In Consideration of Universal Basic Income – Or, May the Hydra Be Tamed?

The following was written as a particular form of argumentation: the Rogerian argument. A Rogerian argument requires the writer to assert a thesis by first stating its counter-thesis, to the opposition’s satisfaction. Often when discussing controversial issues the most popular move is to “straw man” a person’s argument—to devise a caricature of what the opposition believes, tear it down, and pretend that one has therefore won the argument. A Rogerian argument requires one to “steel man” the opposition, to state their case in such a way that the opposition may believe that the writer not only understands their position, but that demonstrates that the writer may pose a counterargument from an informed and thus authoritative position.

This piece is an exercise in Rogerian argument. In that vein, one caveat is in order:

The following does not necessarily constitute my own view on universal basic income of any kind, one way or the other (or another other). The very spirit of the Rogerian argument is comparable to that of Hegelian dialectics: truth is found in between dialectic and anti-dialectic, between argument and counter-argument—through dialogue—not on any particular “side”. I welcome feedback and further information, as this is only a cursory survey of the topic, but I ask that the reader make no mistake in reading this piece: the following does not necessarily reflect my opinion or beliefs on the topic, only an exercise in clear, honest, and fair argumentation.

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Many may consider receiving an income without work shameful, sans unemployment or disability. However, in the near future, accelerated automation may dramatically mutate present job markets, leaving no immediately available options for the unemployed. To maintain economic and technological growth, some form of universal basic income (UBI), sustainably funded and with the people’s consent, may be necessary. Though historically UBI programs have differed in scope and scale, they share a common theme: “the government would pay every adult citizen a salary, regardless of wealth, employment income or if they [sic] worked at all” (Vella). Despite disagreements over viability and implementation, Americans must candidly explore alternative economic arrangements, such as UBI, to prepare for future challenges.

Though “gaining popularity both in the United States and abroad,” to those who oppose any form of UBI, such programs are cumbersome and even dangerous, “glossed as ‘paying people for being alive’” (Battistoni 52). Their argument comprises three general concerns: necessity, funding, and personal impact. Even if one can demonstrate an economic crisis to come, the opposition questions whether UBI is the proper solution to such a conundrum. Considering the feasibility of UBI on the scale of the European Union, one study concluded that “the required redistribution is politically unacceptable in an association in which politicians argue over one percent of one percent” (Mencinger 166). Further, the opposition asks whether UBI may be funded both sustainably and ethically. Envisioning a UBI to “replace all social supports and … Social Security,” Levin-Waldman estimates such a program could cost anywhere between $5.356 and $7.359 trillion”; even if “we … maintained only Social Security, we would be spending … [$1.5 trillion] more than we are currently spending” (Levin-Waldman 152-153). Additionally, a 2006 survey of Norwegians’ willingness to pay for unconditional basic income revealed that while a comfortable majority were willing to fund welfare programs in social solidarity, this majority could be compromised by anti-immigration rhetoric (Bay and Pedersen); thus taxation may ultimately be unreliable in funding something as expensive as UBI. Last, the opposition wonders if UBI may threaten Americans’ independence, as well as their need to make meaningful contributions to society; UBI may simply be “one more misguided program bound to result in eliminating work incentives, rendering large numbers of people dependent on the government” (Vella).

Dynamism is a universal trait of any economy, and as advancing artificial intelligence progressively suffuses personal and professional spheres, the need to prepare for seismic economic change looms. In 1946, George Stigler argued that with the rise of minimum wage, employers would either support their workers, or employ fewer people (Stigler). Though a dated instance, automation renders this pattern perennial; “higher wages will lead to a substitution of technology and perhaps the full automation of the low-wage and low-skilled economy,” necessitating “a policy that will support millions” of displaced workers (Levin-Waldman 133). Some form of UBI may “ensure a minimal level of income … [and] basic needs without having to necessarily itemize specific social programs,” while “ensur[ing] that people have basic autonomy” (140). A 2011 report published by the U.S. Census Bureau demonstrates that college graduates on average earn $23,000 annually more than those without a college degree (Julian and Kominski). Exacerbating this gap, entrepreneur Andrew Yang expressed doubt that “Americans can be transformed into lifelong learners, and thus keep pace with changes in the workplace that would eliminate millions of current jobs, including white-collar ones.” Large-scale unemployment may threaten society at large, claims Yang, “lead[ing] to violent protests” (“War” 68). Some form of UBI may alleviate this issue, allowing those unable to afford college with a means to provide for themselves as they seek employment.

