Com­pul­sive and even com­pul­so­ry worka­holism such as mer­chant sea­men being expect­ed to work 100 hours per week for months on end must be auto­mat­ed out of exis­tence. There are forms of enslave­ment oth­er than chat­tel labor. Per­haps the nuclear fam­i­ly should be replaced by more com­mu­nal liv­ing arrange­ments.

  • Paul Mick says:


    Tax Wealthy Accord­ing to Income*.
    By imme­di­ate ref­er­en­dum. This pro­vides:

    Medicare For All w/zero deductible includ­ing vision, den­tal.

    State Col­lege For All.

    Repair/Replace Infra­struc­ture coast-to-coast.

    $1200 month 18+.

    $500 month under 18.

    $15 min­i­mum wage.

    Don’t take any­one’s word for it. The math­e­mat­ics* speaks for itself.

    Research Scott San­tens, Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders, AOC.

    Ide­al start­ing point might be Twit­ter.

    To fur­ther a sus­tain­able democ­ra­cy:

    Man­date vot­ing rights. Includ­ing age 18 auto­mat­ic vot­er reg­is­tra­tion & nation­al hol­i­day for nation­al elec­tions.

    Remove the fil­i­buster in per­pe­tu­ity.

    Out­law PAC’s who influ­ence elect­ed offi­cials with cash rewards to vote for big busi­ness best inter­ests, not the vot­ing pop­u­lace.

    Make cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions
    includ­ing self financed ille­gal.

    Replace waste­ful finan­cial cam­paign resources with Pub­lic Ser­vice Announce­ments & pub­lic cam­paign debates on all lev­els — local, state, fed­er­al for all vet­ted broad­cast, in-print, on-line media affil­i­ates for all vet­ted US cam­paign­ers.


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