I have a new namesake in politics – this time in France. On Sunday Benoît Hamon gained the candidacy of the French Socialist Party, a feat as remarkable as the capture of our own Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn and the Republican nomination of Donald Trump. Many false generalisations about the political mood have been made in the last few years but here there is a pattern – and it is repeating itself now in France.
‘Petit Ben’, or ‘Little Ben’, certainly inspires hope in his followers – depressed after years of left-wing bungling which has left France faltering. They are attracted by the soft Marxism that promises a further reduction in the working week and a lower retirement age.
So far, so normal: these are run-of-the-mill French left ideas. But M. Hamon has a new bold pledge that has not been made before by a politician from a mainstream party: a so-called ‘basic income’. This is the idea that the state makes a payment, in this case €750 a month, which the citizen would receive whether they worked or not. It would be a payment by right, just for existing. It was an idea floated by the Green Party here in the UK at the last election but even then it was a pretty half-hearted pitch compared with what ‘Petit Ben’ is doing.
The cost of this extravagant promise is a sucker punching €440 billion, equivalent to about half the total amount the UK government spends in a whole year. That is a lot of money – and here comes Hamon’s novel idea. He is going to pay for this basic income in part by taxing robots as if they are people.
The context is new but the principle is an old one. From the dawn of industrialisation, political theorists have worried about the effect technology has on jobs, predicting that our work will be taken by machines and we will be left either to a life of leisure or penury.
Hamon’s answer is a beguilingly simple one: tax the robots taking the jobs and give the money to people who are finding themselves unemployed as a result. His supporters say that by doing this, Benoît Hamon is realising the Utopian dream, where machines work for us and we watch and relax on the tax income they create.
As I’ve written before in this column, Utopia does not exist and never will. The clue is in the name: utopia means, quite literally, ‘no place’. And so too in this instance. By the same token, when Hamon responds that “some may call it Utopia, I am merely facing a new reality”, he is talking about a reality that does not exist and never will.
Why so? Because all those doom-mongers of the last three centuries have been proved wrong, time and again. Human ingenuity is such that the advent of new machines means that our time is saved to invest in other productive work. In other words, we are adaptable and if we are allowed to be mobile, we will find a way to earn a crust.
The reason there is unemployment in France now is not because Renault builds cars with robots, it is precisely because that vital employment mobility is restricted; unemployment in the UK is far lower because our labour market is far more freer than across the Channel.
That is the dry economics of why Hamon and his loony socialists are wrong. The bigger reason is that they are fundamentally pessimistic about their fellow human beings. Of course automation creates challenges to people employed in manufacturing – as will artificial intelligence to lawyers, doctors, bankers and other professions. But as history has shown that men and women use technology to their advantage, making them more productive and – as the mobile ‘phone has demonstrated to all of us – even harder working.
‘Petit Ben’ may have roused his supporters but his prescriptions are pretty depressing. Happily for all of us, if he gets the chance to test his lunatic ideas, he will be proved comprehensively wrong – just as was Marx and every follower who has come since.