FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
The case against an Unconditional Basic Income
An object that is at rest will stay at rest unless an external force acts upon it.
–Sir Isaac Newton
Many moons ago with I was a mid-grade infantry captain in the US Army I was selected for an assignment as an investigator with the Department of the Army Inspector General’s office at the headquarters of the US Army Recruiting Command. One of the great things about being an IG was addressing legitimate grievances another was meddling in other people’s jobs—or making a difference, depending upon your point of view.
At that time enlistment was closely tied to unemployment. Less so today because the Army is about 300K smaller than it was when we fielded 18 divisions and were more concerned about combat effectiveness than allowing hirsute rad-fems to self-actualize in the combat arms. Like today, about 70% of young men aged 17-21 could not qualify for the Army because they could not meet one or more of the mental, educational, physical, or moral standards of enlistment. The ideal recruiting environment, the Happy Hunting Ground, if you will, was an area with good schools (so kids scored high on the ASVAB) and high unemployment (so enlisting in the Army was attractive). The Recruiting Command located several such areas mostly in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and northern Minnesota. When enlistment data was examined what we discovered was that very few kids from these areas enlisted. How could that be? Obviously, the problem was that the recruiters in these areas were lazy and they needed to be grabbed by the throat and shaken so they’d do their job. It didn’t help that the Recruiting Battalions covering those areas were marginal performers known as “80-percenters” because they usually produced 80% of their mission (quota to you civilians) even if you reduced their mission.
Humor me for a moment. Hold your place in this story and let’s change gears.
One of the things that unites us as conservatives, and should unite us as Americans, is the idea that each of us is obligated to pay his or her own freight. There really is no such thing as a free lunch and if you find yourself snarfing one down it is because someone else is paying the fare. From the time Captain John Smith at Jamestown quoted Saint Paul (2 Thessalonians 3:10) to gentlemen-adventurers who thought labor was beneath them – “If you don’t work you don’t eat” – working has been an American tradition to the extent that some have made a fetish of work to the detriment of their personal lives.
Work is not only a means to an end – living as comfortable and rewarding life as possible – it is also a factor in our well-being. From Megan McArdle:
Short of death or dismemberment, what do you think the worst thing is that could happen to you? If you answered “divorce” or “losing my husband,” you’re probably wrong — at least as far as future happiness is concerned. Don’t get me wrong: these things will make you very unhappy. (To say nothing of how your husband will feel.) But over time, research shows, you will recover.
Not so with unemployment. Like divorce or the death of a spouse, losing a job will often plunge people into despair. But, unless they spend a lot of time hunting for a new job, unemployed people tend to stay unemployed. Time heals most wounds, but not all of them. A long-term study of how Germans reacted to various life events showed that four years after they’d lost their jobs, they still hadn’t gotten used to it — being unemployed made them just as unhappy as they’d been the day they were laid off.
Remember, this is Germany, which long had generous unemployment benefits. The financial insecurity that usually attends prolonged unemployment is bound to add to one’s misery. But it doesn’t seem to be the primary cause. As much as we may gripe about it, work is not just something you have to do in order to pay the mortgage. It is a daily connection to coworkers and customers. It is the knowledge that you are wanted and useful. Even the most tedious job gives us a place in the world. Unemployment makes us question why we are here.
But what happens when factors beyond your control, whether Obama’s economic mismanagement or simple bad luck conspire against you. You lost your job. You can’t seem to find a new place anywhere. We know this is an increasingly common occurrence as the labor participation rate falls to new lows. Currently there is a patchwork system of unemployment insurance, welfare, disability payments, etc., to assist those out of work. But what if there were something simpler:
Many young progressives think they have found a fail-safe way to end poverty: a universal basic income (UBI). The idea is very simple, they say: Every month, the government cuts a check to everyone. Period. That way, no one has to fall below the poverty line.
The UBI is an old idea, which also has a storied history on the right. Many conservatives like the idea of a simple welfare system that would replace arcane programs and nosy bureaucracies.
Simply put, advocates of the UBI insist that UBI will have many positive aspects. The guaranteed wage enables people to check out of the workforce and develop new skills that will in turn lead to a higher income or, simply acquire replacement skills for those obsolete by time and technology. A child or elderly relative can be cared for while the caregiver is sustained by this basic income. In many cases, in principle the idea of UBI would save the government money by eliminating the staffing and administrative costs of the current programs. Where the means tested income supplements have the perverse effect of discouraging work because you lose food stamps or health insurance above a certain level, the UBI is not means tested so you have an incentive to seek higher paying jobs.
Unlike a lot of social theories this idea has been tested:
And science says the UBI doesn’t work.
As Manzi writes, one of the few consistent findings across all these experiments is simply this: The only type of welfare policy that reliably gets people who can work into work is a welfare policy with work requirements. All the evidence strongly suggests that if you have a UBI, the outcome is exactly what many conservatives fear will happen: Millions of people who could work won’t, just listing away in socially destructive idleness (with the consequences of this lost productivity reverberating throughout the society in lower growth and, probably, lower employment, in a UBI-enabled vicious cycle).
The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that getting as many people as possible into the workforce is a highly laudable goal. A welfare policy with work requirements is the only realistic way of accomplishing this goal. And a UBI would consign millions and millions of people to deep misery. Writing as a former strong proponent of UBI, and having given a long hard look at the evidence, I must admit, this was a true revelation. It’s now impossible for me to support a UBI.
Now back to my story.
When we went out into these areas we didn’t find lazy recruiters. We found, instead, a population that depended upon seasonal work, maple sugar, trapping, logging, fishing, etc., supplemented by welfare and unemployment insurance. There were generations that had never held a full time job and the kids we were trying to entice with the offer of Fun-Travel-Adventure (aka FTA) saw no real benefit to working constantly when part-time work, filled in by transfer payments, let them sustain a lifestyle they enjoyed along with providing maximum free time. In short, there was nothing the Army had to offer these kids because the only lifestyle they’d ever come in contact with was short periods of work filled by a guaranteed income.
I have no doubt that work, of some type, contributes substantially to our well-being. Equally, I have no doubt that if provided a guaranteed income for not working that a non-trivial percentage of the work force will simply check out. There are a certain number of savants in that group that would produce great art and literature. More would find something less useful to do with their time. While the government should have no authority to make anyone work, neither should it subsidize yet another activity that is actually detrimental to both society and the individual.