Whenever you earn things, what you’re doing is receiving something in return for something else. For example, when you earn a salary, what you’re doing is receiving money in return for your time and labor. When you earn respect, what you’re doing is receiving respect in return for your admirable behavior. When people receive a salary without earning it, they are receiving a salary without exchanging their time and labor for it. When people receive respect without earning it, they are receiving respect without having shown their behavior to be admirable.
Earning is related to deserving — and deserving is when you do or have something that is judged to be worthy of reward or punishment. When people work in exchange for money, their general intention is to earn the money they receive. It is reasonable for you to believe that you deserve the reward of monetary compensation for your work. This belief is related to why people are often so resistant to paying taxes on the income they earn. If you believe that you are earning money as a reward, the required withdrawal of a portion of that reward can be seen as a form of punishment. Since most people don’t like to be punished, it’s easy to understand that most people who believe income is a reward don’t like to pay taxes.
If you believe that people earn money as a reward then it’s easy for you to believe that wealthy people have earned their wealth as a reward and that poor people either haven’t earned any rewards or have earned some punishment and deserve their poverty. However, none of that is true. People can receive money without earning it, such as from a gift, an inheritance, or a return on an investment. People may not be able to earn much money if they are committing their time to caring for their family or if they are experiencing an illness or an injury. Some people may not be able to earn money if they are unable to reach the site of a job they are qualified for. People can become poor or poorer by losing their money or losing their property due to theft, accidents, and natural disasters.
The truth is that people don’t necessarily earn as much as they deserve or deserve as much as they earn. People don’t deserve to be poor any more than they deserve to be rich. Income and wealth have not been distributed fairly in our society and one of the primary reasons is that we have expected people to earn their money and earn their wealth to prove that they are deserving of what they have. The problem with this expectation is that it doesn’t match our reality. Wealth is simply having an abundance of what one values — and the highest levels of income in our economy are received from returns on investments, not earnings from labor. In the United States, expenses and monetary compensation for labor vary so much that it is possible for one person to work a full-time job and not be able to pay for their most basic living expenses while another person works only part-time but is still able to financially support an entire family.
As the wealthiest nation on Earth, the United States of America does not have a resource problem. What we have are resource allocation problems, transparency problems, efficiency problems, and administration problems. There is no reason whatsoever for poverty to exist in our country. There is no fundamental reason why any American needs to go hungry, to be homeless, or to lack healthcare. What has been holding us back from creating real prosperity in our country is first and foremost a misunderstanding of what it means to earn.
To earn is to receive something in return for something else. So, we must come to understand that every American deserves to earn money in return for being part of our society. Engaging in America’s economy and system of government are activities which ought to earn every American enough money to survive. Ensuring that every American has earned enough to survive does not require punishing anyone but it does require that we evenly distribute a portion of America’s unearned income to every American. The reason this makes economic sense, even to free-market economists like Milton Freidman, is that unearned income is made possible by automation and by private access to resources. Since private access to resources is granted and facilitated by governments, which should be by and for the people, and since the rapid and accelerating growth of automation is due to the collective advancement of technology, unearned income is a result of our country’s collective economic success. That is why all Americans not only deserve a fair share but must earn enough money to live simply by being an active part of our nation.
It is time for our country to provide earned income to every American, an American Universal Earned Income (UEI). Pointing this out is not a call for socialism or communism. UEI does not disincentivize people from working, the way that welfare payments and unemployment benefits do. Instead, UEI disincentivizes people from engaging in theft, fraud, prostitution, and otherwise acting out of desperation rather than inspiration. By providing monetary resources to those in need, UEI causes economic growth rather than economic decline, while reducing social and societal costs from crimes and criminal justice enforcement.
There are a variety of ways to pay for UEI, such as through taxes on capital gains, interest, and dividends, a nationwide value added tax (VAT), and planned currency depreciation (i.e., printing extra money). Since each option has its benefits and drawbacks, what is most important is not to decide immediately on how to make the math work but rather to have a national conversation to decide which blend of approaches we most prefer as a nation. Yet, before we decide on how, we must first decide on whether we will do so.
Will we finally reallocate the financial resources required to care for the most basic needs of every American? Will we finally support the inalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness for every American? Will we finally choose to end poverty and create a culture of caring in our country? The answers are up to us — and UEI is the way to make it all happen, just as soon as we are willing to say, “Yes.”