Friday, April 15, 2016

Drop the Idea of a 'Universal' Basic Income

In a recent interview with Gawker, writer Rutger Bregman answers the question of why a basic income should be given to everyone rather than just targeted at those who need it.

He gives two reasons and both short-change humanity’s ability to overcome its image as petty and selfish. First, he argues that we should have a universal basic income (offered to everyone) because people would be more willing to support something if they were to gain from it. This seems to be a rather politician-minded approach to basic income inasmuch as it betrays a preoccupation with the optics of the policy- Bregman worries that people will not support something targeted at just the poor, even though they are the only ones who actually need a basic income.

Not only does this imply that we don’t believe people are willing to rise up to their best selves to support a program that will end suffering for others, but Bregman seems willing to actually change the policy itself to satisfy voters. One must then begin to question the soundness of the policy itself- and if we look at the math, it turns out a 'universal' basic income doesn’t make sense.

The second reason Bregman offers for universalizing a basic income is that it removes the ‘stigma’ of welfare, presumably because everyone receives the same amount. Once again, while Bregman’s efforts on promoting basic income are laudable, it appears as if the scope of his vision is limited in terms of the transformative change this policy offers to catalyze.

Basic income can be the cornerstone of a new society based upon equality and bringing about the best in each of us. In that sense, it can be the starting point for myriad transformative changes that go beyond the scope of this simple, poverty-eradicating measure. Finding a way to sneak it through Congress so that well-off people don’t get upset and poor people don’t feel stigmatized focuses on peoples’ transitory feelings about poverty and stops at that.

If we are going to get serious about basic income, we must drop the idea that it must be given automatically to all citizens. This is different than saying it shouldn’t be guaranteed to all that should require it. It’s simply not necessary to give it to everyone right off the bat- the money saved can be used elsewhere in better ways. Arguing otherwise on behalf of citizens’ petty prejudices and emotions is shortchanging society.

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