Universal Basic Income (UBI) is quickly becoming a hot topic this presidential cycle due to the likes of Andrew Yang and his supporters. Since he began his campaign, many other candidates have been interrogated about their support for the idea and more and more are responding positively, even if half-heartedly. Sadly some, such as Bernie Sanders, have remained skeptical of such a program and have instead called for measures such as a higher minimum wage and a federal jobs guarantee. Such solutions are rooted in backwards economic thinking and only serve to tie us further to the current state-capitalist system. A UBI, however, would offer us much more freedom from economic oppression and state bureaucracy while possibly paving the way for us to build an economic situation that is far better than what we have now.
First off, let’s start out by deconstructing the common alternative solutions before diving into the criticisms of UBI. The traditional solution to poverty wages comes in the form of minimum wage laws. In the past, I’ve written about why the Fight for $15 movement is misguided and how minimum wage laws merely serve as a distraction while effectively only offering a temporary bandaid to our problems at best. Such sweeping laws only serve to benefit some workers at the expense of others who are priced out of the market for various reasons.
Of course, a federal jobs guarantee would solve that issue, right? A higher minimum wage would have a net positive effect if no one could be priced out of the market due to the government guarantee of a job. And sure, there are absolutely lots of jobs that need to be done. Creating green energy jobs, infrastructure jobs, and the like would open up a lot more opportunities for work, but enough to guarantee a job for every single person? Between the prevalence of “bullshit jobs” in existence currently and increasing automation, it seems highly unlikely that there would be enough productive work to provide a truly universal job guarantee. As such the only ways to do so would either be to produce to such excess that we create a surplus of waste or to run production so inefficiently as to require extra labor and with it a larger carbon footprint, both of which are counterproductive to their proponents’ claimed environmental goals. Besides, no one feels truly satisfied when they know their work is pointless.
So why is UBI a better alternative? Well because it helps everyone regardless of job status and doesn’t pretend that ones’ worth should be based on ones’ production, while also compensating currently unpaid labor such as housework, childcare, and community volunteer work. But, of course, there are many detractors who have a number of criticisms to lob at the proposal. Some are worth taking more seriously than others, but I will do my best to tackle criticisms made by those with a variety of different viewpoints.
The most common criticisms surround the UBI’s relationship to our current welfare system. Conservatives fear that it will be a massive expansion of the welfare state and will stack upon current benefits without cutting down on costs at all, while liberals tend to fear the exact opposite, that a UBI would be seen as an excuse to cut current welfare benefits while not being an adequate enough replacement. Both fears make sense. We neither want a system so costly that it collapses, nor do we want people to lose out on aid they currently need and are receiving. However, none of the proposed plans feed into these fears. Most proposals either fund the UBI via a new established tax (i.e. Fair Tax, VAT tax, negative income tax, etc.), obtain funding by cutting the budget in other areas where it is much less needed (i.e. military spending, current welfare bureaucracy, etc.), or more commonly a mix of the two. Most proposals would not stack on current welfare benefits but are proposed as an alternative.
As an alternative to our current welfare system, a UBI would be far less bureaucratic and costly to administer. Currently, there are over 70+ means-tested welfare programs in existence. These include everything from renter’s assistance to food stamps to medical coverage. Currently, however, these programs come with a whole host of qualifications which require one to stay within certain criteria in order to maintain benefits. The problem with this model is that it limits opportunities for growth. One must manage their economic life in such a way that they either truthfully meet the criteria by way of turning down opportunities for advancement, or one must arrange their work to be off the records entirely which also limits one’s job opportunities even if less so. To top that off, the benefits received come with a multitude of restrictions. Someone getting $200 in food stamps per month doesn’t have the option to use said money to invest in a business opportunity which would supply them with way more grocery money than food stamps alone while also offering a chance at more long term stability. Hell, someone on food stamps can’t even buy hot food legally which doesn’t make much sense for those who are homeless and receiving such benefits.
So collapsing these various means-tested welfare programs into one program which everyone qualifies for regardless of income level or other such qualifiers would not only allow people more economic mobility, it would also allow them much more freedom in how to spend the money they receive. Of course this could be harmful to those currently receiving more benefits than what the UBI would pay out, however there is a solution that has been proposed. Andrew Yang has suggested that instead of fully replacing one system with another, we offer people a choice between the two systems. This way they would not stack on top of each other costing the taxpayers tons of extra money, but rather people would be given a choice between heavily restricted means-tested benefits or cold hard cash with no strings attached. As long as the UBI is set at a livable level, most people would likely choose the cash, allowing the current welfare system to fade into obscurity. Partnering a UBI with other solutions in the fields of healthcare and schooling access can also go a long way towards making sure individuals don’t fall through the cracks.
The other major criticism from the left is based upon the notion that we should be fighting to increase our bargaining power whereas UBI serves more to make us into passive consumers. This idea is still based on increasingly outdated modes of production. While there will always be other work to do, job retraining programs have largely proven to be ineffective at helping a large majority of manual laborers and other skilled and unskilled workers retrain for much more high tech jobs such as coding. With the current rate of automation, the idea of worker-ownership within our current economic model increasingly looks like a handful of capitalists owning fully automated companies while the rest of us are unemployed and starving. Now of course not every industry can be automated in such a way, but the point is that with the threat of automation displacing workers, focusing on bargaining power only helps those workers not currently automated away. For everyone else, they just have to hope that the bargaining power of the employed is used to benefit the working class as a whole (including the unemployed) and not just themselves and their co-workers.
But the entire notion that UBI doesn’t increase bargaining power is completely untrue. The main reason most people hesitate getting involved with labor unions is due to fear of losing their job in retaliation. This fear is automatically less immediate if one has a UBI to fall back on to meet their basic needs. This means that the labor movement would have more freedom than ever. And workers who wish not to work under a boss can pull their UBIs together with others in their communities to form worker cooperatives, collectives, partnerships, and sole proprietorships. Between a newly unleashed labor movement and a newfound capital base, workers are much less tied to the whims of their bosses and are freer to shape the economic situations they desire than they would otherwise be able to under our current system.
Lastly, UBI has been criticized for giving people no incentive to work. While it does lessen the coercive aspects of working since you will still have your basic needs taken care of regardless and you are not put in a “work or die” scenario, that is in no way a bad thing. Such coercion is completely unnecessary. Establishing a UBI would allow us to rid the market of “bullshit jobs” and focus on more meaningful work. People will still work to solve problems in their communities because it actively improves our lives as a communal species. People will do the work necessary for the survival of themselves and those they care about and as a communal species, we realize we can better survive by helping our communities. In fact, with fewer people tied up in “bullshit jobs,” we will have more people with the free time to focus on the work needed to survive and solve other problems which may come up. People will also be inspired to create new technology as proven by the open source movement and others. These things do not happen because we are coerced into them, they happen because we actively enjoy doing these things and/or see the benefit to them getting done. And sure we will see a shift away from mass production of rather pointless goods and accessories and towards everyday necessities, cherished luxuries, and artistic ventures. However, freed from the coercion of “work or starve,” these goods and services that we find most valuable will influence the dynamics of supply and demand and the market will naturally shift accordingly. In other words, a market more free of coercion tends to be better at reading actual market signals and functions better. After all the freer the market, the freer the people.
So all in all, a UBI provides us a means to shrink the welfare state (and possibly the military budget and other bloated areas), gives workers more control and bargaining power, and gets us closer to a truly free market. It is not the end goal but rather a useful transition in the here and now. A solution that no anarchist should have qualms fighting for,