Opinion: Why UBI?

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center photographed in San Rafael, Calif., Friday, May 11, 2018.Mason Trinca / Special to The Chronicle

This is a list of some arguments in support of UBI that I’ve most frequently come across during my years of following the UBI discussion.

By Michael Anthony Lewis

One of my earlier pieces in this series focused on objections to UBI. In this one, I’ll discuss arguments in support of it. Since that support has been varied, I’ll discuss it by grouping supporters into different categories. This is risky, since I might choose categories no supporter would choose for themselves. Hopefully, no one will take offense or feel I’ve mischaracterized their position. I’ll begin with what I call “second best freedom” UBI supporters. 

The late economist Milton Friedman and contemporary political scientist Charles Murray are in this group. I suspect that, given his infamous views on race and intelligence, merely seeing the words “Charles Murray” here has some readers seething with rage. I have my thoughts about Murray’s views on these topics, but, for this piece, I’m putting those aside. Instead, I’ll focus on his views regarding UBI.

Second best freedom UBI supporters prefer that government stay out of the business of providing income support. Instead, the provision of such support should be something private citizens/residents get to decide for themselves.

If they decide to give money to the needy, or a private charity organization, that is their right. If they decide not to do so, that is also their right. Government doesn’t have the right to take people’s “hard earned tax money,” under threat of fines or jail should they refuse to pay, and give it to the poor. Given this way of seeing things, the modern welfare state is illegitimate. 

Second best freedom UBI supporters, however (I once heard Murray say as much), believe that most of the voting public are not on their side and, therefore, aren’t aligned with them on the illegitimacy of the welfare state. Given this reality, some form of welfare state is likely to be around for the foreseeable future. Coming to this realization is where UBI enters the picture. 

Second best freedom supporters offer the following compromise position:

We abolish the welfare state in its current form and replace it with a UBI. That’s because a UBI, in their view, is a better way to provide assistance to people than is the inefficient and paternalistic welfare state that we currently have. 

The philosophers Philippe Van Parijs, Matt Zwolinski, and Karl Widerquist are members of a group I call “first best freedom” UBI supporters. Van Parijs thinks of freedom as, roughly, the ability of someone to do whatever it is they might want to do. This type of freedom requires access to resources, and a UBI would provide such access. 

Both Zwolinski and Widerquist think of freedom as the “power to say no” to those (employers, spouses, etc.) who might take advantage of your need to be in a relationship with them.

A UBI would promote freedom, in this sense, because it would give folks the power to turn down arrangements they didn’t like.

For example, having access to a UBI and, therefore (assuming it was big enough), the resources needed to survive, would allow employees to turn down labor arrangements they didn’t think was to their advantage. 

Another set of arguments for UBI focuses on unpaid care work. This is work, done mainly by women, caring for kids, other relatives, friends, etc., that isn’t part of the formal or even informal labor market. A UBI wouldn’t exactly provide a wage for such work but would decrease the cost of forgoing paid work in order to engage in unpaid care work. A UBI could be thought of, along these lines, as a way of subsidizing non-wage time that could be spent doing care work, should one want, or feel obligated, to do so (see Almaz Zelleke).

Curtailing or preventing poverty is the focus of another group of arguments in support of UBI (see Max Ghenis).

Those in this group view poverty as essentially a matter of not having enough money to avoid being poor. So, if we want to address poverty, the most direct way to do so is to give people enough money so they won’t be poor.

That’s exactly what a UBI could do. 

The presidential campaign of Andrew Yang, as well as some of the work of Scott Santens, highlights another argument in support of UBI: a way to address the impending job losses many predict will result from automation. Machines of various kinds are increasingly doing jobs that used to be done by humans. As this trend continues, more and more people will see machines take their jobs. And if many, perhaps most, of us rely on a job as our main source of income, this presents a problem. A UBI could address this by breaking the tie between receipt of income and the need to “work.”

As many may have noticed, there’s a lot of talk in the U.S. these days about systemic racism. But a number of people were focused on systemic racism in the country long before George Floyd was killed in public view by a police officer. One of them is political scientist Dorian Warren. He’s connected the issue of systemic racism to UBI by offering a proposal called “UBI+”.

UBI+ would pair a UBI which would go to everyone, with an additional amount which would go only to black people.

This would function as a form of reparations for slavery as well as the decades of oppression black people endured after slavery and continuing to the present day.

Another argument in support of UBI, begins with the premise that an efficient market economy requires consumers who’re able to buy the things that businesses produce. Many think that the foundation of a market economy is production. Proponents of the view I’m now considering (see Alex Howlett) believe this gets it backwards. 

Consumption is the foundation of an economy because without consumers, producers would have no one to sell their goods to, they wouldn’t make much profit, and would, therefore, have little incentive to produce anything. Since consumption is the basis of any market economy, such an economy, which uses money as a medium of exchange, must come up with some way of getting money directly into the hands of consumers. We currently do this by emphasizing “work,” that is we emphasize the need for people to sell their labor in return for money.

But this causes us to create unnecessary jobs as an excuse to give people money. This is inefficient; we should just give people money whether or not they sell their labor. And that is precisely the reason for a UBI. 

The final argument I’ll consider relates UBI to the environment and conservation. As I said in the previous paragraph, businesses in a market economy produce goods and services for consumers to buy. The problem is that the current capitalist form of such an economy exacerbates global climate change, destroys the habitats of various non-human species, and has other destructive consequences for our natural environment. Many economists and others tend to focus on the importance of more economic growth. Those UBI supporters concerned about our current economies’ impact on the natural environment argue that less, not more, growth is needed. They argue that a UBI, by curtailing labor supply and, thereby, curtailing production, could play a role in fostering less economic growth (see Kate McFarland’s opening statement as well as those of others here and here).           

I’ve gone over several arguments in support of a UBI. This isn’t an exhaustive list, just the ones I’ve most frequently come across during my years of following the UBI discussion. If readers have a better sense of the UBI landscape and ideas for where to learn more, then my goal for this piece has been accomplished. 


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