I Changed My Mind on Basic Income

So I actually used to be a big proponent of basic income. A few conversations, a few articles, and some deeper introspection changed my mind.

Originally I was for basic income because (and here you get an insight into some of my politics) I thought it would be a much more efficient way to help people out: scrap inefficient, segregating, and corruptible means-tested welfare systems, public housing, and (maybe) even stuff like Medicare and Medicaid with just a check that shows up to your door, and let people sort it out. This has drawn flak from people on the right ("what if they just use it on drugs and ignore their kids?") and the left ("they'll be taken advantage of by corporations"), but I think there's good evidence to suggest that people are actually pretty good at deciding how to use their money.

So that's where I started. It's changed pretty dramatically.

First, I was part of a panel at Living Room Conversations on Basic Income in which I planned to advocate for the kinda free-market-y argument for it. Actually, it sounds like pretty much everyone in that conversation came in thinking they were pro Basic Income, and left feeling quite hesitant about it. 

Two articles by MIT Technology Review (Basic Income was its front page this month), called "The Danger of Basic Income" and "Basic Income: A Sellout of the American Dream" make some strong arguments against. I won't repeat them but they informed my thinking below.

Why I Ultimately Changed My Mind

So I think there are two ways to look at basic income: either as poverty reduction or as a way of just not having to work, and it seems there's a hook to each: if you pay people enough that they're comfortable not working, they'll stop working. And I think we easily forget that, until the robot revolution, people working is where wealth comes from.

People go on to say, "oh they/we do artistic pursuits, etc" and even if that is true, it doesn't create food, medicine, houses, roads, cars, etc. And, of course, then the money would quickly run out: the super-rich can't just create money without having workers to work in their companies. I think everyone loves the idea of a free lunch so we can go do whatever art we want and/or goof off forever, but who makes the actual lunch part of it? (If the answer is "robots!" then let's talk again in 30+ years.)

So then we might say, "okay, give people enough money that it's still really uncomfortable to not work," and you've got a possibly-less terrible dilemma that people in poverty are still economically very uncomfortable. You'd help some working poor on the margins, but anyone not working wouldn't be able to make ends meet (and it certainly wouldn't fulfill the pipe dream of "what if you didn't have to worry about paying rent?"). At that point, you've still got a gap that hasn't been fully solved.

And so I realized I was stuck: I didn't see a way that basic income would work in either of those scenarios. So I don't think I'll be advocating for it anymore. It requires a bit more thought on my part. I might pivot towards more of a negative income tax, proposed by Milton Friedman, which might strike the balance of encouraging people to work while also making sure people don't starve. We'll see.

But changing our minds is a good thing.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.