Liberation Not Slavery

Universal Basic Income Frees Us to Pursue Meaningful Contributions

In one of the more thoughtless, knee-jerk, poorly researched commentaries I have seen in some time,  Chris Nelson, a writer for the Calgary Herald, purports to slay the dragon of creeping socialism by slamming Universal Basic Income

Among other things, he said, 

“Of course we are told handing out money to those below a certain income threshold will save cash because it negates other current social assistance programs.

But it won’t. Schemes like this never do…

…So, introducing a basic national income would simply ramp up the moral hazard already endemic across Canada, where individual responsibility is washed away with a shrug, because it’s all some government’s responsibility anyhow.”

How Mr. Nelson could get so many things wrong in such a short piece boggles the mind.

A New Social Construct is Coming Whether We are Ready or Not

Does Mr. Nelson not realize that his crusade is over, the ship has sailed?  We live in an advanced, very re-distributive, welfare state, we have for some time, and there is no going back. The questions that remain are pragmatic ones, in simplest terms, the best way to provide the massive amounts of income support we already dole out through our crazy quilt of existing programs. Many of these programs are riddled with inconsistencies, foster unintended consequences, and perverse results. This is unsurprising — the Welfare State grew as a series of ad hoc responses to changing circumstances over decades. It is not as if The All-Wise-Policy-Mandarins froze time and said, ”this is how we should do it..” 

Mr. Nelson sets himself up as an expert on our current Welfare System with the off-hand comment that we already have generous and adequate programs for those who fall through the cracks. This is entirely false. COVID has exposed gaping holes in this system, particularly for the working poor. He also does not mention or is unaware of, perhaps the most perverse and self-defeating aspect of means-tested welfare — the poverty trap. Almost all of our current subsidies for the poor are means-tested. This means that when Fred on Welfare has in front of him the prospect of a job, his motivation to take it is undermined; because he loses a dollar in support payments for every dollar he earns.

Removing the Demeaning

UBIs, as broadly envisioned, are unconditional — they remove the element of demeaning petitioning and outright coercion that is an inescapable part of the current system. It has as much support among libertarians as it does among socialists. (This fact is easy to uncover if one bothers to do any research on the subject at all.) 

The modern welfare state is a maze replete with backfire elements. Even the massive phalanx of bureaucrats who administer it no longer have a fundamental grasp on how it works. And it is under enormous pressure that has nothing to do with COVID. Trends in income distribution,  the benefit-less, multiple part-time job struggle of the working poor, the decline of unions, the outsourcing of jobs, technological displacement, and the shrinkage of the middle class in recent decades are all contributing to this.

There is a tsunami of job-loss coming, and the Welfare State we know now is nowhere near ready.  In fifteen years, the vast majority of North America’s long-distance truckers are going to be out of work permanently, replaced by convoys of self-driving vehicles. This job alone comprises almost six percent of the workforce, and this loss is only the beginning. We must detach income from wages-for-work. Otherwise, we face a future without enough people earning income to support the consumption that fuels the economy. Universal Basic Income is not creeping socialism; it is the most rational survival mechanism for the market economy.

A Humane Nature is Not Negated by Human Nature

By pillorying UBI, Mr. Nelson places himself as a defender of the status quo, i.e., a defender of the top-heavy, bureaucratic solution as against an option that requires a simple universal payment which can be provided by the CRA. As to affordability, since he makes no substantiated comments about what we currently dole out, he is in no position to pronounce on the affordability of a universal basic income scheme. It is affordable and does not require confiscatory assaults on your income. This is not the place to drill down on the numbers, but they are easy to find in the research. To give Mr. Nelson some much-needed perspective, a recent listing of 79 means-tested programs in the U.S. totalled close to three-trillion dollars or almost $10,000 for every American.

Most galling of all, are this journalist’s pronouncements on human nature. Donning his guise as an expert in anthropology, he opines that, of course, we are all lazy by nature, and supplying unconditional income to the poor would precipitate a massive stampede to the couch.  He seems unaware of the condescension attached to his remark. There is no evidence from the pilot studies we currently have that UBIs stimulate indolence. What they do accomplish is giving the working poor, holding down multiple crappy jobs, a firm floor below which they cannot fall — a platform for negotiating better working conditions  and better pay. And yes, UBIs even provide the ability to walk away from jobs people hate. The notion that all work, any job whatsoever, is a positive good, is absurd. However, means-tested income support forces people, particularly reasonably healthy males, to take any job that comes up, giving exploitative employers a hammer they should not have. Does Mr. Nelson really believe that the immigrants who replaced him in the Alberta rendering plant, poor-English speakers with little or no education — workers standing almost shoulder to shoulder, up to their elbows in blood, wielding knives and cleavers on carcasses and getting sick while they put chops on his table — are on some sort of mobility ladder? Will he be seeing them at the next desk over at the Herald any time soon?  He should know that this is specious crap. These people are stuck, just as those in the poverty trap are stuck.

