Streamlining Government with UBI

Fairness Left and Right

As a good controversialist, I’m always on the lookout for arguments that strengthen my advocacy for a Universal Basic Income. I am particularly interested in ‘justice’ arguments because fairness, far more than feasibility, is the sticking point for many people who have not delved deeply into the intricacies of this immensely important policy prescription.

I got thinking again about fairness while I was listening to a lengthy rant on the radio the other day that, on the surface, had nothing to do with UBI. It was an indictment of the radically different impact COVID job displacement has had on the public versus the private sectors in Canada. The mayhem that the coronavirus has unleashed on private-sector jobs needs no elaboration here. But it seems that employees in the public sector (health-care workers honorably excepted) have danced along, whistling a merry tune pretty much unscathed during the pandemic. This radically disproportionate impact is undoubtedly a kind of unfairness.

Neither Benefit Cuts Nor the Status Quo Are Feasible

The reason for this is apparent enough — the public sector is the last bastion of strong unions. With billions in income support to dole out among other COVID responses such as PPE supply logistics, the last thing governments want to deal with now is labour unrest. This stance is perfectly understandable, but it is a clear inequity in the labour market — we have a large number of preferenced and protected employees who are immune to vicissitudes that can decimate the majority of the workforce.

So, if this asymmetry in the job market is unfair to those in the private sector, one way to address the impact of this injustice would be to shrink the size of government itself and the unionized civil service that comes with it. For decades, small c conservatives such as myself have been lamenting the growing size of government. Yet, the welfare state is here, it may need radical restructuring, but it is not going away. Conservative critics have not been particularly adept at coming up with approaches to shrinking government without at the same time trivializing the importance of the many social goods the government does provide. That won’t work politically. Governments do many things we must have them do, protect us, maintain physical and digital infrastructure, redistribute money based on evolving conceptions of fairness, etc. But do they need to administer a vast array of means-tested income-support programs? UBI advocates say no — give people a sum of money unconditionally through the tax system and get out of the way.

While a properly resourced government is a requirement of a well-functioning society, byzantine bureaucracies are not.  However, anyone who has studied the way governments grow, by subtle accretion, like barnacles on a reef, should know that parties in power will never have the stomach to downsize government incrementally.  Cutting off the cat’s tail an inch at a time will not work. The tail will grow back while the politicians aren’t looking, or have gotten tired of the constant flack.

One Benefit to Replace Many

If we can’t eliminate the need for government services and government fiefdoms inexorably grow, what is to be done? The only way politicians can realistically attack the size of government bureaucracy is if they are armed with a sweeping measure, so rational, so sensible, so obviously fair that they can build wide-spread support and bulldoze their way through the obstacles in quick-time. Enter universal basic income, stage right. It would need no overseers to assess who qualifies because everyone does.

I can’t tell you how many bureaucrats are currently administering the imposing array of insurance and direct income-support programs the Canadian government offers its citizens. Statistics Canada is not useful in this regard, and I have no insider access. Let us grant that the number is impressively large. Without the radical re-think of how the welfare state should work that is explicit in a universal basic income, those bureaucrats will all still be there in twenty years. They will be happily overseeing an ever-more complex set of structures — administering a bewildering and often self-defeating means-tested complexity that is intrinsically unjust because it defies comprehension.  They will still be immune to what is happening outside their bubble, be that a plague or an incursion of robots.

And a Win-Win for Left and Right

And here is the ideological elegance of a UBI when it comes to public sector versus private sector employee equity.  For those first and foremost conservatively minded, UBI would indeed help manage the size of government. However, for those that lean more to the left, UBI provides more protection for all employees and greater ability to seek out fair employment. In these partisan times, political win-wins should not be ignored.

There are many kinds of fairness and unfairness at issue in the UBI debate. The fairness of how we equitably employ people deserves a little more attention.