Date posted: 16/06/2017 3 min read

Robot taxes and universal basic income

Bill Gates’s proposal for a “robot tax” highlights technological risks to jobs – and also to the income tax base.

In brief

  • Today’s technological revolution is marked by the increasing socialisation of the production of capital.
  • Bill Gates argues that a “robot tax” should be introduced to ease inequality and offset the social costs implied by automation’s displacement effects.
  • Gates says a “robot tax” should be used to finance a universal basic income.

By Yanis Varoufakis.

Ken makes a decent living operating a large harvester on behalf of farmer Luke. Ken’s salary generates income tax and social security payments that help finance government programmes for less fortunate members of his community.

Alas, Luke is about to replace Ken with Nexus, a robot that can operate the harvester longer, more safely, in any weather, and without lunch breaks, holidays or sick pay.

Bill Gates thinks that, to ease the inequality and offset the social costs implied by automation’s displacement effects, either Nexus should pay income tax or Luke should pay a hefty tax for replacing Ken with a robot. And this “robot tax” should be used to finance something like a universal basic income (UBI).

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Gates’s proposal, one of many variants on the UBI theme, allows us to glimpse fascinating aspects of capitalism and human nature that rich societies have neglected for too long.

Government’s emptying coffers

The whole point of automation is that, unlike Ken, Nexus will never negotiate a labour contract with Luke. Indeed, it will receive no income. [And will pay no income tax.]

The only way to simulate an income tax on behalf of Nexus is to use Ken’s last annual income as a reference salary and extract from Luke’s revenues income tax and social security charges equivalent to what Ken paid.

There are three problems with this approach. For starters, whereas Ken’s income would have changed over time had he not been fired, the reference salary cannot change, except arbitrarily and in a manner setting the tax authorities against business.

The tax office and Luke would end up clashing over impossible estimates of the extent to which Ken’s salary would have risen, or fallen, had he still been employed.

Second, the advent of robot-operated machines that have never been operated by humans means there will be no prior human income to act as a reference salary for calculating the taxes these robots must pay.

Finally, it is hard philosophically to justify forcing Luke to pay “income” tax for Nexus but not for the harvester that Nexus operates. After all, both are machines, and the harvester has displaced far more human labour than Nexus has. The only defensible justification for treating them differently is that Nexus has greater autonomy.

But a lump-sum tax on robots would merely lead robot producers to bundle artificial intelligence within other machinery. Nexus will increasingly be incorporated within the harvester, making it impossible to tax the robotic element separately from the dumb parts that do the harvesting.

Either the robot sales tax should be dropped or it should be generalised into a capital goods sales tax. But imagine the uproar against a tax on all capital goods. Woe betide those who would diminish domestic productivity and competitiveness.

New source of revenue

Ever since the emergence of industrial capitalism, we have been terrible at differentiating between property and capital, and thus between wealth, rent, and profits. This is why a wealth tax is so difficult to design.

The conceptual problem of differentiating between Nexus and the harvester “he” operates would make it impossible to agree on how a robot tax should work.

But why make life under capitalism more complicated than it already is? There is an alternative to a robot tax that is easy to implement and simple to justify: a universal basic dividend (UBD), financed from the returns on all capital.

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Imagine that a fixed portion of new equity issues (IPOs) goes into a public trust that, in turn, generates an income stream from which a UBD is paid. Effectively, society becomes a shareholder in every corporation and the dividends are distributed evenly to all citizens.

To the extent that automation improves productivity and corporate profitability, the whole of society would begin to share the benefits.

No new tax, no complications in the tax code, and no effect on the existing funding of the welfare state. Indeed, as higher profits and their automatic redistribution via the UBD boosted incomes, more funds would become available for the welfare state.

Coupled with stronger labour rights and a decent living wage, the ideal of shared prosperity would receive a new lease on life.

Industrial-social revolution

The first two industrial revolutions were built on machines produced by great inventors in glorified barns and bought by cunning entrepreneurs who demanded property rights over the income stream “their” machines generated.

Today’s technological revolution is marked by the increasing socialisation of the production of capital. A practical response would be to socialise the property rights over the large income streams capital is now generating.

Related: Technology to wipe out most leading businesses by 2035

Changes in technology are happening at an unimaginable scale and will cause disruption in industry after industry.


In short, forget about taxing either Nexus or Luke. Instead, place a portion of Luke’s equity in the farm in a public trust, which then provides a universal payment to everyone.

In addition, we must legislate to improve the wages and conditions of every human still in employment, while our taxes provide Ken unemployment benefits, a guaranteed paid job in his community, or retraining.

Yanis Varoufakis is a former finance minister of Greece. He is currently a professor of economics at the University of Athens. Copyright Project Syndicate.