Basic Income Opponents Need Some Coherent Arguments

The life of a basic income proponent is fairly easy these days, because of a complete lack of coherent argument from opponents of the concept.

Most of the attacks on basic income I have seen are so poorly thought out as to be pointless. Many of the articles and editorials on basic income I have seen are little more than emotional outbursts. They make no argument, and present no case only broadcast the distaste and disgust of the author.

A typical example of the genre is this Quartz piece by Helen Razer. Razer simply dismisses Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a “fairy tale” and attacks billionaires like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg for talking about it.

She spends the entire article ranting about Musk’s hypocrisy but fails to say how or why basic income is a fairy tale. Razer even fails to provide any sort of description of basic income, which is the start for an honest criticism. Instead she simply drones on and on about how it must be a conspiracy to help the “capitalist class.”

Minis in the ‘Body in white’ stage of manufacture pass along a robotic assembly line at the BMW Mini car production plant in Oxford, west of London, on January 17, 2017. / AFP / GEOFF CADDICK (Photo credit should read GEOFF CADDICK/AFP/Getty Images)

Why Arguments against Basic Income Fail

Basic income critics like Razer fail for two obvious reasons.

  • They present no data or at least circumstantial evidence that basic income would fail or be harmful. Perhaps a few studies showing how welfare hurts the poor might be in order here. I imagine our friends at the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation have carloads of such material available. To her credit at least Razor does not say how basic income would be a spiritual ruin like The Week’s Damon Linker. Linker’s theology confuses me for I have not figured out how simply working will lead to salvation or enlightenment.

 

  • They present only vague alternatives to basic income. The problems of technological unemployment, income inequality and wage stagnation are very real. Yet all Razer can suggest is that Musk create more jobs or raise salaries. Her attitude seems to be that Musk has a magic wand he can wave to make good high-paying jobs appear out of thin air. Linker mentions public works projects as an alternative but provides no details.

If basic income opponents wish to succeed they will need to come up with some good arguments and realistic alternatives. One reason I suppose they do not is that the whole concept of basic income is unsettling. The idea that people might be able to survive; and be happy, without work runs to counter to everything we have been taught.

Thinking about developments like technological unemployment and income inequality is even more disturbing. One bothersome conclusion these problems raise is that progress does not always make things better or benefit everybody.

In other words basic income opponents need to start thinking about UBI and its implications. Musk to his credit is doing just that and he is being savaged for it. Note: Musk himself is disturbed by the whole concept but thinks it is inevitable.

Where or what are the Alternatives to Basic Income?

The most glaring failure of basic income critics is their failure to even suggest alternatives. Simply asking Elon Musk to create more jobs is utterly stupid. Even if Musk could build 100 gigafactories; and 50 car factories, he would not create enough high-paying positions to fill those lost to technological progress.

Mr. Linker’s suggestion of public works is more bothersome because its effects would be limited. After all we only need so many public works projects and a lot of the work on them will be done by machines. Would we go back to building roads and railroads by hand just to provide “jobs” for the working class?

Would at some point the government end up creating fake “jobs” to provide the illusion of employment for the multitudes? Critics of our prison system; and bureaucracies like the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), would make a case this is already happening.

What is the difference between taxing somebody to pay for an unnecessary make-work job and paying basic income to the unemployed? It is a question that basic income critics need to answer because it is what some of them seem to be demanding.

Would the Alternatives to Basic Income be worse?

Wouldn’t a public works job picking up trash by the side of the road; or filling out needless paperwork at a government office, be just as spiritually dead and mind numbing as sitting on the couch playing video games? Actually it might be worse, because the video game player at least has the opportunity to put down the VR goggles and pick up a Bible.

The Soviet Union provided everybody in Russia with a “job;” it still collapsed because the jobs were economically unsustainable, often meaningless and spiritually empty. Mr. Linker’s public works system might be just as bad. Actually it can be worse because there would be a strong impulse for government to force everybody to “work” for their “own good” even if the jobs were pointless. After all a person exhausted from a day of digging holes or breaking stones, is less likely to revolt than a bored unemployed individual.

A glimpse of that system is provided in Kurt Vonnegut’s thought-provoking dystopian novel Player Piano. The book is set in a future America in which almost all work is done by machines; only engineers have “real jobs,” and the working class has a dismal choice of joining the military or performing meaningless labor on “public works projects.” Workers have no choice but to go along because the labor is public service mandated by law.

Obviously nobody wants to live such a world but that’s where we might be heading if we don’t think about this situation. Basic income opponents; and the rest of us, need to start thinking clearly and intelligently.

If basic income opponents want to prevent UBI from becoming a reality; they need to make some intelligent arguments and propose real alternatives. All mindless emotional attacks like those of Razer and Linker will do is strengthen the case for the very thing they fear.

 

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