A Living Wage

Economists have a saying that perplexes me. They say that “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

This is obviously false. The air we breathe, the sun that “shines upon the evil and the good”, the rain that falls on just and unjust alike, the earth with its abundance of natural resources, the inheritance of knowledge and wisdom, vocabulary and literature, and physical assets such as roads and sewers, railways and telephone systems left behind for our use by earlier generations—all constitute, not just a free lunch, but a banquet.

Ah, but there is a catch in this, that in some ways proves our economists right.

Almost all of these resources, that once belonged to humanity at large, have now become the property of some one person. What was once common land has become private property through ‘enclosures’. Enclosures of common land for sheep farming in England created the ‘sturdy beggars’ of the time of Elizabeth I, many of whom emigrated to the cities or the colonies of the New World. Enclosures in Scotland led to the depopulation of the Highlands, and more emigration to the New World. The potato famine of the nineteenth century in Ireland led to dispossessed farmers who could no longer pay their rent again joining the tide of emigration to the North American continent.

Our capitalist economic system works when different people or classes gaining a monopoly in one way or another of some feature of the resources of Mother Earth, whether these be physical or intellectual, and selling this to others who need it and do not have it. Some have become owners of land, some of capital or intellectual property, some have developed skills in different professions. Many people, however, have none of these assets, and therefore only have their labour to sell.

Those who have come into ownership of resources are in a fortunate position. Theirs can be an unearned income of rent based on the resources they control. Those who are not so blessed have only their labour to sell, and they are the ones who pay rent for the resources they use, or for the money they borrow to acquire them. In this way the world is divided between the rich (who gain income from the assets they control), and the poor, whose standard of living as wages for the work they do will always be limited to the amount they need to survive, the balance being taken by what they have to pay to make use of the resources that others own.

It is only too easy to blame the poor, whether in our own nation or in third world countries, for being poor because they do not work hard enough—the old cry for more ‘productivity’ that drives the machinery of production faster and faster, so that we will not be left behind in the competitive race. But the truth is that unless the homeless are given a place to stand, and some inalienable assets of their own, even food banks and charity will not solve their underlying problem.

Poverty in Canada is found chiefly among immigrants and aboriginal peoples. Immigrants generally have brought little by way of resources with them, and may be unable, because of language difficulties, to make use of any investment in education they may have received in a foreign country. Aboriginals, who before the white man came were able to share a whole continent and its resources of land and animals among themselves, now are confined to reserves, or have moved to cities, making their traditional way of life an impossibility.

All of this is to argue that the concept of a guaranteed basic income for all is not unjust, nor an impossibility. We already provide this in pensions for seniors and the disabled. Ancient Israel gave every family an inalienable ‘inheritance’ that at most could only be leased out for fifty years to the next year of Jubilee, and never completely disposed of.

Alberta is in the throes of boom times, where houses that sold for $15,000 fifty years ago now command a price thirty times as high, and rents have risen accordingly. So much money is being poured into the Province that labour is short, the value of the dollar continues to fall, and homelessness is on the rise. Politicians are caught in a catch 22 situation. Protecting the environment has to be set against the threat of economic collapse if the expansionist bubble bursts. Yet all the time, the salaries of those at the top of the economic pile rise ever higher, and the living standards of workers, the unemployed and much of the third world if anything go downwards.

It’s not an insoluble problem. The church made an attempt to tackle it in its Jubilee initiative some years back. But when as few as five hundred people control more than half the world’s wealth, with the political power to prevent change that goes with this, there’s obviously a great deal of distance still to be run.

– Anglican Messenger, 2007*