Universal Basic Income as the Foundation of Freedom

I favor a Universal Basic Income (UBI) because it offers financial security and predictability, which in turn provide freedom from necessity. This “freedom from” is required for any meaningful “freedom to“. By allowing people to effortlessly and foreseeably pay for the material resources that they need for a minimally decent life, a UBI liberates them to pursue the goals they have set for their lives – or even set these goals in the first place. Life’s pursuits all too often get pushed aside by urgencies, necessities and bouts of bad luck. The struggle to survive may even imply an incapacity to formulate goals.

What matters … is not only the protection of individual rights, but assurances of the real value of those rights: we need to be concerned not only with liberty, but, in John Rawls’s phrase, with the “worth of liberty.” At first approximation, the worth or real value of a person’s liberty depends on the resources the person has at her command to make use of her liberty. So it is therefore necessary that the distribution of opportunity – understood as access to the means that people need for doing what they might want to do – be designed to offer the greatest possible real opportunity to those with least opportunities, subject to everyone’s formal freedom being respected. Philippe Van Parijs (source)

There’s another type of “freedom from” that a UBI would achieve: it would liberate us from alienated labor (to use a strong term). I personally believe that the alienating characteristics of our current system of work are sadly ignored (read this and this). A basic income gives people the freedom to turn down unattractive work and to start cooperative ventures that are more rewarding, in the sense of more pleasant but also more in line with the goals people have set for their lives.

As a pleasant by-product, we would be able to shake off some recurrent criticisms of our existing welfare systems:

  • No more discussions about welfare queens, social security fraud, the undeserving poor, a culture of poverty, etc.
  • No more government intrusion in the private lives of welfare beneficiaries, no more means testing, fraud investigations, social security inspections, income audits, family structure controls etc.
  • We would be able to implement drastic reductions in the level of regulation, legislation and government bloat inherent in our current social security systems. A smaller government, suitably defined, may also lead to an increase in the overall level of freedom.
  • Healthcare consumption would become more wise and efficient since people have to use their basic income to pay for all of their non-catastrophic health problems. (Perhaps this rationalization could offset some of the fiscal criticism leveled against a UBI).
  • Unemployment would no longer be a problem: the concept of unemployment would become meaningless.

Some additional advantages of a UBI:

  • We would no longer be fixated on economic growth since the main justification of growth is its perceived role in the reduction of unemployment. Hence we would perhaps be able to meet some environmental concerns.
  • Increased gender equality. Wives, often still the main caregivers within families, would be less economically dependent on husbands if they have a basic income. With less dependence comes more freedom and equality. Women – as well as caring men – could even use their basic income to start up cooperatives for the caring function, making use of advantages of scale and becoming more economically active outside of the home. That as well would increase their independence.

The Ethics of Human Rights (65): The Deserving Poor and the Spectacle of Libertarianism Eating Itself

It’s a common right-wing complaint, especially among right-libertarians, that the welfare state helps the poor whether or not they have only themselves to blame for their poverty. If there should be a duty to help the poor, it should be limited to the deserving poor (although some libertarians think that even this goes too far since it implies a form of slavery for those who have a duty to help). All the others should suffer the consequences of their own bad decisions – their teen pregnancy, their lack of effort at school, their alcohol problem etc.

One could reply that people’s bad decisions aren’t always their own decisions, in the sense that making good decisions is something you have to learn, and this learning may be difficult in an environment of poverty, especially during childhood. However, let’s bracket this objection, for the sake of argument, and assume that there are indeed some people who only have themselves to blame. They may not be as numerous as those on the right tend to believe, but even if there are only a few we should decide what to do with them – help them or not.

The criticism that our current systems of social security don’t differentiate between the deserving and undeserving poor is sometimes illustrated with an analogy. If we assume that governments fund their welfare system through taxation, and that taxation is a kind of involuntary charity or enforced charity – the government steps in in order to take the money which we don’t give voluntarily to charity – then it’s only right that the government takes every effort to make sure that our money goes only to the deserving poor. If we voluntarily give money to charity, we also want to be sure that it goes to a good cause, and those collecting our money have a duty to spend it well and not waste in on people that aren’t going to use it constructively. Given the libertarian view that taxation is a form of stealing it’s all the more important that the tax money is spent well; you can perhaps argue in favor of stealing if the harm done by stealing is compensated by the greater good that is done with the stolen money, but you certainly can’t if there is no greater good and if the money goes to undeserving poor who are rewarded for their bad behavior.

