Eventually we’re all going to be replaced by machines. That, at least, is uncontroversial. The question is whether it will be a good thing or a bad thing. And if it’s a bad thing, then the further question is, what should government do to solve the problem?

That seems to be the assumption underlying most discussion of the issue of the basic income movement, the goal of which is to establish a universal guaranteed income, meant to cover basic living expenses. This income would be provided by the state to everyone, no strings attached, no questions asked. Whatever income one makes from work would have no bearing on the availability of that stipend.

The idea appeals to people within a broad range of ideology. It is of course more popular amongst liberals and socialists than others; but some conservatives (including self-described “bleeding heart libertarians” such as Professor Matt Zwolinski of the University of San Diego) have also recommended it. At the very least, proponents agree, it would be a better situation than what we have at present.

One proponent, Scott Santens, has gained press attention for starting a crowdfunding campaign for basic income generation. Santens’ approach is not unique; as the previously linked article states: “A group of more than 19,000 basic-income advocates in Germany have funded 11 people so far with living stipends of 1,000 euros per month, no strings attached.” Statens’ efforts have been applauded by conservative and libertarian basic income proponents, such as the aforementioned Professor Zwolinski.

Although the idea of crowdfunding a basic income is intriguing (and not in any way incompatible with libertarian principles), the fact that it has taken 19,000 people to fund 11 basic incomes leads quickly to the more common proposal: to reform the welfare state towards a basic income model.

But it is not the proposed means of administration of a basic income with which I take issue. Rather, it is the proposed need for one. The argument in favor relies heavily on the idea that technology will gradually eliminate the need for human labor. That idea is not new, nor is is unique to the basic income discussion. For starters, there is an obvious parallel to the fear during the Industrial Revolution that machines would lead to high long-term unemployment. That fear famously resulted in the Luddite movement in the early 19th Century, which aimed to destroy automation in order to preserve the role of skilled textile labor.

Ludditism has never really gone away; it is a cousin to other forms of economic protectionism, and the fallacies upon which both are founded dominate mainstream economic thought. The chief fallacy can be roughly summarized in the idea that labor, or in the popular vernacular, “jobs”, are an end in themselves as opposed to the goods produced by those jobs. But as many classical and Austrian economists have demonstrated, to oppose automation is to oppose the availability of more and better goods, which in the long run benefit everyone, including those who may lose their jobs due to automation.

Some basic income advocates, recognizing this, are optimistic about automation, and argue from the idea that as human labor becomes less necessary, and goods become less expensive and more plentiful, we ought to be able to secure a basic income out of the sheer abundance of our wealth, in effect paying people to live rather than exchange for their contribution to the economy.

Others, however, predict disaster. Martin Ford, author of the recently-published Rise of the Robots, attempts to deflect the comparison of his technological pessimism to the Luddite fallacy by arguing that modern technology is a different case from past technological revolutions due to the fact that emerging technologies are more generally useful than past technologies, which were highly specialized:

The agricultural revolution was about specialized technology that couldn’t be implemented in other industries. You couldn’t take the farm machinery and have it go flip hamburgers. Information technology is totally different. It’s a broad-based general purpose technology. There isn’t a new place for all these workers to move.

You can imagine lots of new industries—nanotechnology and synthetic biology—but they won’t employ many people. They’ll use lots of technology, rely on big computing centers, and be heavily automated.

Ford predicts a “full-on worker revolt” and proposes the basic income as a means of preventing it.

Ford, and pessimists like him, seem to be much closer to the fallacy of the Luddites than the optimists, failing to understand how automation eliminates jobs precisely because those jobs are no longer required to generate the goods and services—which is to say, the wealth—that they once provided. Whether general or specific in function, more effective means of production replace less effective means. Efficiency decreases the cost of goods while increasing their abundance, making them more readily available to all.

But both the pessimists and the optimists agree on the need for a guaranteed basic income. And with a few notable exceptions, they agree that the government must be the one to provide it. And they are both missing some important information that has led to some false assumptions.

One such false assumption is the idea that relatively inefficient labor is rendered obsolete by the availability of relatively efficient alternatives. This assumption is refuted by the economic principle of comparative advantage, which was first properly formulated by James Mill, the father of John Stewart, in the early 19th Century. It demonstrates that no matter how relatively inefficient one’s labor may be, it is still advantageous for that labor to be employed, in order to enable the relatively more efficient laborer to work according to his specialty.