And this is the heart of the matter. It is clear from the article itself and the mingy comments supporting it, that the rancour directed at UBI is not really about feasibility, it’s about a concept of fairness. I don’t want these lazy people picking the pockets of hard-working folks like me. I, who walked to school seven miles uphill both ways and with my own blood, sweat and tears made a success of my life will be damned if I’m going to give any more money than I already do to the hoi polloi who will spend it on cigarettes, beer and a whole lot of Netflix..

Let’s leave aside the fact that your pockets are already being picked courtesy of progressive taxation and many other cunning governmental stratagems, some of which are far less transparent to the pickee than a UBI would be. Let’s leave aside that Mr. Nelson and his crew seem to have no sense of, “there but for the grace of God, go I — no sense that, without denigrating anyone’s hard work — there is no such thing as a self-made man. 

Anyone’s personal striving is only a part of the picture. Mr. Nelson did not line up at the starting post of a gigantic foot race with the seven-billion or so other people on the planet and take off when someone yelled “GO.” His success is part personal effort and part social dividend. However humble his beginnings, as a white male, he could amble in to see the loans officer at his local bank branch and receive an impartial hearing on a loan request.  Could the same be said for a Jamaican immigrant single mother with a business plan? Mr. Nelson didn’t have to pay for the roads that lead to his place of business, or a private police force, or a private fire brigade.  In all sorts of ways, but for most of us primarily as part of our earnings, we benefit very unequally from what is freely given us by nature, technological progress, capital accumulation, social organization, geography, family support, rules, and so on. The ‘free rider’ perspective which causes unthoughtful conservatives to attack UBI schemes can actually be stood on its head. And here I quote from Philippe VanParijs, the godfather of universal basic income.  “For those truly concerned about free riding, the main worry should not be that some people get away with doing no work; but rather …. That countless people who do a lot of essential work end up with no income of their own.”  And I would add that countless more people receive pitiful pay for work that should actually require a misery index bonus, the scut work that most of us, but for COVID, would prefer not to think about.

This horror of free-riding perspective implies a narrow and unenlightened definition of productivity as the wages we earn and the taxes we pay on those wages. It does not include child-rearing, volunteer work, artistic creation and the broader dissemination of the freedom to innovate and create that would come if fewer people had to hold down three Macjobs just to survive. If the futurists are right about the impact of robotics and AI on jobs, we had all better revise our thinking with respect to what productive social contribution really means or we are moving towards a world full of displaced workers, angry and depressed because they have lost their sense of what makes them valuable. This is a recipe for political Armageddon and social dysfunction much scarier than a cadre of Netflix-addicted couch potatoes.

Should the Poor Have Equal Leisure?

I will go further on the moral hazard argument. Labour for wages has no intrinsic connection with virtue. Productivity generated by human labour has been, but may not always be, necessary for the support of our standard of living. Is the idea that the poor might be given the option to defer or walk away from bad jobs so shocking? Apparently so because Bertrand Russell once said, “the idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich.”  Ultimately, UBI represents a shift in power relations — and this is the essence of why some libertarians support it. If some people want to live lean and mean on a basic income that provides a moderate standard of living, but no-frills of the conspicuous consumption sort, while they work on a vocation that makes them happy, so be it. Ultimately life is about self-actualization and freedom of choice, not productivity. 

The concept of ‘full employment’ defined as a job for every able-bodied adult in the population is dead or dying — the idea of full-employment as enough decent-paying, non-demeaning jobs for all who want one is more attainable under a universal basic income regime.  UBIs are not just 

  • a salve for technological unemployment, or 
  • a robust anti-poverty measure, or 
  • a form of social dividend, or 
  • a way to boost the earnings of the working poor, or 
  • an elegant and logical simplification of the top-heavy Welfare State. 

They are also a means to liberation from mind-numbing drudgery. They are a paradigm shift that will allow millions the freedom to reject jobs that contribute nothing to personal dignity or human aspiration — jobs that technological progress should soon make superfluous. We need more income equality. The vast concentrations of wealth in the hands of the Few is becoming a danger to liberal democracy itself. The wage economy has failed, for the past fifty years, to provide this social good. Universal Basic Income is our best, perhaps our only way to make this happen.