One idea that has been gaining traction recently is a system of universal income, also known as basic income. The city of Stockton, California will be the nation’s first city to launch a universal income pilot program in 2019. While the specific policy proposals take many forms, the basic idea is simple; all citizens are entitled to receive a cash stipend directly from the government, with no pre-conditions to either receive the funds nor on how to spend them.
Universal income proponents focus on a handful of expected benefits, all of which seem appealing initially but upon further reflection generally tend to lose their luster. The primary benefit of universal income, they argue, is a reduction in income inequality through direct cash transfers, with a broad enough base of beneficiaries to garner long-term political support (and dependency).
A subset of workers and executives in the technology sector, most of all in Silicon Valley, believe that a universal income will become necessary in the future to address an expected wave of automation. The future of work will render a substantial portion of jobs, both blue and white collar, obsolete.
Surprisingly, a group of libertarian-minded advocates have also begun to advocate for a universal income scheme, arguing that should this money be offered in lieu of the current patchwork of social programs. Doing so, they argue, could substantially reduce the size of the administrative state as direct cash transfers with no strings attached would require far less oversight. As with all utopian visions, many problems arise once they become reality.
The problems include the practical – should universal income should replace some or all existing social and welfare benefits, or should they be layered on top of existing programs?
Do we agree, as a society, for example, that an able-bodied, deliberately unemployed twenty-five year old male is deserving of the same level of government aid as a disabled worker or an injured veteran? If we cannot agree, and I suspect we will not, then government must continue checking eligibility, and combating fraud to ensure only the neediest receive government support.
There are also a range of important philosophical problems presented by universal income. By establishing the principle that every person is deserving of, and in some fundamental way needs government support, it systematically lowers the expectations that we have for one another as participants in a free society.
Rather than expecting that each person, to the extent they are able, work hard to provide for themselves and for their families, universal income tells each citizen that they are deserving of the products of someone else’s labor simply for being born. This represents a fundamental shift in the relationship between the people and their government, and in a way that is uniquely disempowering to the average citizen. In my experience growing up in poverty and in communities ravaged by precisely this type of policy, I will tell you that if you set low expectations for people, they tend to meet them.
Speaking personally, my fundamental problem with the basic concept of a universal income, regardless of how it is implemented, is that it represents an unfounded pessimism about America’s future Our focus should be helping able bodied people get the skills they need to succeed through school choice, and improving access to, and the affordability of, higher education and vocational training.
The idea that we cannot accomplish what all previous generations of Americans have before us and economically empower our citizens to control their own destinies is a bet against this country that I am not prepared to make. In a time in our politics when we are continually asked to consider the “justice” of a policy, kind, a universal income scheme is simply unjust. The fact that timeless principles like temperance and responsibility for one’s actions have fallen out of favor does not make them any less valid in our modern age.
Above all else, we should oppose a system of universal income because it is wrong. As Americans, we have coalesced around the basic principle that we must care for those who cannot care for themselves. The corollary to this belief is just as vital, that those who can care for themselves have a responsibility to do so, and for their families as well.
America works because of freedom and opportunity. Universal income gives up on an entire group of people that high tech executives and the government say have no value, can’t contribute and can’t take care of themselves or their families. It says that there is no way for you to have a purpose, passion or provide for yourself or your family without a government handout. We should be outraged at such a dehumanizing philosophy. All people have value.
The status quo in our current social policy landscape can and must be improved, by reducing fraud and waste, and making these programs economically sustainable. But the way to fix our challenged system is not to put everyone on welfare. In fact, that is how our economic system would most effectively be destroyed.
Damon Dunn is a fellow in business and economics at the Pacific Research Institute.