On Twitter I said: “The basic income movement is an attack on the strongest political pillar of social-democracy: social insurance.” I’ve inveighed against the Universal Basic Income in the past, so here I go again. Another edition of old man yelling at clouds.
Throughout history, in certain communal settings some variant of the Marxian “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” has applied. In a naive sense, the UBI is not far off from that ideal. What economists call a demogrant* — a fixed, unrestricted, unconditional transfer payment to every individual (to each according to his needs**) — would presumably be financed by some kind of progressive tax (from each according to his abilities). I have no quarrel with the ideal. The problem is that it’s an utter fantasy that beclouds thinking about more plausible social policies. It’s a distraction from the need to defend really-existing social insurance and to attack the devolution of the safety net (about which a bit more below).
The most tenable model to which we could aspire for a step forward in social progress is some version of social-democracy on display in Western Europe. By a variety of measures of inequality, poverty, and other indicators of human well-being, this model offers hope of improvement. Social-democracies are certainly far from perfect, but if we want to be ambitious but also practical, it’s the direction in which to head. The foundation of these systems is extensive programs of social insurance. (Incidentally, these programs are not as a rule funded with highly progressive tax systems.)
Now it’s appealing to imagine the from-each/to-each model as a type of social insurance. We all pitch in and we take care of each other. The difficulty is that this pushes the concept beyond the breaking point. Actual social insurance is more bloody-minded: what you get depends by some specific formula and set of rules on what you pay. It accords with common notions, whether we like them or not, of fairness. This contributory backbone of the system is what has solved the problem of gaining political consent for massive tax-and-transfer programs. There is no modern precedent for a UBI of comparable scope. (In the Alaskan bonus payment system, there is no visible Peter who is paying Paul. It’s like manna from heaven.)
Social insurance offers more than just a pay-in/pay-out mechanism. As insurance, it protects ordinary people from risks they face. Insurance is more efficient than mere saving. Individual saving can be inadequate in a number of respects. Take the case of Disability Insurance. After some limited work history, the worker is protected against loss of earnings in the event of disability. It would take a lifetime to save enough to substitute for earnings in the event of disability. In the meantime you accept a reduced standard of living, for decades, to provide for a possibility that may never come to pass. That’s inefficient. Or suppose you become disabled before you have saved enough? Suppose you invest your savings in uncertain ventures. In general people don’t know if they will become disabled. Pooling risk — insurance — solves the problem.
The social part of social insurance permits the basic market-like insurance arrangement of you-pay/you-get to be shaped according to social values. Both the tax side and the benefit side can be somewhat progressive. There is room for some flexibility, but it is not limitless. Go too far in the from-each/to-each direction and you lose the political support available under an insurance rubric.
Much as been written about why the U.S. has such a retrograde system of social provision. I don’t expect to add to it myself, except to say that in this context it is only social insurance that provides a political platform for collective provision for individual well-being. Straight-forward, simple redistribution is not well supported. It’s all we can do these days to protect what benefits have already been won.
It’s true that we have non-insurance programs providing means-tested benefits: anti-poverty programs. These programs are under attack. This is not a sea-worthy vessel you would want everyone else to board. I have urged UBI partisans to direct their attention to the atrocity of welfare reform. The biggest hole in the U.S. safety net is the misery of families with children whose wage-earners are unable, often for reasons beyond their control, to solidify an attachment to the labor market and the social insurance provided to wage-earners.
In 1972 Senator George McGovern proposed a demogrant of $2,000 as part of his electoral campaign for president. He received 17 electoral votes, winning Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, to cheatin’ Dick Nixon’s 520 votes.
We still live in Nixonland.
Tomorrow I’ll offer some remarks on the latest Vox blast on the UBI.
* Not to be confused with a negative income tax, social wage, or the Earned Income Tax Credit, each of which differ from a demogrant in fundamental ways.
** Please do not mistake my characterization as a suggestion that the UBI is dangerously radical or communist. I’ve got no problem with communist, as an ideal. The problem is that the UBI is utopian in an unedifying way.