Free Lunch Society Documentary Makes a Case for Unconditional Basic Income

No Such Thing? The Free Lunch Society begs to differ.

Receiving public funds simply for existing may seem like sci-fi, but the idea of an unconditional basic income has been gathering steam, culminating last year in a much-touted referendum in Switzerland. Though soundly rejected by the Swiss, there’s an argument for it solving everything from government waste to income inequality to the decline of the family and other societal ills. Free Lunch Society, a new Austro-German documentary attempts to address all objections.

Acknowledging the issue’s utopian image, the film opens with scenes from Star Trek: The Next Generation, discussing a futuristic society where material needs no longer exist. Keeping it in layman’s terms is a double-edged sword, as funding mechanisms are kept vague. And dissent regrettably doesn’t factor into the narrative – a missed opportunity, as some of the best points come from unlikely champions such as libertarian Charles Murray.

Free Lunch Society
© The Golden Girls

The closest Free Lunch Society gets to a skeptic is yellow cab driver Sal Conte, a quintessential New Yorker who faces life with tough talk and cynicism mixed with unsinkable resilience. He offers views like “The strongest will be the leaders, the best will win and the rest will have to follow – simple economics” – his grim candor refreshing amid all the suffocating idealism.

The case for handouts

The Austrian filmmaker and economist Christian Tod builds his case in time-honored documentary style: panoramic establishing shots and interviews filmed squarely head-on, with voice-overs citing statistics and connecting to archival footage of inequality activists like Martin Luther King, Warren Buffett and Bernie Sanders.

The first notion to fall is that unconditional basic income is a leftist fancy; it has had supporters and detractors on both and all sides. Notably, economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman championed the idea as a transparent, unbureaucratic replacement for the welfare state.

Free Lunch Society

Exhibits include the Alaska Permanent Fund (the state has been reinvesting revenue from its oil windfall and paying dividends annually to permanent residents); other experiments were initiated in the U.S. under Lyndon Johnson and continued by Richard Nixon, supervised by a young ­Donald Rumsfeld. These and other trial runs in Germany, Canada and Namibia illustrate that a basic income has little impact on the willingness to work.

Former chairman of the Austrian lottery Friedrich Stickler confirms that most big winners don’t quit their day jobs but simply continue with less existential angst – and a few muster the courage to pursue hitherto unobtainable dreams. Several point out that freedom from financial dependency empowers citizens to more self-determination; Swiss activist Daniel Häni even considers it the next level of democracy. And as libertarian Charles Murray points out, capitalism already creates a myriad of social ills – how much worse can it get?

But Free Lunch Society saves its best argument for last: we may have no choice. As technology continues to advance exponentially, many blue- and white-collar occupations are disappearing without adequate replacements. Automation is making work as the foundation of the social contract increasingly unfeasible – but a post-labor society where we all realize our full potential all the more so.

Free Lunch Society

Fair shares for all?

In the end, Free Lunch Society makes a solid case, but the lack of dissenting opinions leaves it preaching to the choir. It summarizes talking points to the pleasure of proponents, but is unlikely to sway skeptics. Then again, maybe it will: Towards the end, cabbie Sal Conte returns, finally asked directly whether he would have done anything differently in his life if money weren’t an issue. He gets pensive, then admits that he would have liked to be a senator – “an honest senator, for a change.”

Nothing is stronger then an idea whose time has come. Whether that time is now remains to be seen.


Free Lunch Society

Starts May 5, Burg

Binu Starnegg
Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub

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