March 26th, 2006



Over a decade ago, I was entertaining the idea of writing a story set on a long-term colony ship. The ship would travel at sublight speeds and would take decades to move from its origin planet to the one its colonists planned to settle.

What would life be like aboard that generation ship? How would you guarantee that enough trained personnel were available for any given job? How would you handle a shortage, or a surplus of labor? How does the government treat the unemployed?

That last is a particularly interesting question, because on a starship, everything has a human cost. Everything is made and ultimately maintained by human hands. Not just food and clothing, but the ship that shelters you, the air you breathe, the water you drink. On Earth, the basics of human life exist even without human intervention. There was water and air and ground to walk on before there were any people to use it, and it'll all still be there when humans are extinct. We regard them as entitlements. No one manufactures the air I breathe, and no one charges me for it, either.

Now, to some degree, homelessness in this country *is* a crime: it's called "loitering". All of the land in America is owned by someone, whether individual, business, or government. None of it is free, no strings attached. But in practice, if I give up working and renounce money, I'm not going to be immediately executed. I might starve to death, but that's not quite the same as being shoved out an airlock.

What about being on a spaceship, where space and air are at a premium? There's no place to go where your presence is merely neutral, of no help or hinderance to anyone. You are taking up valuable and limited resources just by existing. How should society treat you if you don't give anything back?

"Shove them out an airlock" is one possibility. But I think that would only be implemented if the cost of air or space is comparatively high. If the ship just can't afford to have non-productive people around -- if the strain on the system from a non-contributor is so great that it threatens the whole -- then society might grit its teeth and execute anyone that couldn't provide for themselves.

But that's an unlikely scenario for a colony ship. I'd expect sufficiently advanced technology that the marginal cost of basics would be low. Not non-zero; everything would still need occassional maintenance and other human intervention. But most of the work would be done by machines; one man's labor would provide air for thousands if not millions. Food would likely also be inexpensive. These things are too important to be costly, because the costlier they are, the more
likely the whole venture would be to fail. How many people would get on a colony ship if they thought there was a good chance the food would run out or the air would fail?

Once I made the decision that these the basics of life should be comparatively low, it became harder to argue that the basics of life shouldn't be an entitlement. If it's cheap, am I really going to shove the bankrupt out an airlock? And if I'm already supplying the impoverished with air, water, and space to occupy, I might as well supply food too. Medical care? Well, maybe. But the question had become not "Are the colonists entitled to get anything for free?" but "how much are they entitled to get for free?"

The truth is, it's the same way on a planet, too. We all benefit from entitlements: "The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." No one seriously argues that we need to earn the right to breathe, or that homeless people shouldn't be allowed to take up space on land. The harshest of penalties imposed against the homeless is prison -- and that's actually providing them with a far more expensive form of shelter than a park bench. You get fed in prison, too! Minors net the largest range of entitlements: free education through high school, and the state will provide free room and board if the parents do not (or cannot).

My point in saying all of this is to explain why I'm not opposed to the concept of "an existance wage", of government providing a certain amount of money and/or necessities to all citizens. I don't think getting a handout is intrinsically bad; the world and our country offers a lot of handouts already, and getting free air and water doesn't seem to be harmful to me. What I like about Charles Murray's plan better than traditional welfare is its simplicity, and its comparative lack of disincentives to work. Yes, all forms of entitlements offer disincentives to work, but one that provides the same benefits to all citizens does so less than one that only benefits non-workers.

What I am concerned about is that such a handout would be too expensive for our society. My hypothetical colonists could provide everyone with free room and board on the assumption that the marginal cost of these things was low.

Mr. Murray proposes a $10,000 entitlement per adult citizen. Is that amount too high? Would it be too burdensome for the collective of those paying more tax than they're receiving in entitlement to cover? Would the disincentive it offered to work be too powerful, and lowering the number of net taxpayers to a point where it couldn't be sustained?

Is it too low? Are there beneficiaries of our current entitlement programs who need a higher level of assistance due to medical conditions, and would they be unable to receive it under Mr. Murray's flat-rate plan? (Perhaps the mandatory health insurance would cover such costs long-term, but I'm not sure how well the transition would or could be managed.)

It's all hypothetical for now; political resistance to such a notion will be much too strong for decades to come.

But as America becomes wealthier and technology more advanced, I think the answer to the question "Is it too expensive?" will one day become a clear "No." But whether that's true today or not, I truly don't know.