For all of my complaining about capitalism, I haven’t given too many detailed plans on how to combat the woes of society brought on by the public and private institutions we currently must deal with. While good criticisms can just be takedowns, I believe the greatest come with alternatives, giving a positive contribution rather than a negative one. To this end, I bring forth the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI).
The idea is exactly as its title would suggest: Every person gets a stipend from the government just for existing. By most popular definitions, UBI does not discriminate or change based on any factor besides age—kids probably won’t be receiving a monthly check under any program. However, no matter if you are married or single, male or female, homeless or Bezos himself, the government will give you both the same amount every month.
The idea of UBI has re-entered the public consciousness in the past decade or so. Whether this is because of a fear of automation, a response to the 2008 financial crisis or a wistful look at its success around the globe, many Americans from across the aisle are interested in the idea. Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang is openly in support of the idea, and some on the right are even starting to come around.
Clearly, UBI is something that many feel is worth serious consideration. And why wouldn’t it be? Ideally, UBI is simple to understand and easy to put into practice. It can replace other forms of social welfare without promoting poverty. It can help people escape the cycle of poverty that our current system promotes. It has been shown to work in limited settings for other developed nations like Finland and Canada. It’s looking likely that it may even spread to America in time.
The two aspects of the program that prove to be contentious, though, are implementation and scale.
Implementation was and is always going to be a tough sell. At its most basic level, UBI is wealth redistribution, and even if this concept is gaining traction, the idea of paying an extra tax every month is not so appealing. However, this is one way in which UBI is more palatable over other leftist programs. The fact that everyone gets money back from the program is a lot easier to stomach for the masses. Think about how exciting it is to receive tax returns; it feels like you cheated the government in a small way. So, while UBI is definitely still a hard thing for the rich to swallow, it does seem like mass support for it is not out of the question.
Scale is an entirely different issue, though. Even giving a single dollar to every American adult would cost over $250 million per month, and a single dollar isn’t usually where people want to stop. Even a conservative plan would cost billions per month, billions that will have to be collected from everyone in some way. Especially given the history of decrying those needing social services with terms like “welfare queen,” the idea of spending billions to give nonworking people money is not an easy sell, even if it would replace other forms of welfare.
To this end, there is no simple argument. It requires looking at previous implementations and the state of America. There has been evidence to suggest that progressive social programs like UBI can actually increase innovation and consumerism, as giving people a safety net lets them take risks. Furthermore, it has been well-studied that people like to work, albeit not necessarily at the jobs they have. Having a sense of purpose and some extra money is worth it. This is evident in the United States now, where we have people (especially women, but that’s an issue for another time) working multiple jobs at starvation wages just to survive. From an economic and human perspective, something can and should be done about this.
And I am not claiming UBI is perfect. It does not fix underlying issues with capitalism. It doesn’t really make anyone with strong ideological leanings that happy. But it’s a compromise, and it’s a start. Those on the far left know—or at least, should know—that their lofty, utopian goals are not going to happen overnight, even when they are possible in the short-term. Unfortunately, people and government don’t work that efficiently. In this way, UBI is a good way to wet the tongue for worker-centric policies. It’s not a lasting solution, but it doesn’t have to be to be good.
At the end of the day, UBI is a capitalist-friendly way of introducing labor and cooperation as the driving forces behind society. If implemented well, this is a great start.
Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.