The principle stands up to Ford’s allegation that the generalization of new technologies is a different case from the industrial revolution: no matter how good our technology gets, there will always be things that it does better than others. (We might imagine as a thought experiment a technology that is equally good at doing absolutely everything, but that would not be realistic.) It will be applied to those things, leaving human labor to do that to which it is not being applied.

A skeptic might challenge me: “What jobs will those be?”

Well, I don’t know. We can’t predict what human labor and creative genius will come up with once it is freed of the labor in which it is currently engaged. Which, despite Ford’s alarmism, is no different from what has happened in every other period of technological development. Nobody before the Industrial Revolution had imagined the railroad, nor cars and airplanes, not to mention computers. Nobody in the early information age had imagined the modern Internet; approximate ideas were laughed to scorn. And nobody today has imagined what new and better uses of our time and energy will be available to us with greater technological growth.

We can predict that there will be an industry in the design and production of the machines of the future. Ford thinks that such pursuits “won’t employ many people”. He has a point—but only so long as the production of technological capital goods remain centralized. And there is no reason to assume that to be the case. With the emergence of 3D printing and other home-based production, the production of capital goods needn’t remain centralized for long.

And in a society in which the means of production itself can be produced in one’s living room, the relative usefulness of every person’s labor will increase to unprecedented levels. So I think that Ford is not only misguided; he’s got it completely wrong. New technology will make human labor more useful than previous technology. Not less.

Moreover, technology itself has physical limitations. Eventually we will have our fastest processor, our smallest and most versatile nanomachine, the best possible compromise between strong and lightweight synthetic fiber; ultimately, the most efficient use of energy itself. At that point there will still be a need for humans to decide on the best way to apply those technologies for the meeting of human needs. And technology itself will allow an unprecedented amount of freedom for each person to make those decisions, and to offer what he produces through his unique, relative advantage to the market.

There are major obstacles to that outcome, though, and they are presented by none other than the hero of basic income advocates. I speak, of course, of the state.

Patent monopolies and other political advantages granted to big business by the state are largely responsible for the centralization of infrastructure. Taxes and regulations prevent new technological developments, but more importantly to the subject at hand, prevent the unobstructed application of existing technology to the needs of people. Technology itself has tended to route around these obstacles; yet obstacles they remain.

A further obstacle to the benefits of technology, which relates more directly to the basic income discussion, is that the state forces children to undergo a 12-year-long social extrusion process (euphemistically referred to as “education”) that severely undermines the ability of children to flourish according to their unique skills and interests. The homogenizing effect of centralized education is a major contributor to the problem of unemployment, without which it is doubtful that the basic income movement would have found any traction.

Government subsidy of higher education has likewise had a perverse effect on the congruity of individual skills to economic necessity. The number of college graduates on welfare has grown considerably in the past decade, and this can easily be attributed, at least in part, to the number of people graduating college with degrees in subjects without relevance to the job market.

Basic income proponents who argue for the further expansion of state power would only contribute to the problem they want to solve by empowering an institution that both contributes to the problems that have led to the perceived need for their program, and which inhibits activities that could solve that problem. And those who believe that the basic income would have a slimming effect on the state, I think, are naive: the state rarely fails to miss an opportunity to use a reform movement as an opportunity to expand itself; adding one bureaucracy to another, and adding new laws without repealing existing ones.

One final point. The basic income movement fails to acknowledge the problem of paying people not to work. I don’t mean only the obvious public finance problem implied thereby; I refer to a deeper issue: the self-defeating nature of a plan that attempts to solve a problem by incentivizing people away from problem-solving activity, which is the essence of involvement in the economy.

Rather than encouraging people to develop along with technology, to adapt, to utilize new knowledge and resources in a way that adds to the economy, they have given up human creativity and labor as a lost cause, if not in the present then as a future inevitability. In so doing they underestimate the ability of each person to contribute to the solution of the problems of technological advancement, if such problems should arise.

Economic knowledge challenges that assumption. Everyone is useful. Technology, if left in the hands of free people, will magnify that usefulness. People who are free to pursue education that allows them to improve themselves, and who are not restrained or incentivized away from finding creative ways to apply themselves, are themselves the solution to the problem that the basic income movement hopes to solve.