The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Universal basic income won’t make America great again, either

A little bit of paternalism goes a long way.

Donald Trump’s economic plan may not add up, but this alternative one wouldn’t, either. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump — a man who is cozy with white supremacists, violence, religious bigotry and misogyny — is the likely presidential nominee of Lincoln’s party. One quite minor consequence of this ongoing disaster is that I find it hard to say much at all about U.S. public affairs other than to make the simple observation that, well, Trump is an ongoing disaster. So in searching for something to write about with more layers than Trump, I looked abroad, to Finland of all places. And to Canada, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland. All of these countries, to one degree or another, are exploring universal basic income.

Imagine eliminating the entire welfare state — no more food stamps, cash and housing assistance, payments to the disabled, and all of the rest — and replacing it with a simple, elegant, single program: Every American gets a check just for being a citizen. All Americans would be given enough money to ensure that everyone can afford the basics necessary to live above the poverty line.

This program — universal basic income (UBI) — promises great relief to its beneficiaries. No longer are the poor subject to the whims, requirements and irritations of government bureaucracy. Under UBI, the welfare state is eliminated; the bureaucracy, gone. Gone, too, is the stigma associated with drawing benefits — if everyone wears the UBI scarlet letter, then no one does. Eliminated are the “poverty traps” associated with the “phase outs” of many of today’s safety net programs; UBI never phases out, so an extra dollar of work does not result in a loss of safety-net benefits. In a world with UBI, citizens no longer need to go to the government when the circumstances of their lives change: when they lose jobs, become disabled or see their incomes fall below a certain level.

Of course, there are many ways to implement a UBI program, with many bells and whistles that can and cannot be included. But the basic structure asks much from citizens by providing a base of economic security on which liberty must be properly practiced. Simply put, if you choose to spend your UBI check on drugs and alcohol and subsequently find yourself hungry and homeless, the government won’t help you. For UBI advocates, this is a feature, not a bug: Under UBI, citizens are responsible for their own choices. Even if those choices are bad, they remain their choices. Liberty is elevated; paternalism is dealt a devastating blow.

But perhaps liberty is elevated a bit too much?

At the risk of sounding unfashionable, one reason that I can’t support UBI — despite its many attractive and seductive features — is that we need a little paternalism. It is right and just that we have a social safety net — in a nation as wealthy as ours, no one should be able to fall too far. But UBI money doesn’t come from the Money Tree, and that reality needs to be respected. If we take money from John to give to Matthew, who would starve without it, then we owe it to John to make sure that his money is appropriately spent on Matthew’s food and shelter, not on Matthew’s alcohol and gambling. And surely there are a lot of Matthews out there who, if given the chance, would spend John’s money on alcohol and gambling. In addition, we can be confident that under UBI, at least some people will be taken advantage of, losing their benefit money. The children of recipients who spend their UBI unwisely also stand to lose quite a bit, and society needs to keep those children at the forefront of mind when evaluating safety-net programs.

In short, the wisdom of in-kind benefits would be made readily apparent if we adopted UBI.

Although removing stigma and the need to ask the government for help are appealing, they also result in outcomes of questionable morality. My wife is a very healthy woman. My neighbor has a serious physical disability. Should both receive the same amount of support from the government? Should a healthy man in his 20s and a blind man in his 40s be treated equally by the social safety net? I don’t think so. But under the logic of UBI, they would be.

Or would they? Another issue with UBI is its lack of realism. If UBI were introduced here, it wouldn’t take long for a politician to point out that, say, blind people need more support than those without physical disabilities. And then that workers who are disabled on the job deserve extra support over and above their base-line UBI benefit. And then it wouldn’t take very long for UBI to transform into something that looks very much like the system we have today. Why, then, change in the first place?

Then, of course, there is work. UBI would reduce work by reducing the need to work. If you think work is good, as I do, then this is a bad outcome.

A job provides much more than a paycheck. At a basic level, work occupies our time, which can be quite good in and of itself. (Do you want to live in a world filled with young men who don’t need to work?) Perhaps more significantly, working liberates us from our passions by directing them to the end of social improvement, creating a society characterized by mutual contribution, mutual dependence and mutual obligation. In a UBI world, those who choose to work will support those who choose not to — not those who can’t work, but those who won’t. This really would be a world of makers and takers.

That’s not a world I want to live in.