OPPOSITION to a basic income grant (BIG) falls into two categories — there are the free marketeers who preach an extreme form of market fascism in which economic losers need to be punished in order for the system to sustain itself, along with the exploitation of labour for profit, and for whom welfare is anathema (since it would mean relief from the punishment “incentive” and dilution of the motive forces behind capitalist competition), then there are the market liberals like Sean Archer (Cape Times Oct 24) who puzzle themselves with theories that merely restate the problem of poverty in terms of pseudo-scientific empiricism.
How much will poverty alleviation cost? How many poor are there in South Africa, and how can we distinguish between the poorest of the poor and the not-so-poor? Questions like these trouble the minds of liberals who have never experienced poverty, or who fear that tackling this issue will erode their status and position in society, effectively overturning the apple-cart as it were. The definition of what it means to be poor, as Archer intimates, must inevitably be rewritten by a form of redistribution that tackles the harshest of economic cruelties and depredations.
It is pointless arguing about the size of a mythological poverty yardstick, since such a yardstick is bound to shift and any definition now is bound to betray ones own attitudes and opinions regarding class, status and position within society in general. Therefore a rebuttal of Archer’s central argument must take the form of a polite deferral, out of principle rather than numbers, statistics and percentages.
Poverty is as much a part of the human condition as wealth is. If we accept this to be true, the only question worth asking, is rather, how are we to avoid creating a system that produces certain undesirable outcomes, one of them being the state of poverty. Bear in mind that it seems pointless to attempt to eliminate individual states of being – one might as well eliminate greed (since wealth can also be construed as a state of mind, not merely an experience, and so there will always be those who seek more or less of it.)
One of the many undesirables, alluded to then, is that of indigence. Would a Basic Income Grant eliminate indigence, at least in part, now or in the future? Depending upon its frequency and size it would in all likelihood alleviate some of the harshest forms of want in their various manifestations (begging, crime, prostitution) by giving those without any income something with which to trade and exchange for food, clothing and even shelter.
It is pointless playing mind games that trick one into avoiding such conclusions. In theory South African citizenship should not be seen as a devout and pious honour, but rather a common right conferred upon all those who have the good fortune to enjoy it. It is emperitive rather to give full access to the various phrases of equality in the constitution, so all citizens may enjoy access to a basic welfare grant.
Whether this be in exchange for work, or other skills and services, is up to the electorate to decide. However, Archer does himself and his liberal allies a disservice by claiming that BIG “will not necessarily advance the goals listed in the Bill of Rights”. He blankly asserts that “every SA citizen should achieve autonomy in the political, social and economic dimension of their lives.” Forgetting that there are few examples of complete autonomy, and the majority of our citizens are forced to rely upon the state for services. The autonomy issue is really the old liberal dependency issue in disguise, since what Archer is raising here is the problem of reliance upon a Welfare State, without examining citizenship and the degree to which the state is indebted to its citizenry for its very being.
A debate about BIG has therefore very little to do with poverty per se and is rather all about the way one conceptualises statehood and citizenship. For citizenship to have any meaning, there must be equality, and for equality to make any sense, there must be some way of narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor. Taxation accomplishes this in part, but without a means of redistributing wealth, the incentives to enlarge government without accommodating the poor, become too numerous and engaging. (As the recent oilgate and arms deal saga no doubt prove.) As a result, the state is a burden on both wealthy and poor citizens alike who are essentially forced to sacrifice their lot, merely in order for the state to exist.
One must argue therefore, in deferral, that the only reason one is ever in need of a state, is precisely so that equality and human rights may be given meaning. All that is required then is the political will needed to redistribute wealth via a programme of welfare equality without which South African citizenship is meaningless.
[NOTE: The writers work and correspondence has been banned by the Cape Times as “undesirable”]