Imagine that twenty years from now, Australia has managed its energy problems through adoption of renewables and battery-storage technology. Improved artificial intelligence and low electricity costs have rendered non-human labour cheap and effective. It no longer makes sense to pay humans to perform a range of manual, repetitive tasks.
A consequence of these developments would be rising un- and under-employment. And as a society we would have a choice: to allow the gains from automation to flow largely to the owners of technology, entrenching inequality and creating a resurgent capital class; or to arrange for all people to share in the dividends that automation is capable of providing.
If, collectively, we prefer the latter scenario, Australia might introduce a universal basic income (UBI). Under such a scheme, every adult receives payments sufficient to maintain a decent – but not extravagant – standard of living for themselves and their dependents. In its purest form, these payments are not conditional on employment status or any other factor, and are additional to existing forms of welfare.
There are many ways a UBI could be implemented. It would be possible to use a UBI-like program as a fig-leaf to enable the removal of other welfare measures. Elon Musk and other entrepreneurs are in favour of such schemes, no doubt for less than pure motives. But let’s get utopian and assume that a good UBI is implemented – a deliberately redistributive program funded by higher taxes at the top end.
Because everyone would be assured a basic standard of living, a UBI would reduce incentives to undertake paid work. That is a feature of such a policy, not a bug. Most people would choose to allocate less time to income-producing activities (thereby reducing demand for a smaller pool of paid positions), and devote more time to other pursuits: charity and community work, leisure, caring, domestic work, education – and art. And that would be liberating. People who still wanted to work full-time could do so, and they would continue to be remunerated for that choice over and above the amount of the UBI. But it would not be necessary to work to that extent.
At the same time, others would be free to engage with art on a part- or full-time basis, confident that they would be able to meet their basic material needs. Art could be practised by anyone, not just those who could afford the opportunity cost of foregone wages.
There would be a proliferation of artistic effort. Some of the resulting work would be good, and quite a lot of it would not, but there would be more diversity. More local, relevant art. The long tail would get much longer. Audiences would have more choice, and more time to read, to listen, to look.
With greater diversity, the fragmentation of audiences enabled by the internet would accelerate. It would be more difficult to become ‘famous’ in the current mainstream sense: writing a blockbuster novel that sells tens of thousands of copies, for example. It would be hard to get rich from one’s art – but it’s pretty hard to do that already. Prizes and grants might continue as a means of highlighting and rewarding excellence. But they would not be necessary as a lifeline to support artists who otherwise could not afford to practise.
Artists would need to re-assess what success means. There would be more competition to be recognised. But the consequences of having a smaller audience would be less severe. Freed from the grasping, sick desperation to ‘make it’ or fail in a binary way, artists could be more collaborative. We could more confidently carve out niches; engage meaningfully with smaller, self-selecting audiences. Artists would feel more connected, part of a larger web of culture.
As the Luddites discovered two hundred years ago, the underlying trend towards automation is almost unstoppable. Our real choice will be about how to manage the consequences: either we support greater economic equality through redistributive policies such as a UBI, or we do nothing and allow the gains from automation to concentrate, with the collateral damage borne by those who can least afford it. Unless we actively reject such a future, the production and consumption of art will become a luxury available only to the privileged few.
For the moment, most artists fund their own work, or compete for a small pool of grants and paid opportunities. In future things could be worse – but they could also be better. Those who care about the arts should be amongst the strongest advocates for an effective UBI.