Just six years after declaring bankruptcy due to a 15-year spending binge, Stockton is now exploring creative new ways of spending again. This time, it’s a one-year experiment to give several dozen Stockton families $500 a month, with no strings attached. The idea of “universal basic income” – providing everyone with a monthly income without any obligations or restrictions – is gathering momentum in Europe and is now here in the U.S.
Among its biggest champions are Silicon Valley titans, including Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andressen, and Elon Musk. They argue that the coming robot revolution (related: Anaya wants a Roomba) is expected to eliminate millions of jobs. A basic income, according to tech’s best minds, is a simple and elegant solution.
Closer to philosophical home, some libertarians, including Charles Murray, believe that a basic income would dramatically reduce the enormous bureaucracy currently administering America’s entitlement programs. AFDC, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, and unemployment benefits would all go away, and more important, each person would decide how best to spend the money. Murray, however, does acknowledge: “Yes, some people will idle away their lives …. But that is already a problem. The question isn’t whether a UBI will discourage work, but whether it will make the existing problem significantly worse. I don’t think it would.”
Finally, while most progressives support universal basic income, there are notable dissenters. Joe Biden said it was “selling American workers short,” while Hilary Clinton, wrote in her memoir What Happened, “We decided it was exciting but not realistic (I assume this means what to do with all of the government union workers?), and left it on the shelf.”
While all sides of this debate have merit, I don’t believe basic income is good for America. I imagine a deep divide between those who work and those who don’t, with workers resenting non-workers and non-workers living a life of borderline poverty. Moreover, work is much more than just paying for basic needs. It gives people a sense of pride and independence in being able to provide for themselves and their families, as well as a sense of community with common goals and responsibilities. While $500 checks to Stockton families might provide them some financial relief, only well-paid jobs can do all of the above.
Rowena Itchon is senior vice president for Pacific Research Institute.