There’s been a lot of talk lately, from many ideological corners, about the idea of a basic income guarantee – the idea of scrapping all our complex welfare programs and replacing it with a guaranteed income. From first principles, this seems doable. Our modern transfer programs cost a lot of money, and if you do the math, it works out to roughly enough to let everyone live at the level of a grad student. Based on the lives of my grad student friends, that seems pretty awesome.
There are serious criticisms of the proposal as well. Many of the proponents seem to be relatively isolated from the actual struggles of the poor, and how much of it is about being immersed in a bad culture rather than (in the US) actual material deprivation. And they tend to assume that we’d have enough unified political will to prevent it from quickly drifting back into the mess we have today, when confronted, say, by cute pictures of starving kids whose parents gambled away their dole for the year. But I’d like to address a different point here: regardless of the merits of the proposal, there’s a lot to learn from the fact that it’s becoming popular today.
Let’s leave the quibbles over the mechanics and bean counting and view the proposal as poetry, as aspiration. What do its proponents think people will *do* with all their free money? Let’s look at the best written scenario I’ve read on the subject, from Slate Star Codex:
Or consider your life on a $20,000 a year income guarantee. No longer tied down to a job, you can live wherever you want. I love the mountains. Let’s live in a cabin in Colorado, way up in the Rockies. You can find stunningly beautiful ones for $500 a month – freed from the mad rush to get into scarce urban or suburban areas with good school districts, housing is actually really cheap. So there you are in the Rockies, maybe with a used car to take you to Denver when you want to see people or go to a show, but otherwise all on your own except for the deer and squirrels. You wake up at nine, cook yourself a healthy breakfast, then take a long jog out in the forest. By the time you come back, you’ve got a lot of interesting thoughts, and you talk about them with the dozens of online friends you cultivate close relationships with and whom you can take a road trip and visit any time you feel like. Eventually you’re talked out, and you curl up with a good book – this week you’re trying to make it through Aristotle on aesthetics. The topic interests you since you’re learning to paint – you’ve always wanted to be an artist, and with all the time in the world and stunning views to inspire you, you’re making good progress. Freed from the need to appeal to customers or critics, you are able to develop your own original style, and you take heart in the words of the old Kipling poem:
And none but the Master will praise them
And none but the Master will blame
And no one will work for money
And no one will work for fame
But each for the joy of the working
Each on his separate star
To draw the thing as he sees it
For the God of things as they are
One of the fans of your work is a cute girl – this time I’m assuming you’re a man, I’m sure over the past four years you’ve learned some choice words for people who do that. You date and get married. She comes to live with you – she’s also getting $20,000 a year from the government in place of an education, so now you’re up to $40,000, which is actually very close to the US median household income. You have two point four kids. With both of you at home full time, you see their first steps, hear their first words, get to see them as they begin to develop their own personalities. They start seeming a little lonely for other kids their own age, so with a sad good-bye to your mountain, you move to a bigger house in a little town on the shores of a lake in Montana. There’s no schooling for them, but you teach them to read, first out of children’s books, later out of something a little harder like Harry Potter, and then finally you turn them loose in your library. Your oldest devours your collection of Aristotle and tells you she wants to be a philosopher when she grows up. Evenings they go swimming, or play stickball with the other kids in town.
When they reach college age, your daughter is so thrilled at the opportunity to learn from her intellectual heroes that she goes to Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV and asks for a loan. They’re happy to give her fifteen thousand, which is all college costs nowadays – only the people who are really interested in learning feel the need to go nowadays, and supply so outpaces demand that prices are driven down. She makes it into Yale (unsurprising given how much better home-schooled students do) studies philosophy, but finds she likes technology better. She decides to become an engineer, and becomes part of the base of wealthy professionals helping fund the income guarantee for everyone else. She marries a nice man after making sure he’s willing to stay home and take care of the children – she’s not crazy, she doesn’t want to send them to some kind of institution
Your younger son, on the other hand, is a little intellectually disabled and can’t read above a third-grade level. That’s not a big problem for you or for him. When he grows older, he moves to Hawaii where he spends most of his time swimming in the ocean and by all accounts enjoys himself very much.
