A question often asked of libertarians – of people who think that society can and should organise itself without centralised government, or at least with much less of it than is commonly found in many Western societies – is this: “In a world without a government to collect taxes and provide public services, who will build the roads?”
Roads, after all, are an obvious example of something which can produce positive results which far outweigh the cost of producing them (otherwise we wouldn’t keep building them). But, unless every road is a toll road, their benefits can’t be hoarded by the people who put in the initial expense. No private actor in the free market would bother providing useful public services like building roads, the argument goes, if they’re not going to make a profit off of it themselves – even if building the road would provide a benefit to everyone.
In some ways, it’s a symbolic and rhetorical question, used to assert the need for some form of government in order to provide certain necessities of modern society. But it’s often posed seriously as well, and numerous responses have been offered, by more savvy political commentators than I, ranging from “nobody knows, but it’s worth finding out because we’d probably find a better solution than the current one”, to “who needs roads anyway?”
Whatever the current state of the political theory, we’re yet to enact any solution to this problem, besides establishing a government to pay for projects like road-building, and fund it by taking some of everyone’s money by force, whether those people want to pay for a road or not. In most mainstream discourse, the idea that there actually might be a better solution – or an alternative, functional solution at all – doesn’t come up a whole lot. People tend to revert to whichever standard position they’re most familiar with (libertarian/statist) and defend that against the other, without considering whether the scope of reality might be any broader than this one binary issue.
A similar dynamic plays out in discussions of any sort of an unconditional basic income. If everyone in your society were being provided with sufficient resources to get by, to live a decent life with basic amenities, regardless of their employment status, then who would do all the unpleasant jobs that we need people to do? Who would do the unpleasant jobs in sanitation, the boring jobs like directing traffic, the dangerous jobs like fighting fires – or, indeed, the necessary but perhaps unfulfilling or rather dull jobs like building roads?
I’m still slowly building up a worldview which can encapsulate some sort of satisfactory answer. But in the meantime, I want to highlight something hiding in the question.
Let’s assume that you oppose the idea of an unconditional basic income – of a comfortable minimum standard of living being provided to everyone, regardless of history or circumstances – on the grounds that people don’t deserve what they haven’t earned, and will be unmotivated to provided any useful work or contribution to society if all their basic needs are taken care of.
Implicit in that position is the following belief:
In order to keep society running smoothly, we must routinely threaten people with destitution, starvation, and homelessness, if they refuse to do what we need them to do for the greater good. These tasks are so vital to our way of life, that the best way to achieve them involves making people’s ability to feed their family, heat their homes, and live somewhere with a roof over their heads, entirely conditional on whether they’re willing to do them. I cannot conceive of a more practical or desirable way to motivate people to do the work necessary for modern life than to impose this threat on every living person by default.
Without hashing out the arguments and counter-arguments of whether this is a convincing argument or not, let’s at least be clear that this is absolutely the claim you are making, if you don’t think that an unconditional basic income is practical, or that there’s any way roads would ever get built if there wasn’t a government in charge to make it happen. At least own your position in explicit terms.
Classroom discussion questions
1. So, wait, who actually builds the roads now?
2. They must know something about how you build roads, right? Is there any other way we could structure society so that they could keep doing that?
3. No? The way we happen to do it exactly here and now is the only way it’s possible to imagine it ever being done? Okay, fair enough.