The case for Universal Basic Income

But, after a Conservative government ended the project, in 1979, Mincome was buried. Decades later, Evelyn Forget, an economist at the University of Manitoba, dug up the numbers. And what she found was that life in Dauphin improved markedly. Hospitalization rates fell. More teen-agers stayed in school. And researchers who looked at Mincome’s impact on work rates discovered that they had barely dropped at all. The program had worked about as well as anyone could have hoped.

Mincome was a prototype of an idea that came to the fore in the sixties, and that is now popular again among economists and policy folks: a basic income guarantee. There are many versions of the idea, but the most interesting is what’s called a universal basic income: every year, every adult citizen in the U.S. would receive a stipend—ten thousand dollars is a number often mentioned. (Children would receive a smaller allowance.)

One striking thing about guaranteeing a basic income is that it’s always had support both on the left and on the right—albeit for different reasons. Martin Luther King embraced the idea, but so did the right-wing economist Milton Friedman, while the Nixon Administration even tried to get a basic-income guarantee through Congress. These days, among younger thinkers on the left, the U.B.I. is seen as a means to ending poverty, combatting rising inequality, and liberating workers from the burden of crappy jobs. For thinkers on the right, the U.B.I. seems like a simpler, and more libertarian, alternative to the thicket of anti-poverty and social-welfare programs.

In the short run, concerns about robots taking all our jobs are probably overstated. But the appeal of a basic income—a kind of Social Security for everyone—is easy to understand. It’s easy to administer; it avoids the paternalism of social-welfare programs that tell people what they can and cannot buy with the money they’re given; and, if it’s truly universal, it could help destigmatize government assistance. As Sunkara puts it, “Universal programs build social solidarity, and they become politically easier to defend.”

The U.B.I. is often framed as a tool for fighting poverty, but it would have other important benefits. By providing an income cushion, it would increase workers’ bargaining power, potentially driving up wages. It would make it easier for people to take risks with their job choices, and to invest in education. …

Critics of the U.B.I. argue that handing people cash, instead of targeted aid (like food stamps), means that much of the money will be wasted, and that a basic income will take away the incentive to work, lowering G.D.P. and giving us a nation of lazy, demoralized people. But the example of the many direct-cash-grant programs in the developing world suggests that, as the Columbia economist Chris Blattman puts it, “the poor do not waste grants.” As for the work question, most of the basic-income experiments suggest that the disincentive effect wouldn’t be large; in Manitoba, working hours for men dropped by just one per cent. It’s certainly true that the U.B.I. would make it easier for people to think twice about taking unrewarding jobs. But that’s a good consequence, not a bad one. …

If the U.B.I. comes to be seen as a kind of insurance against a radically changing job market, rather than simply as a handout, the politics around it will change. When this happens, it’s easy to imagine a basic income going overnight from completely improbable to totally necessary.