Universal Basic Income, Part 3 of 3

Source:  Flickr/kanu101

This is part 3 of a series about Universal Basic Income. If you haven’t already, I suggest you read part 1 about the history of UBI. With that background in mind, we set forth into the case for basic income in part 2. This is the case against.

I said this before, and I’ll say it again: I like UBI. And as I hopefully made clear, I appreciate it because of the vision of society it presents. But the vision alone does not guarantee that UBI will be effective means to achieve it, nor that the vision itself works in the ways we might hope. That’s the nice thing about visions: you can exalt the ideals, while ignoring all the messiness. Any alternative social structure will carry its own unique blend of social and economic problems. Since we know so little about the UBI model, we can more easily cling to its purity and fill it with our dreams.

The Messy Details

A moment’s reflection makes obvious that figuring out a model for UBI is no trivial matter. The most common reasons critics bash UBI have almost entirely to do with implementation, and for good reason. There are a lot of questions that UBI immediately raises. How universal is it? Does it include non-citizen residents? Children? Prisoners? Presumably you make way for UBI by eliminating existing welfare programs, but which ones? And how much money counts as “basic”?

These concerns reveal an interesting feature of the UBI debate, namely, the uneasy alliance between folks across the political spectrum, often with very different motivations for their support. The goal of UBI is usually summarized as the elimination of both poverty and the bureaucracy of government-administered welfare with one fell swoop. While liberals and socialists strongly emphasize the effects on poverty, libertarians and fiscal conservatives focus on government overhead.

This is especially appealing for those interest in cutting government costs because federal spending on so-called “entitlements” (i.e. mandatory spending programs such as Social Security, welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment benefits) has significantly increased as a percentage of our national budget, whereas things like defense have decreased.

Source : Office of Management and Budget,  Historical Tables, Table 8.3.   https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/omb/budget/Historicals

Source: Office of Management and Budget, Historical Tables, Table 8.3. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/omb/budget/Historicals

Although this bit of bipartisan support may be refreshing, fractures quickly appear as soon as you dive into the details. In fact, there seems to be an irreparable contradiction between these two goals. Consider the groups of people who have special and particular needs, like those living with disability or illness. Replacing our current system of welfare benefits with a single payment would either mean that the basic income is too low to replace the additional benefits those people receive, or, if it’s high enough to cover them, it would provide a substantial cushion to those who don’t need it. Put more generally: if the basic income is smaller than the existing safety net, then it is probably too small to permit the safety net’s elimination. If it is designed to exist alongside welfare benefits, it will be much more costly than the current system. At this stage, the fundamental differences in political ideologies will reveal themselves, and the precarious alliance seems bound to quickly fall apart.

This is why implementation is so important. Although in part 2 I tried to shrug off logistical concerns as petty distractions, the different ways in which UBI can be implemented will have drastically varying, and possibly divergent, economic and social effects. Take the simple alternatives of a basic income that is either above or below a livable income level. If a person is able to get by on UBI alone, their context is wildly different than a person who gets a financial boost, but still needs additional sources of income to live a decent life. There are a lot of variables, and a tweak to any of them can have reverberating consequences on the economic model. That is why any two people who both favor UBI may find they have more disagreements than common ground.

This throws a thorn into all the UBI studies, and casts doubt on how much they can tell us. Social experiments differ from science experiments because the environment has indelible effects on the outcome; you cannot conduct a social experiment in a vacuum-sealed lab. And so we run the risk that the most these UBI studies can show us is the effects of these very specific UBI parameters on this very specific community. It is completely legitimate to doubt that the results of GiveDirectly’s experiment in extremely poor communities in Kenya will have any similarities to the impact of implementing UBI in the United States.

Still, this is not a principled objection to experiments in general, but rather a cautionary note on the broader implications of any particular study. Similarly, the disparate goals and possible implementations are disputes within the UBI framework, not arguments against it in general. This then simply takes us back to our starting point: that we just don’t know how or if UBI works, and we need more evidence to see what (if anything) makes sense. Most criticisms of UBI are frustrating because it is unclear exactly what they are arguing against. Are the critics opposed to studying and experimenting with UBI? Or simply predicting that it won’t work? A prediction is not really an argument, and, accordingly, many of the so-called cases against UBI come across as merely pessimistic. What we need is not an educated guess about the bad effects of UBI, but an objection to the very idea of UBI itself, and the society it creates.

In the Cold, Wrapped in Blankets

I know of no better illustration of our fears of a UBI society than that described by Frithjof Bergmann, philosopher and founder of the New Work movement, when he visited a Native American tribe in northern Canada. Traveling with one of the elders of the tribe, a woman named Valerie, they came across this scene:

Not together, but at distances from each other stood the men of the tribe. In silence. Immobile. Wrapped in blankets…. [A]fter a while I found the courage to ask, what these men were doing. She answered, “They are waiting for the mail.” After another pause I asked, “About what time does the mailman usually arrive?” She replied, “Around noon.”

“Around noon?” I asked, with puzzlement in my voice, “what time is it now?” Valerie said, “Ten past eight.” I ventured to follow this up and said, “And how often do most of these men get a letter?”