Notwithstanding the impossibility of UBI on a multinational scale, such as that of the EU, similar programs may be feasible on smaller scales, such as a nation or state, requiring little to no tax-sourced funding. For example, rather than a wholesale replacement of wage labor (such as the Communist experiments of the twentieth century), Atlantic contributing editor Annie Lowrey suggests a more modest program wherein all Americans are granted a monthly payment of only $1000 (Ben-Gad 72). Additionally, transhumanist and libertarian Zoltan Istvan has suggested a potential means of funding UBI by leasing out federal lands (Istvan). Circumventing the documented failings of centralized-planned economies, a smaller UBI may be funded by means other than straight taxation. The lack of a solution to this concern may be due to a lack of exploration rather than a dearth of options, thus necessitating further discussion.

Though one may question whether UBI threatens the average American’s work ethic and independence, such anxiety may only be a failure of perspective. David McNally, professor of political science, argues that contemporary capitalism functions on implicit discipline: should workers not work, they will be punished with poverty, creating a master-slave relationship (McNally). Thus one may argue for UBI “based on an understanding of republicanism as nondomination … To be free means that one is not in any way subject to the arbitrary whims of another” (Levin-Waldman 141). As to “whether a UBI undermines the work ethic,” Levin-Waldman cites two major experiments from Canada (guaranteed income through MINCOME; 1974-79) and the United States (negative income tax through the Office of Economic Opportunity; 1968-72) respectively. In both cases, “workers guaranteed an income were more likely to take the time it bought to acquire the skills necessary to command even higher wages.” American families receiving the negative income tax exhibited “positive results in elementary test scores” and experienced “positive effects” in weight management; Canadian families receiving guaranteed income experienced an 8.5 percent drop in hospitalizations (147). These variants of UBI ameliorated the stresses of the average wage-labor experience for these families, while supporting a spirited desire to build upon what they received, rather than slipping into listlessness.

In Thomas More’s Utopia, Raphael Hythlodaeus contends that “no penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it's their only way of getting food. … [I]t would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody's under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse” (More 22). Though no amount of legislation or economizing will eliminate suffering as such, unnecessary suffering, properly identified, is surmountable. Americans, and the world in general, face a promising future which will come with heavy challenges, and the need to discuss possible solutions to those challenges will only increase until the moment arrives. Only through further consideration can countries decide whether UBI, ethically and sustainably funded and responsibly implemented, can help them to meet this new world.

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Works Cited

  • Battistoni, Alyssa. “The False Promise of Universal Basic Income.” Dissent, vol. 64, no. 2, 2017, pp. 51–62., doi:10.1353/dss.2017.0030. Web. 29 Sept. 2018.

  • Bay, Ann-Helén, and Axel West Pedersen. “The Limits of Social Solidarity: Basic Income, Immigration and the Legitimacy of the Universal Welfare State.” Acta Sociologica, vol. 49, no. 4, 2006, pp. 419–436., doi:10.1177/0001699306071682.

  • Ben-Gad, Shmuel. “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World.” Library Journal, 1 May 2018, p. 72. Web. 29 Sept. 2018.

  • Istvan, Zoltan. “Leasing out Federal Land Could Provide Free Money for All Americans.” Business Insider, 10 July 2017, 1:49 PM, www.businessinsider.com/basic-income-with-federal-land-dividend-2017-7. Web. 29 Sept. 2018.

  • Julian, T A, and R A Kominski. “Education and Synthetic Work-Life Earnings Estimates.” United States Census Bureau, American Community Survey Reports, Sept. 2011, www.census.gov/library/publications/2011/acs/acs-14.html. Web. 28 Sept. 2018.

  • Leavell, Byrd. “The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future.” Publishers Weekly, 19 Sept. 2018, p. 68. Web. 29 Sept. 2018.

  • Levin-Waldman, Oren M. “The Inevitability of a Universal Basic Income.” Challenge, vol. 61, no. 2, Apr. 2018, pp. 133–155., doi:10.1080/05775132.2018.1454382. Web. 28 Sept. 2018.

  • McNally, David. Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance. PM Press, 2011.

  • Mencinger, Jože. “The Revenue Side of a Universal Basic Income in the EU and Euro Area.” DANUBE: Law and Economics Review, vol. 6, no. 3, Jan. 2015, pp. 159–174., doi:10.1515/danb-2015-0010. Web. 29 Sept. 2018.

  • More, Thomas. Utopia. Translated by Paul Turner, Penguin Classics, 2003.

  • Stigler, George. “The Economics of Minimum Wage Legislation.” American Economic Review, vol. 36, 1946, pp. 358–365.

  • Vella, Matt. “Universal Basic Income: A Utopian Idea Whose Time May Finally Have Arrived.” Time, 13 Apr. 2013, time.com/4737956/universal-basic-income/. Web. 28 Sept. 2018.

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Image credit: Luis García

Mosaic from Roman Spain (26 AD); Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra. Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria (ValenciaSpain).