Six Arguments for a UBI
An excerpt from Universal Basic Income: What Everyone Needs to Know
Last week, I shared the table of contents for my new book with Miranda Perry Fleischer: Universal Basic Income: What Everyone Needs to Know. The book will be published on October 4th. But in the meantime, I wanted to give you a taste of what to expect.
In one of the early chapters of the book, Miranda and I lay out what we take to be the six main arguments that people have put forward in support of a UBI. We discuss all of these arguments in more detail later in the book, but the purpose of this chapter is just to lay them all out in a relatively succinct way.
Of course, just because we present them doesn’t mean we think that all these arguments are equally good! But I’ll be interested to hear what you all think. Which argument is the strongest? The weakest? Or have we left your favorite argument out altogether?
And for you skeptics out there, don’t worry. My next post here will cover the very next chapter in the book - the four main arguments against a UBI. Stay tuned.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF A BASIC INCOME?
As we have seen, the idea of a UBI has been around for a long time. And over that time, a great variety of arguments have developed in its support. Most of the arguments, however, fall into one of six main categories. The first three focus on the consequences of a UBI; the final three on more fundamental values.
1) Automation— The most recent and most currently influential argument focuses on artificial intelligence and the increasing automation of work. This idea was at the core of Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign, and it also underlies support for the UBI among many of Silicon Valley’s tech elite and some labor leaders such as Andy Stern. The argument comes in two forms: one relatively moderate, the other quite radical. In its moderate form, the argument claims that technological unemployment will pose severe transitional problems. People who are put out of work because their job has been taken over by a computer will need help with retraining, relocating, and getting back on their feet. A UBI can provide a cushion to make that transition easier.
The more radical argument claims that the problem posed by technological unemployment will be not transitional but permanent. We may be entering an era where there simply won’t be any jobs left, at least for large numbers of people without highly specialized training. On this view, the purpose of a UBI is not merely to serve as a temporary cushion, but rather as a permanent means of support— to replace income from work, ratherthan to supplement it. We’ll have more to say about this argument in chapter 38.
2) Efficiency— Most people want government programs to be efficient, rather than wasteful. In other words, they want those programs to produce as much benefit as possible for every dollar they spend. And this looks like it might be a good reason to support a UBI, as we discuss more in chapter 41. For starters, cash transfers are generally more efficient than in- kind programs. Giving someone $100 worth of food stamps is great if food happens to be the thing they really need most. But if what they really need is to pay their rent, or to buy bus fare, then they would have been better off with cash. Cash transfers allow individuals to make their own decisions about what they need most. And if we assume that most people know their own needs better than the government does, then there is good reason to think we’ll make a bigger improvement in people’s lives by giving them cash rather than goods and services. A UBI might also enhance efficiency by streamlining and simplifying the way government provides aid to the needy— a point emphasized by Charles Murray in his defense of a UBI. Right now there are over one hundred different programs at the Federal level designed to fight poverty in various ways, many of which could be consolidated into a single cash transfer program. Not only would that cut down on government bureaucracy, but it would also make it considerably easier for the people targeted by those programs to obtain the benefits to which they are entitled— by cutting down on paperwork, travel between different offices, dealing with different caseworkers, and so on.
3) Poverty and Inequality— If you’re reading this book, chances are you live in a very wealthy society. Not just wealthy compared to other countries today, but wealthier than almost any other nation in the entire history of the world. Why, then, is there still so much poverty in our midst? If we’re so rich, why should we allow anyone to be poor? A UBI would almost certainly help to reduce poverty significantly. Eliminating poverty is a trickier question, one which we will take up later in this book (see chapter 39). We’ll also talk in chapter 40 about how a UBI will affect inequality, which is a different issue from poverty. A UBI establishes a minimum income, but it doesn’t by itself set any kind of maximum on how much somebody can earn. Still, if a UBI is paid for by taxes on people with relatively higher incomes, and if most of the benefits go to people whose incomes are lower, the net effect should be to reduce inequality overall.
4) Respect— The efficiency argument for cash transfers depends on the assumption that if we give people choice, they will generally make better decisions about their own lives than the government would. But not everybody accepts this assumption. In fact, many people seem to think that poverty is evidence of some kind of character defect such as bad judgment, weakness of will, or simple laziness. What the poor need, on this view, is someone to make their decisions for them: to limit their choices and to guide them toward virtue. As we discuss in chapter 42, advocates of a UBI reject this sort of paternalism and instead urge respect for all individuals as autonomous moral agents. They argue that poverty is often a result of structural factors rather than individual moral failing. And they argue that even when individual character is an issue, the best way to develop it is to give people the freedom to take responsibility for their own lives. Paternalism is not only inefficient; it is fundamentally disrespectful.
5) Freedom— One of the most fundamental arguments for a UBI is based on the value of freedom. Advocates of a UBI believe that everyone should be able to live their lives as they see fit, without undue interference from others. But freedom is a luxury the poor often cannot afford. Someone who is living paycheck to paycheck often has no real choice but to comply with the dictates of their boss. Someone who is financially dependent on their spouse often has no real choice but to stay in that relationship no matter how dysfunctional it may become. A UBI gives people freedom not merely in the formal sense of a legally protected right, but what the philosopher Philippe Van Parijs has called “real freedom,” or the genuine capacity to live their lives as they choose. By providing assistance to those in need, a UBI lifts people out of the desperation and vulnerability to exploitation of poverty. And by providing that assistance in the form of cash, a UBI gives people maximum discretion to live their lives according to their own choices. We’ll see this value reappear throughout the book.
6) Compensation— Finally, some people have argued that a UBI might be justified as a way of compensating people for ways in which society has harmed them. This argument has a variety of forms, but we’ll mention two common ones here. The first springs from the idea that natural resources like land and minerals are, from a moral perspective, the common property of humanity. On this view, those who have been lucky enough to convert those resources into wealth shouldn’t be the sole beneficiaries of that wealth. Sure, they can keep a bit extra to compensate themselves for their labor, but they owe the rest of us compensation for the use of these resources. We’ll have more to say about this argument in chapter 59.
The second argument, one that reappears in chapter 43, is that a UBI might help to compensate certain groups within society for the lingering effects of past injustices. The guiding idea here is that policies like slavery, colonialism, and legally enforced segregation can produce harms that last long after the laws themselves have been abolished. Many of the most disadvantaged groups in today’s societies are still suffering the after- effects of these injustices. And since we as a society were the ones who caused those harms, we have a responsibility to do what we can to make things right. A UBI can never make the victims of social injustice whole again. But by redistributing resources toward the most economically disadvantaged individuals within a society, it can at least make some progress toward this end.
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