Isn’t it especially outrageous to misuse charitable funds if the donors cannot legally discontinue their support? (source)

Now, it’s here that the problem begins and that libertarians who follow this reasoning tend to undermine their own libertarianism. If you want to help only the deserving poor, and if you want to be very strict about helping only those people, then you’ll have to accept systematic and wide ranging intrusions into people’s privacy. How else would you be able to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving? You’ll need detailed biographies of all potential welfare or charity beneficiaries, records of their decisions and behavior, of their job applications, their diet, their sexual mores, etc.

You’ll have to accept these intrusions whether or not you believe that charity is the perfect and only solution. If you believe, correctly I think, that charity will never suffice, then you have all the more reason to be worried, since it’s the state who will have to monitor deservingness. Either scenario is anathema to libertarians.

The distinction between deserving and undeserving poor isn’t only difficult in practice. It’s also theoretically fraught with problems. For example, if you assume that you have a system to find out which poor person is an alcoholic and which one isn’t, then you still have to answer the question whether an alcoholic is an undeserving poor person or not. This answer depends on the causes of her alcoholism: maybe the cause is a series of misfortunes combined with a weak character, in which case her alcoholism is obviously not deserved. Perhaps she deserves blame for her weak character was, or perhaps not. One can easily make the case that a strong character and a good amount of effort and discipline depend on our upbringing and the social circumstances in which we are born. And no one deserve those circumstances.

And finally, even if we can identify the deserving both in theory and in practice, and even if we accept the anti-libertarian consequences of this work of identification, then we can still argue against the claim that we should not help the undeserving poor. Perhaps it’s a sign of decency and civilization that we help even the undeserving poor. Maybe the claims of the undeserving aren’t as strong as the claims of the deserving, and maybe we shouldn’t help them as much or as quickly as the deserving. But that doesn’t mean we should let them starve.

More posts in this series are here.

Economic Human Rights (42): Some Facts About Welfare in the U.S.

Welfare – meaning the provision by the government of a minimum level of material wellbeing and social support for all citizens – is a strange thing in the U.S.: it’s not directed mainly at the poor, it’s underfunded, it seems to be compatible with a high poverty rate, and it’s not colorblind – at least not in its effects.

Take a look at the following facts (source):

  • In 2010, nearly half of Americans lived in a household that received direct government benefits. That’s up from 37.7% in 1998.
  • At the same time, government revenues have been declining: adjusted for inflation, federal tax revenue was the same in 2009 as it was 1997, even though the U.S. population grew by 37 million during that period. In 2011, the federal government took in $2.3 trillion in tax revenue, and spent the exact same amount on military, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone.
  • The share of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare going to the bottom fifth of households (based on income) has fallen from 54% in 1979 to 36% in 2007.
  • The result of all of this: nearly 1 in 6 Americans – and more than 1 in 4 blacks – still live in poverty. The unemployment rate in 2009 was around 10% – for young, uneducated African-American males it was even 48.5%.

None of this should lead to the conclusion that the U.S. welfare system is completely dysfunctional – unemployment insurance, for instance, has rescued millions of Americans from poverty during the last recession. What it should lead to is serious consideration of the possibility and desirability of a completely new system.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (43): The Welfare State

Yes, that’s right: the welfare state… According to many conservatives, the welfare state is self-defeating and actually makes people poorer. Welfare and social security (and perhaps even private charity) unwittingly work to thwart their own goal – helping the poor – in two different ways. There’s supposed to be a supply side and a demand side to the so-called “perverse effects” of anti-poverty policies.