“Mostly, it is once a month, and not a letter but the check they get from the government,” was her answer…

The great mistake, which spanned twenty years, came to a head in the men who stood waiting in the snow. They stood there because there was nothing else for them to do. The work in the forest and the work in the sawmill had stopped long ago, and even the fishing and the hunting had come to a complete end. So, the Canadian government, which treats the Indians very differently from the U.S. government, provided for the totality of their needs. Not just food and clothing and housing, but also counselors and social workers and nurses and trained therapists for every imaginable and conceivable requirement… She said there was nothing whatever for the men to do, so they no longer moved. They became so utterly dependent on being provided for that it was an effort to still feed themselves. Sometimes they no longer managed that!

Frithjof Bergmann speaks at the Repair Conference. Source:  Ars Electronica

Frithjof Bergmann speaks at the Repair Conference. Source: Ars Electronica

This chilling image gives credibility to the anxieties that form the background of our concerns about UBI. Most prominent in this image is the utter dependence on the government. There is a fundamental change in the relationship between the individual and the state by giving the government the role of provider. This role is crucial in our society — it facilitates our connection with family, with community, and with ourselves. By replacing accountability for one’s own livelihood with an entitlement, we risk the subordination of self-reliance in favor of dependence. The freedom from needing to work to provide for ourselves may require us to sacrifice a vision of a higher freedom where we are not reliant on anyone but ourselves for that provision.

What’s more, UBI endangers some of our current attitudes toward social justice, and may encourage undesirable cultural norms. As a society, we strive to eliminate the existence of a class of people dependent on government handouts for their own survival. But a UBI may lead to a strange reversal, where widespread government dependence is seen as one of society’s great achievements. No longer will we endeavor to lift people out of government assistance because government assistance would not be considered problematic. While this may be inconsequential for those who are well off, those who are already marginalized may be left unattended and spiral further into a state of helplessness and spiritual defeat. If we make the government the means by which we take care of each other, we risk absolving ourselves of the direct responsibility we have to one another. The payments in cash seem to further distance this responsibility, as the onus is on the recipient to make the “right” decisions. We cannot let UBI serve as an excuse to consider our social debts paid.

The danger of UBI is that its proponents often herald it as a panacea for much deeper social and cultural problems. Economic conditions can change the context in which individuals make decisions but they do not form the individual as a human being. A person who is materially taken care of may nonetheless be spiritually empty, without purpose, growth, or fulfillment. Humans are not greedy creatures that need to be restrained, but frail beings that need to be encouraged and empowered. Without being given the capabilities and confidence to pursue meaningful work, freedom from the need to hold a job may lead to a listless unemployment. The promise of UBI is the opportunity to free people up to do things that they really, really want to do. The greatest potential for this is in the pursuit of work that people truly care about, rather than work they are obligated to do but that they detest, or that asks of them a pitiful fraction of what they are capable of doing.


But our culture does not prepare people for that kind of freedom. The vast majority of people are coerced into a small role, and their upbringing is bent on figuring out how to fit them into the system. Freed from this necessity, people may indeed fall into “alienated idleness.”

This fear is best distilled in the proverb, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

If their only association with work is a toiling drudgery, they may swear off it completely, having never been exposed to the transformative growth that work can induce. Frithjof Bergmann was opposed to UBI for this reason, at least in the current cultural climate. For him, without a change in attitude toward work and a shift in how work is organized, UBI can lead society to mirror the image of the men of the tribe waiting out in the cold, wrapped in blankets: “the dependence and the lack of work, these two together produce a paralysis; they have the effect of turning people into ghastly stumps of frozen flesh.”

The Jury Is Out

Altogether, this is not an all-out assault on UBI, but it is a strong objection to it as a singular solution. If it is anything, it is but a piece in a much larger effort. And it is one that must be treated with caution, for if we are not ready, it has the potential for social disaster. Yes, we should push for UBI experiments so that we may learn more about it, and allow for more fact-based discussions of its merits and its flaws. And we can continue to use UBI as an example of the kind of policy that is conducive toward the vision we have of a better society. But we must avoid the pitfalls of idealism that linger close by, the dual threat of painting UBI as a cure-all for our social problems, and of regarding our current system as hopeless and disengaging with the world as it is. We still need to push for reform in the direction of our vision, even as we tinker with the promise of alternatives.

However, the specter of automation looms large in this discussion. If we artificial intelligence-driven job elimination does occur such that there are simply not enough jobs to go around, we will be confronted with the need to fundamentally change the way we take care of each other. It will not be defensible to uphold the conditionality of our current system.

The case has been made for and against UBI. Unfortunately, we lack the proper evidence that our jury demands in order to pass judgment. Without a doubt, the recent surge of interest in UBI has spurred experiments and studies that promise useful results and revelations. Whether UBI proves to be beneficial or not, these findings will help fuel our social conversations, and inform our collective decisions. As for the fate of UBI, like any good social pragmatist, my opinion is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So to everyone I say “let’s eat!” and see what we find.