27 May 2015

Universal Basic Income

"Basic Income Triptych" Photo by Russell Shaw Higgs Some Rights Reserved

As the struggle to break through political malaise and to find an adequate response to the 2008 economic crisis continues, the left seems to have regained a certain amount of vigor. Populism seems to offer a way forward by tapping the pervasive anger towards wide and growing inequality that most mainstream politicians still seem frightened to fully embrace. Policies aimed at national redistribution and strengthening infrastructure would be welcome, of course. But there is as yet no well articulated vision for the future beyond the near-term, leaving open questions of whether a potential populist political movement will remain compatible with the goals of the left. It is important to ask, then, whether the left possesses proposals that might give shape to a wider political vision for the future.

Among the proposals on offer, universal basic income (UBI) is enjoying renewed interest, though it remains well outside of the political mainstream. UBI is generally defined as a cash payment of a certain amount made to every citizen of a nation without regard to income. One of UBI’s strengths is that it seems able to please everyone. Proponents say that it can end poverty by guaranteeing everyone a subsistence. In the USA, such guarantees—if far from perfect—already exist in the form of various entitlement programs from social security to food stamps. UBI, however, removes the burden and inefficiencies of proving need and submitting one’s family to the surveillance of the state. At the same time, UBI would benefit all (like social security without an age restriction) and therefore naturally enjoy a huge base of support.

There is also a more radical perspective that sees UBI as a way of empowering workers by decommodifying labor. In other words, by pushing back at the necessity of waged work just to get the necessities of life, a guaranteed income would allow people to be choosier about the jobs that they would accept. Why do dangerous or excessively hard work when you can use your guaranteed income to hold out for something better? Arguably, the ability to withhold one’s labor would increase the pay for undesirable jobs there is increasingly little reason to accept and increase the control of workers over their own lives. But whether or not the full radical implications of this argument would obtain, there is a solid case to be made that the UBI would increase the economic and political power of workers.

But against these progressive arguments for UBI one should weigh the libertarian and technocratic attractions to it. For some, UBI is meant to perpetuate the status quo in the worst ways. A recent article by Nathan Schneider documents how UBI is seen by some as a technocratic fix for extreme inequality—though certainly not inequality per se—that has the virtue of reducing supposedly wasteful government services. In other words, UBI can be a substitute for other services or benefits the government provides, and might be funded by cuts to them. Noah Gordon’s consideration of the cost of the UBI assumes, “[c]utting all federal and state benefits for low-income Americans.” This perspective explains the wide-ranging support that UBI has received not just from libertarians, but also from neoliberal heroes like Milton Friedman, an era-damaging former President, and outright cranks like Charles Murray1.