Should There be a Universal Basic Income?
“In a world of true abundance, you shouldn't have to work to justify your life.”
Universal basic income (UBI)—the proposition that all adults should receive no-strings-attached stipends from public funds, an income without means-tests of work requirement is, by no means, a new idea. Thomas More suggested it in his famous idealist book Utopia, Thomas Paine was in favor of it, and John Stuart Mill thought everyone in the community should receive a basic subsistence income. Bertrand Russell argued that those who choose not to work should receive a bare livelihood and be left completely free. More recently James Tobin and John Kenneth Galbraith among other economists defended the idea of a guaranteed minimum income.
In the present-day context of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, the mass unemployment and the shutdown of entire sectors of the economy, there has been a renewed interest in some form of universal basic income. Politicians and economists from Finland to Kenya, Australia to the US; ‘socialists’ like Bernie Sanders, unapologetic capitalists like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, all seem to agree with some form of universal basic income. We’ve been debating this issue in Canada since the 1930’s. In the 1970’s an experimental guaranteed annual income project was held in Manitoba. I get nervous when right-wing politicians and billionaires agree with me, but I find it difficult to see a down side. What UBI proves beyond question: how stupid, wrong and pernicious Ronald Reagan's pronouncement that 'government IS the problem'. UBI raises our expectations of what governments are actually capable of.
It is not just the present pandemic that raises the issue of UBI. We are aware, as never before, about how devastating the gap is between the 1% and the 99. We also foresee a new world of automation and robotic technology that will make many jobs obsolete. Moreover, our current social welfare system is dehumanizing and degrading, unions have been decimated many young people now must find work in an ever expanding ‘gig economy’—a shadowy underworld of counterfeit employment, insecure work and short contracts has become the new normal. But if you pay people not to work, will they tend to work less? I actually don't think so. But even if this were true, why would it necessarily be a problem? If we paid people a living wage and shortened the work week to 3 rather 5 days, the economy would be no less productive'.
All of that said, we still need to ask a few practical and philosophical questions on both sides of this issue: Is UBI affordable? Would people lose the motivation to work at all if they could live without it? Would a system of UBI signal to employers that they can lower wages because the government now guarantees all people a minimum living standard? Can you legislate charity—or should we cease to call it charity and just claim it that it is a human right whose time has come to be recognized? But then, why should someone who does not work get something for nothing? Is it not a slap in the face to the people who work for a living? Should not everyone have to earn money and stop looking for a free ride? Under a regime of UBI would society begin to stand still, rather than strive for something more? Would not such a system allow the rich capitalist class get off the hook—so that they no longer had any motive to provide jobs or meet the needs of employees? Does UBI simply grease the wheels of unregulated capitalism? Who really stands to win under UBI?
As always, the details of any proposed UBI scheme do matter. However, I don't think the potential problems with UBI outweigh its positive outcomes--it would, in fact reduce homelessness and poverty. Whatever we choose, it is wise to think through some of the more persistent questions and doubts.