You’re happy your son will be financially secure for the rest of his life, but on a broader scale, you’re happy that no one around you has to live in fear of getting fired, or is struggling to make ends meet, or is stuck in the Rust Belt with a useless skill set. Every so often, you call your daughter and thank her for helping design the robots that do most of the hard work.
Note how different it is from the lives of the Aristotle-reading, Kipling-quoting class today. If I had to sum it up in one word, I’d say it’s independent. Not only are you socially independent, living in a remote mountain cabin with a small group of close friends, you’re intellectually independent too. Freed of the anxieties of citation-mongering or trying to land the big sales account, our protagonist embarks on an isolated intellectual quest answerable only to himself for his progress. His life – as full of intellectual ferment as it may be – looks, and feels, leisurely. 
This rigorous yet free life of the mind sounds extremely appealing to the intellectual 1%, and living in this utopia would be reason enough to favor the basic income guarantee, even leaving out all the selfless stuff about fixing the culture of poverty. Yet upon reflection this is not a dreamy utopia of the far future, but a lifestyle that has existed throughout the past. From the philosophers of Athens to the aristocrats of the Invisible College, from the monasteries of the Middle Ages to the mandarins of the Middle Kingdom, many cultures had a space set aside for the life of the mind. The form varied, but the bargain usually ran like this: in exchange for giving up some worldly status-climbing and wealth, you get a position of moderate freedom – and a moderate amount of guaranteed prestige. And the bargain worked incredibly well. 
That bit about prestige might sound trivial, but it’s the one thing that makes all the rest of the setup possible. Having a floor of status you can’t fall below seems somehow necessary to allow intellectual freedom. Keep in mind that the Colorado retreat is perfectly feasible now. It’s totally feasible for anyone making a moderate income to retire to a simple life after working about ten years. Certainly Scott himself, set up to make a physician’s salary, can easily retire after a decade, even including the years of his residency. The limiting factor isn’t stuff, it’s status and social narratives. There’s no narrative in our head that painting landscapes and reading Aristotle all day is okay, let alone admirable. Someone trying to live that life would be much less respected than a practicing physician – if they’re not just regarded with frank incomprehension and skepticism. And so, the idyllic retreat slowly gets worn down among constant questions from parents when you’re going to get on with your life, the lack of nearby parents who understand and approve of how you’re raising your kids, and the gnawing worry that even your intellectual work will never be as cool as what those kids at Harvard or Berkeley are working on. And so smart people march on to officially approved lifestyles and become doctors and coders and accountants and postdocs, and yearn for that rustic mountain cabin in the Rockies.
But until very recently, they had another option. Even after the death of the old aristocracy, there was a pretty guaranteed way to live a low-key life of the mind; you could join academia. Now academia today is a rat race like any other prestigious career track, and if you want to make it you have to apply your nose firmly to the grindstone and not spend too much time fooling around. But it’s really only quite recently that academia was so difficult and Darwinian to try to break into. James Watson, as recently as the 1950s, was a mediocre college student until he read What is Life, got excited, and decided to go to grad school in Indiana to work on it. Today he wouldn’t stand a chance against students who had spent undergrad getting good grades, working with the right mentors, and generally jumping through the right hoops.
I think the basic income folks are fundamentally reacting to this shift, this closing of the last sanctuary of aristocratic intellectual freedom. The reason they have a low-resolution view of the poor but portray an incredibly compelling portrait of what an aristocratic intellectual life could look like is exactly because that is the main driving force, a semiconscious cry of pain at the possibilities that were lost as the last academies closed their gates. And whatever one may think of the policy proposal itself, I think this pain is perfectly real, not only for individuals but for a society’s intellectual health, and whatever else they do, the proponents have done a great service by articulating it.
 The only dissonant note is the notion that our protagonist wins a wife with his art, which hints that status is still the ultimate scarce commodity, and that the drive for status could ultimately become as all-consuming as it is today or at Versailles.
 I have a whole other essay in me yet about the productivity of aristocracy, but I will simply note here that practically all the intellectual production before 1900 was produced on this model, off the work of an aristocracy that was much less selected for IQ than our modern elites.
 Of course it has to be pitched as reforming charity, because “creating a new lifestyle for the intellectual elites” would poll terribly. This despite the fact that the basic income is a much better tool for the latter than the former.