Be Wary Of Universal Basic Income

May 1st, 2017 | M. Menuck
universal basic income
One idea that has been getting quite a bit of press lately has been a Universal Basic Income, this being a guaranteed annual amount of money that every person would receive in replacement of today's hodgepodge of benefits and subsidies and supplements. The concept of a UBI has had supporters across the political spectrum, with social justice activists on the left seeing it as a hard floor against poverty and small government advocates on the right attracted to the idea of cutting back on the red tape and bureaucracy of the modern welfare state.

The popularity of a guaranteed universal income for all has only gained popularity in recent years, as headlines touting precarious employment, stagnating wages, and increasing automation of well-paying jobs has dominated the news cycle. This has been accelerated by the rise of populist, anti-establishment parties across the Western world as a UBI is seen as an effective way of undercutting their base of support among underemployed, blue collar men who feel increasingly left behind by the modern world and are increasingly susceptible to nostalgic appeals such as "Make America Great Again". My own province of Ontario has been the latest to jump on the bandwagon, with Premier Kathleen Wynne recently announcing that implementation of a universal income for all Ontario residents is being seriously considered.

Tremendous wariness is called for, though, particularly by smaller government enthusiasts who see a UBI as a way of slimming down benefits and services by streamlining them into one payment. Actually implemented such a program would doubtlessly be bitterly fought by the public sector unions, who instinctively oppose anything that leads to layoffs of their members (which a genuinely implemented UBI would doubtlessly include). Does anyone actually think the government of Kathleen Wynne has the resolve necessary to actually stand up to this? If so you've been asleep for the last decade and a half, which has seen the Ontario Liberals capitulate to the public sector unions time after time.

Furthermore, the idea that progressives and leftists of all stripes would simply close up shop and declare "job done" following the implementation of a universal income is plainly naive. Politics is ultimately a grubby game of "What can you do for me?" and it is almost inevitable that the UBI would eventually become a vote buying scheme, constantly being raised higher and higher or rejigged to favour various groups and demographics, or see the introduction of various top-ups and supplements (which undermines the entire purpose of a universal income to eliminate such things). 

Those who support a UBI out of the hope that it will undermine the rising tide of populism we are seeing in Western politics should also reconsider. Simply ascribing the motivations of those now turning to populism entirely to basic economic factors is to misdiagnose the problem. It's a little too simplistic given that for all the issues facing us today involving precarious employment and job churn our standards of living are still significantly higher than ever before, Even a poor person today enjoys a life that would not have been possible for his counterpart a century ago.

Such a purely material view overlooks the importance that work in and of itself holds for people, especially the kinds of blue-collar, less educated male voters often seen as the base of these rising populist movements. What they are revolting against is not just a decline in their personal financial security, but also what they see as the slow erasure of their old roles as primary breadwinners and providers for their families. In this sense, a UBI may even be counter productive to counter such insecurities, as it could easily be perceived as confirmation of their greatest fears that the future holds no place for people such as themselves - "Here's your bigger and permanent dole cheque, now please hurry up and die so the really valuable people don't have to keep supporting you".

Anything presented as a simple solution to a complex problem should always be treated with a great deal of scepticism and a Universal Basic Income is no different. The temptation behind it is understandable, but that should not obscure the very real practical problems that would come with its implementation or allow it to be turned into some kind of perfect, catch-all answer to all problems. 
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