Take the supply side first. The delivery of welfare by the government and – indirectly – by the taxpayers is economically inefficient. It burdens the primary suppliers of the necessary funds, namely the individual and corporate taxpayers. Because of this burden, companies and individuals lose the incentive to be productive. If they have to pay large amounts in taxes in order to fund the welfare state, they can’t or won’t create the wealth that is the basis for redistribution. In other words, they can’t or won’t create a rising tide that will lift all boats. Ultimately, a tax-based welfare state will eat itself because it burdens the wealth creators whose wealth it wants to redistribute.

I’ve argued against this rejection of the welfare state before, and I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that the risks to incentives are overstated, as well as the benefits of trickle down economics. (For instance, companies may decide to be more productive in order to compensate for the losses from taxation).

Let’s now turn to the demand side of the anti-welfare argument. Again, the reasoning is based on incentives that ultimately result in a self-defeating anti-poverty system, but this time it’s about the incentives of the recipients of welfare. The argument goes roughly like this. Take unemployment benefits for instance (one part of the welfare state). These benefits supposedly discourage people from working. And when people don’t work, they fail to gain experience and to nurture certain values – such as discipline – necessary in order to escape poverty. Hence, unemployment insurance makes the recipients worse off.

Or take another kind of benefit: financial support for children born out-of-wedlock. This kind of support also triggers the wrong incentives. It encourages teenagers to get pregnant and it discourages adults to marry. Teen-pregnancies and single parenthood both make it more difficult to escape poverty. Something similar happens with scholarships or affirmative action for poor students. These so-called anti-poverty policies actually incentivize students to enroll in education programs that are above their capabilities, forcing them to drop out of school at some point, and hence forcing them into poverty. And, finally, there’s the argument about welfare dependence: when people get money from the government they tend to settle in their role as receivers and fail to take their lives into their own hands. Again the wrong incentives.

This demand side of the anti-welfare argument suffers from two fatal shortcomings. First, the data don’t (always) support it. For example, it’s not true that generous unemployment insurance leads to higher unemployment. And secondly, it’s classist in the sense that it offers an essentialist depreciation of the poor as a class. The poor, according to the argument, suffer from a series of typical deficiencies:

  • shortsightedness (in the case of the person being tempted by child benefits and ignoring the long-term costs of teen pregnancy or single parenthood)
  • a lack of self-judgment (in the case of the student accepting a scholarship and enrolling in a program beyond her capabilities) and
  • a lack of self-control (in the case of the person settling in dependency).

This classism is not only generally incorrect and unfair, but it also obscures the many other causes of poverty. The poor aren’t always to blame for their own poverty, and the welfare state doesn’t force them to make themselves poor. Moreover, and even worse, this classism can be self-fulfilling.

Also, hasn’t the recent financial crisis shown that wealthy people, especially bankers, are equally short-sighted, self-deluded and lacking in self-control? And even if it’s true that those vices are more prominent among the poor (as is claimed here for example), wouldn’t that be a good argument for welfare rather than against it? If the poor can’t rationally take care of their own fate because they are self-deluded and unable to plan for the long term, shouldn’t the rest of us try to help them?

Migration and Human Rights (36): The Social Security Argument Against Open Borders

If there’s one Milton Friedman quote that’s repeated far too often it’s the following: “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state”. The income of relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to what the poor, unemployed, sick, young and elderly in rich countries get from welfare and social security transfers. Hence, the argument goes, opening borders and eliminating immigration restrictions would cause massive flows of people to those rich countries. Perhaps some of these people would come in the hope of finding a good job, but at the same time they have the certainty that, if they fail, they will enjoy generous social protection. And all the rest will come just for the benefits.

The problem, some say, is that rich countries can’t afford large increases in the numbers of welfare beneficiaries, and that they therefore must limit immigration. Open borders are only feasible when global poverty has been solved and income levels are more or less comparable across countries. Or, when rich countries would decide, unrealistically, to eliminate their welfare systems or at least coldheartedly decide to exclude all immigrants from welfare.

However, immigrants in the U.S. use welfare at lower rates than natives and have higher rates of labor force participation. In the U.K., immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits (source).

