By day – It’s not the government’s job to guarantee the life of TV, video games, apps
The financial upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented cash benefits that policymakers have implemented in response have sparked renewed interest in an old idea: a universal basic income for all Americans. Last proposed and seriously debated in the 1970s, the UBI would offer every adult in the United States a cash payment every year with no obligation to work.
While this unrestricted document often scores high in polls, it would be a terrible idea for both idealistic and practical reasons.
Perhaps more importantly, severing the link between work and income would create the illusion that the benefits received are somehow automatic and natural, rather than funded by working taxpayers. All spending and consumption is funded by someone’s work. When we are children, they are our parents. In adulthood, it’s usually ourselves. In the case of income from social assistance programs, it is the other current taxpayers. In the case of deficit spending, it is the future taxpayers.
UBI supporters often argue that its universality – it is given to everyone, regardless of need – produces benefits ranging from administrative cost savings to improved mental health, as current beneficiaries of the programs welfare may be ashamed of receiving benefits. But that puts the whole story of social spending on its head. The vast majority of programs target specific groups – children, people with disabilities, the elderly – who need them most. In the current system, the shame felt by an able-bodied, working adult is a characteristic, not a bug.
This sensible approach to work and responsibility is a big obstacle to any UBI proposal. Despite UBI approval ratings when Americans are asked about it, the actual legislation to implement it would be highly controversial. In the 1970s, Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter – who had noticeably divergent political views – both endorsed UBI’s proposals which were rejected when the public was confronted with the details.
Many recent UBI proposals have called for a new benefit to replace much, if not all, of existing welfare spending. This radical simplification, often called the “big market”, would theoretically ally the conservatives, who want to reform the cost and complexity of the system, with the progressives, who want to prevent anyone who “falls between the cracks” of many current programs. But anyone who thinks such a case is likely to have spent too much time in political theory seminars and not enough time on Capitol Hill.
For such a bipartisan effort to work, policymakers would need to eliminate enough current spending to fund a universal benefit. This means that many of the programs anti-poverty activists currently cherish would be wiped out for good. Say goodbye to temporary assistance for needy families, the supplementary nutritional assistance program (“food vouchers”) and supplementary security income for people with disabilities. The version put forward by Conservative political analyst Charles Murray, a frequently cited lawyer, would also abolish all Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid plans.
There are many reasonable, even radical, arguments for reforming current social spending, but any plan to do so must reflect reality. A plan that would eliminate current anti-poverty programs and replace them with a single UBI is simply not politically feasible. Any attempt to repeal long-standing anti-poverty programs would be seen as an attack on the vulnerable, while any effort to create a UBI system that maintains current benefits would break the bank and undermine the trade-off with those. who want a smaller, more affordable approach. .
We would probably end up with a UBI on top of the existing programs, which would be both more complex and more expensive.
Finally, many of the claimed benefits of living under an UBI contradict the statistical evidence. The promoters would like us to imagine a utopia where beneficiaries are free to become artists, community volunteers and caregivers.
But as Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute notes, most men who are not currently working or in school spend the vast majority of their free time “socializing, relaxing and having fun.” It is wishful thinking to imagine that most people “freed” by an UBI would spend more time improving the community – or anything constructive – than they would on television, video games and smartphone applications.
Richard Morrison is a researcher at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.