Get Wonky: Yes, A UBI Post

I’m not a socialist.

I’m pro-market, but I’m not angry about it. I happen to be suspicious of philosophies that link all the world’s ills to “capital,” and I don’t that restoring power to the world’s labor is going to create a paradise. I think that capitalism has given this world great gains–look at the increased standard of living in the developing world for proof of that. But I do recognize huge flaws in global neoliberal economics, and the injustice embodied in the current system, especially manifested in income inequality, is a huge concern for me.

There isn’t a silver bullet for any of this. There’s no one solution that’s going to solve all the problems we have now. That said, a Universal Basic Income will solve all the problems we have now.

What Is A Universal Basic Income?

Others have explained it much better than I can, so I’ll let them do it. Matt Zwolinski, writing for Cato Unbound, says that Universal Basic Incomes (what he calls Basic Income Guarantees) are composed of two elements:

First, they involve a cash grant with no strings attached. Unlike other welfare programs which encourage or require recipients to consume certain specific kinds of good – such as medical care, housing, or food – a BIG simply gives people cash, and leaves them free to spend it, or save it, in whatever way they choose.

Second, a BIG is an unconditional grant for which every citizen (or at least every adult citizen) is eligible. It is not means-tested; checks are issued to poor and rich alike (though on some proposals payments to the rich will be partially or fully recaptured through the tax system). Beneficiaries do not have to pass a drug test or demonstrate that they are willing to work. If you’re alive, and a citizen, you get a check. Period.

UBI broke the surface of the news-industrial complex last week, with word that Canada was rolling out a pilot program. The Guardian’s Ashifa Kassam reports that:

The Canadian province of Ontario will launch a trial run of universal basic income with about 4,000 participants this summer, making it the first North American government in decades to test out a policy touted as a panacea to poverty, bloated bureaucracy and the rise of precarious work.

Participants in the three-year, C$150m pilot program will be drawn from the cities of Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Lindsay. A randomly selected mail-out will invite applications in the coming months, with participants screened to ensure they are between the ages of 18 and 64 years and living on a low income.

The pilot will include a mix of those who are working in low-paying or precarious jobs and those on social assistance, with participants able to opt out at any point during the three years.

Generally, most UBI advocates seem to have settled on around $1,000 a month for the amount. That’s not enough to live on, but it’s enough to give a cushion for people who might otherwise struggle.

Why Bother Just Giving People Money?

Good question! Alyssa Bastoni of Dissent sums up a handful of reasons here:

One version functions as a kind of noblesse oblige—a handout to the unfortunates being made obsolete by robots smarter and more efficient than they are. Another version aspires to egalitarian universalism and challenges the legitimacy of privately accumulated wealth. There’s a version that sees UBI as the spark for a generation of entrepreneurs, and another that simply attempts to stave off a revolt of the precarious masses.

There are other reasons. From Robert Skidelsky at The Guardian:

The explosion of robotics has given the demand for UBI renewed currency. Credible estimates suggest that it will be technically possible to automate between a quarter and a third of all current jobs in the western world within 20 years. At the very least, this will accelerate the trend toward the precariousness of jobs and income. At worst, it will make a sizeable share of the population redundant.

From Andrew Flowers at FiveThirtyEight:

Basic income has attracted a motley crew of supporters, spanning the ideological spectrum. Efficiency-minded libertarians like the idea of streamlining the bureaucracy of the welfare state. Silicon Valley techies hope a guaranteed income would cushion the blow as automation replaces human jobs. Those with a more utopian bent…want to open up more options, to let people create art.

On, Matt Zwolinksi writes that:

If libertarians are concerned to protect the freedom of all, and not just the freedom of most, we will want some mechanism that catches those who fall through the cracks left by imperfect market competition. We will want, too, some mechanism for protecting individuals whose economic vulnerability renders them vulnerable to domination outside the marketplace – the woman, for example, who stays with her abusive husband because she lacks the financial resources to support herself without him.

Cases such as these point the way to a freedom-based case for a Basic Income Guarantee, of the sort that Hayek might very well have had in mind. A basic income gives people an option – to exit the labor market, to relocate to a more competitive market, to invest in training, to take an entrepreneurial risk, and so on. And the existence of that option allows them to escape subjection to the will of others. It enables them to say “no” to proposals that only extreme desperation would ever drive them to accept. It allows them to govern their lives according to their own plans, their own goals, and their own desires. It enables them to be free.

So there are a lot of reasons, some philosophical, some practical. Some are better than others.

Seems Like There Would Be Problems

Yeah, there are a lot of issues with UBI, most of them logistical. How are we going to pay for it (a carbon tax, which I’ve talked about, is often floated as one method, but remember, that yields a few hundred bucks a year, not nearly enough to meet the threshold most advocates talk about). It’s generally understood that a UBI would serve as a replacement for all extant social programs: SNAP, TANF, etc, with some vigorous debate about what to do about medical spending and Social Security (some say phase Social Security out and gradually replace it, others don’t).

There are other complaints. Alyssa Bastoni again:

It’s sometimes called a “citizen’s dividend,” explicitly limiting recipients by nationality…So, as with other welfare programs, debates over basic income will undoubtedly be bound up with questions about nationality and migration.

I feel the need to defend myself; I’ve used the term “citizen’s dividend” pretty regularly, not based on any kind of nationalistic principle, but because I see a UBI as a recognition of the cooperation between the Citizen and the State. The Citizen contributes to the State; when the State is successful it pays out a dividend from the product of its success. But it’s still a good point–welfare can be a weapon when its existence is threatened or its benefits are withheld.

I’m a believer in the UBI for all the reasons mentioned above and more. Would there be problems with its implementation? Probably. But it’s better to struggle now than try to figure it out when the robots finish taking over.

Scott Santens is the Internet’s UBI guy–if you’ve got questions, he’s got answers.

Categories: Get Wonky


5 replies

  1. Let’s say that, during a time of abundance, a UBI is implemented exactly like you think it would should be done. What happens to it if the economic output decreases (whatever the reason) to a point where the share of each person is not enough to provide them with their basic needs?

    (If you can point me to a answer done by someone else, that would be welcome too.)

    I see some alternatives:

    1. the UBI enforcer calls for voluntary suicide, so that it may spread the left-over resources of the now dead to those still living, so these have enough to survive.
    2. the UBI enforcer kicks some people out of the UBI program and gives the saved money to others, so that then each beneficiary has enough to live and those kicked die of starvation (if they are poor).

    Which of these or any other alternatives you can imagine do you think would be a better approach?


  2. That’s an excellent question that’s worth considering. I think the best way to look at it would be to consider programs like Medicare or Social Security (I saw on your site you’re Brazilian, so I don’t know how familiar you are with those, but Wikipedia helps). Those programs are open-ended (as in, the State is on the hook for whatever it costs), so looking at the performance of Medicare during the 08 financial crisis might be instructive. That would provide an indication of how a program like a UBI would work in a period of downturn.



  1. Why Georgia (Still) Needs A Carbon Tax – The Georgia Wonk
  2. Georgia SNAP and “The Dignity of Work” – The Georgia Wonk
  3. On A Federal Jobs Guarantee – The Georgia Wonk

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