Anyway, even if we assume that open borders will be a net negative for western welfare systems, there’s no need to limit the options to the stark choice between welfare and open borders. We could, for example, give immigrants access to labor markets but only limited access to unemployment benefits, or we could delay their benefits, demanding that they first contribute to the system during a number of years (something which might actually strengthen the system). However, we’d have to be careful and not create inequality, discrimination and a class society.

Or we could decide to grant immigrants full access to welfare because we believe that global inequality should be reduced. Access to welfare would then be a kind a development aid.

And, finally, it’s possible to view matters from an entirely different angle. Large chunks of welfare transfers go to the elderly. Given the demographic evolutions in many rich countries, it may be that immigration will be the only way for aging countries to sustain their welfare states.

Income Inequality (22): Social Mobility in Anglo-Saxon Economies, Ctd.

After completing my older post on the subject – in which I argued that Anglo-Saxon economies don’t do a very good job promoting social mobility despite the focus on individual responsibility and policies that (should) reward merit (e.g. relatively low tax rates) – I found this graph which I thought would illustrate my point.

Although the US and other Anglo-Saxon countries aren’t in the graph, the UK is. And the effect of parental education on child earnings in the UK is particularly large. The children of the well-off and well-educated earn more and learn more than their less fortunate peers in all countries in the world, and that’s hardly surprising given the importance of a head start, both financially and intellectually. What is surprising is that this is less the case in countries which pride themselves on their systems that offer people incentives to do well (low taxes, minimal safety nets etc.).

So one wonders which fact-free parallel universe David Cameron, the new UK Prime Minister, inhabits:

The differences in child outcomes between a child born in poverty and a child born in wealth are no longer statistically significant when both have been raised by “confident and able” parents… What matters most to a child’s life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting. (source, my emphasis)

Extolling the virtues of good parenting can never hurt, except if you have a low boredom threshold because it’s so goddamn obvious. But making it sound like parents’ wealth or education are “insignificant” is truly grotesque and an insult to those poor parents who have children that aren’t doing very well. And even for those living in the alternative reality where only bad parents keep children back, the Conservative leader’s position in fact, and unwittingly, should lead to left-wing policies, as Chris Dillow points out:

Because of bad parenting – which begins in the womb – some people do badly in school and therefore in later life; they are less likely to be in work, and earn less even if they are. However, we can’t choose our parents; they are a matter of luck. It’s quite reasonable to compensate people for bad luck, so there’s a case for redistributing income to the relatively poor, as this is a roundabout way of compensating them for the bad luck of having a bad upbringing.

High levels of social mobility can compensate for high levels of income inequality: if people can be socially mobile, and if their earnings and education levels don’t depend on who their parents are but on their own efforts and talents, one can plausibly claim that the existing inequalities are caused by some people’s lack of effort and merit. However, the UK and the US combine two evils: low mobility and high inequality, making it seem that whatever effort you invest in your life, you’ll never get ahead of those rich lazy dumb asses. So why would you even try? Low mobility solidifies high inequality.

Just to show that the U.S. isn’t better than the U.K.:

Parental income is a better predictor of a child’s future in America than in much of Europe, implying that social mobility is less powerful. Different groups of Americans have different levels of opportunity. Those born to the middle class have about an equal chance of moving up or down the income ladder, according to the Economic Mobility Project. But those born to black middle-class families are much more likely than their white counterparts to fall in rank. The children of the rich and poor, meanwhile, are less mobile than the middle class’s. More than 40% of those Americans born in the bottom quintile remain stuck there as adults. (source)

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (5): Globalization

Globalization is supposed to have lowered the earnings of less-educated workers by putting them in direct competition with low-wage workers around the world. This competition put pressure on wages through international trade in goods and services; through the relocation or threat of relocation of production facilities to overseas locations; through competition with immigrants in local labor markets; and through other channels. …

U.S. and European workers are told that … our societies can no longer afford a generous welfare state. …

Contrary to the standard framing, which presents globalization as something that no nation can escape or even attempt to shape, we can choose the terms under which we integrate capital, product, and labor markets across countries. Over the last 30 years we have indeed “chosen” a particular form of globalization in the United States – a form that benefits corporations and their owners at the expense of workers and their communities. If we had chosen globalization on different terms, however, economic integration would not have required rising inequality. Another globalization is possible. (source, source)

So globalization, as it has occurred and is occurring, causes higher inequality in the West in two ways:

  • The direct competition with overseas workers who can produce at lower wages puts downward pressure on wages in the West, especially for low-skilled workers at the wrong end of inequality.
  • Governments in developed countries react to this competition by restricting social safety nets because the taxes necessary for the funding of these safety nets hurts the competitiveness of local businesses, a competitiveness already under pressure from low-cost labor in the developing world. Less generous safety nets obviously also have a negative effect on inequality.

