First in a series.
A couple of speakers at the Faith at Work Summit presented the public policy idea of a Universal Basic Income as if it were unambiguously good and it had no downsides that needed to be mentioned, implying that all good people on both sides of the political aisle were, or should be, in favor of it. I subsequently mentioned to some people my disagreement with the UBI, and a few have told me they’d like to hear the case.
Well, be careful what you ask for.
I usually avoid discussing public policy in the context of my work in the faith and work movement (in my education policy work I am under fewer restraints). I’m making an exception here because the issue has been prominently raised in the movement, and the arguments on the other side of the ledger have not been presented.
The idea of UBI is simple: everyone receives an annual income from the government of $X simply for existing. Versions of UBI have fans on both the Right and Left, leading some to see UBI as a path out of the politics of vicious tribal warfare.
One thing it’s critical to know about UBI, but that its advocates usually don’t mention, is that the version endorsed by some on the Right and the version endorsed by some on the Left are very different – in fact, mutually incompatible. People on the Left want UBI in addition to the existing welfare state, because their goal is to increase redistribution of wealth. People on the Right want UBI as a replacement for the existing welfare state, because their goal is to eliminate the dehumanizingly paternalistic and extremely inefficient bureaucracy of that welfare state.
There is zero constituency on the Left for the Right’s version, and zero constituency on the Right for the Left’s version. And this is not even a potentially splittable difference. There is zero constituency on the Left for making even a small reduction to the existing welfare state in exchange for getting the UBI, and there is zero constituency on the Right for adopting any UBI without at least substantial cuts in the existing welfare state.
So much for UBI as an easy escape from the politics of vicious tribal warfare.
And a good thing, too, because the UBI would be the biggest political gift to American racism since the end of Jim Crow.
If you liked the paternalistic rhetoric of “makers versus takers” and “the 47 percent,” my friends, you are absolutely going to love what Roger Stone’s political progeny will cook up as soon as you enact a UBI. The signing ceremony of the UBI law will be interrupted by the entrance of a jubilant conga line of ambitious politicians, celebrating the big, fat rhetorical victory you just handed them.
Take a fresh look at Mitt Romney’s notorious 2012 comment, and ask yourself what he would have said in an alternate universe where there was a UBI:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That’s an entitlement. The government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.
And that was before the triumph of Trumpism overthrew previously established norms against white identity politics on the Right, and established that such politics pay. Bob Dole’s 1996 “the exits are clearly marked” is a long way in the rearview mirror by now.
Now, obviously we don’t want to give racism a “heckler’s veto” over sound public policy. We want to be prudent about giving them opportunities, but not so prudent that we become paralyzed and do nothing. If the UBI were sound in principle, it would be a heavy lift to argue that we ought to avoid it solely because irresponsible politicians could make hay out of it with wrongly motivated voters.
But the enormous power the UBI would give to American racism points to a real problem of principle underlying its structure: it involves a fundamental change in the political philosophy of care for the poor, breaking with Christian-derived traditions that help the poor on the assumption of the equal dignity of all people, restoring us to the pagan paternalism of the Roman “dole” system.
The political philosophy of care for the poor that has undergirded the welfare state until now, at least in the U.S., is this: The default assumption is that each household cares for itself, because we are all – not just some of us, not just the elite, not just those descended from Europe and/or formed by Western culture – made to be contributors to the common good. Where the household caring for itself is not possible, the job falls first to churches, neighborhoods, etc., with government as a last resort. This order of priority is absolutely necessary if the equal dignity of all people as contributors to the common good is to be maintained.
The disruptions to social structure introduced by the Industrial Revolution and other developments demanded an unprecedented macro-scale response to care for the poor in new ways. For reasons that need not detain us right at this moment, but that will shame us unbearably at the Last Judgment if they do not start detaining us much more often and much more seriously than they now do, the church did not and still has not created this macro-scale response. This failure of the church left us with no choice but to rely on an improvised, ad-hoc government system.
This is what Kuyper meant when he said: “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.”
The welfare state as we have known it has always been an unstable halfway house between the two ultimately sustainable alternatives: a real (i.e. church-centric) solution to the crisis of modernity, or a slide back into the ancient Roman dole system described so aptly by Romney, in which society is formally divided into two mutually hostile classes: makers and takers.
I simply do not see how we can enact a UBI without restoring the dole principle. And the dole principle is bad enough in itself, but when it’s filtered through American racism I think we might just have a shot at making the Roman treatment of the plebs look good by comparison. There would, of course, be plenty of pale “takers” and brown “makers.” But we all know how the politics of a renewed pagan dole would work out.
I’ll take the 1996 Dole over the Roman dole. At least he knows where the exits are.
Coming in part two: UBI and the Wall.