If these effects are real, perhaps they can explain the decline of manufacturing in many developed countries.

However, I’m not sure this pressure on wages is real and significant (I’ll try to find some data), and we also shouldn’t dismiss the benefits for low-wage workers in the West of cheaper products. This particular result of globalization can offset the possible negative wage effects of wage competition.

Also, I’m not sure governments in the West are actively attacking safety nets (here it says they haven’t during the last decades, but it seems that the recent economic crisis has convinced some to start cutting benefits). And finally, we should remember that inequality isn’t just a national problem. The inequality between countries is just as, if not more, important. And globalization has had a beneficial effect on inter-country inequality because it has redistributed wealth from rich countries to poor countries. For example, it’s hard to imagine how China could have had the same success in poverty reduction without globalization. The question is of course whether this redistribution had to come from low skilled workers in the West, rather than from their more wealthy fellow citizens. The fact that it did come, however, was undoubtedly beneficial to the poor in the receiving development countries.

Income Inequality (20): Social Mobility in Anglo-Saxon Economies

I know that talking about national or international economic models should be avoided because it’s highly simplistic, but I’ll do it anyway because I want to show that people who do sincerely talk about such models make some assumptions about them that are, in my view, incorrect. The Anglo-Saxon economic model, when compared to the mainland European model, is believed to focus more on individual responsibility than on social support. It imposes lower taxes and delivers a less developed social safety net. It’s more “liberal” (in the European sense of the word, meaning less social) and free market oriented. (Anglo-Saxon means English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States etc. but there are large differences between the UK and the US, the UK being less “Anglo-Saxon” than the US; and some mainland countries – like some Eastern European countries – are more “Anglo-Saxon” than they are “mainland”. This goes to show that we’re being simplistic; see also here).

The mainland model is often believed to be better at poverty reduction, job security, social services, and income equality. The Anglo-Saxon model on the other hand is said to be more flexible, less state dependent and more competitive (because of lower taxes and less labor regulation) and suffers less unemployment (because of the less generous social safety net; see also here).

For the same reasons, the Anglo-Saxon model is also believed to be less equal and more open to social mobility – social mobility being defined as the difference between the socioeconomic status of parents and the status their children will attain as adults. When the focus is on individual responsibility and when people can keep a larger share of their income after taxes, they are incited to do well, to work hard, to develop their talents, and to innovate. This not only creates a more competitive economy, but also one in which people can be socially mobile and rise in status and wealth. Countries that impose high taxes and offer generous safety nets don’t give the same incentives.

However, we see that the UK and the US aren’t characterized by relatively high levels of social mobility:

A father’s income determines his son’s to a greater extent in Britain than in any other wealthy nation, with half of a high earner’s “economic advantage” being transmitted to their children, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found. … In Britain … background determines a person’s success to a far higher degree than in almost any other rich country. “Education is not as important for social mobility in Britain as for other countries. Class, to be honest, is the most likely explanation,” said Romain Duval, head of division in the Paris-based OECD’s economics department. (source)

Something similar is the case for the US.

It appears that the United States has less intergenerational social mobility than many other industrialized countries. (source)

It’s true that the UK and the US (especially the US) are highly inegalitarian, and increasingly so, but high levels of income inequality do not necessarily go hand in hand with high levels of social mobility. In fact,

social mobility between generations tends to be lower in more unequal societies. (source)

So if you care about social mobility – and I think you should because high levels of social mobility indicate equality of opportunity, something no one objects to – then you should care about reducing inequality rather than promoting it through “Anglo-Saxon” tax and welfare systems (to the extent that there is something like it in the real world).