Unambiguously Bad Idea: The Universal Basic Income and the Wall

Second in a series.

Our chapel series here this semester is on reconciliation. This week, among other things, the sermon invoked Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace” and exhorted us not to seek a “cheap reconciliation.” I’m thinking about that as I sit down to explain why the universal basic income will not only give more power to racism, but also build the Wall high and thick on our border. The UBI appeals to the bonds of community for its justification; we should support it because of what we owe to fellow members of the community. But if we enact it, we will soon find out the cost of “cheap community.”

I would support, if political conditions changed in ways that would permit it, high levels of legal immigration. I spent a year between college and grad school working a pro-immigration think tank in DC, so that’s not empty talk. I sat in meetings where representatives of the really big immigration lobbies (our group was tiny, and barely belonged in the room) plotted strategy.

But that position comes with a cost. There are things you cannot do if you want your country to have open doors. We cannot wish away these hard limits, however strongly we may feel that we are entitled to eat our cake and also have it.

There is much truth in the formula bandied among immigration restrictionists: “Democracy, a big welfare state, open borders – choose any two.” That is oversimplified, but not deceptively so. The tradeoffs described are real ones.

I hasten to add that this involves no smear on the character of potential immigrants. The limitation arises not from what immigrants will do, but from what American voters will do. That is why “democracy” is one of the three items on the list. You can easily resolve the problem of what the voters will do if you are willing to remove welfare and immigration policy from democratic control.

I support the existence of a government safety net, at least for as long as it takes the church to get off its collective can and create a better safety net, so the government one will no longer be needed. But as long as it is the civil government providing the safety net, its support will be limited to members of the civil community. That is one reason, among many, we should be hastening the creation of a church-based alternative.

Governments don’t exist to serve everyone on the whole earth without distinction. Indeed, any attempt to do so would be megalomaniacal hubris. It’s just unsound to demand that the U.S. government provide a UBI for anyone in the world who wants one. That is not what the U.S. government exists to do.

The hard reality is that if we create a UBI, that is the end – permanently, I would expect – of high levels of immigration. Whatever you may think about the potential immigrants is beside the point. American voters are not going to vote to tax their own salaries to provide free money for everyone in the community, and then keep the golden doors open so anyone, anywhere can join the community at any time. If the UBI passes Congress on Monday, billions for the Wall will pass on Tuesday – and we’ll be lucky if it stops with that.

And, as with the racism point, so here: The practical difficulty (voters will respond to a UBI in ways we don’t want) arises from a theoretical difficulty (UBI is based on an inadequate principle of justice). Just as the UBI shifts us from Christian principles of helping the poor to the old Roman “dole” system, it shifts the meaning of community from Christian principles of relational solidarity to a utilitarian, transactional connection.

There is a lot of talk in the faith and work movement about community. We work to serve the community, we want to be good members of the community. This talk arises mostly as a counterweight to insular tendencies arising from the culture war, and that’s a good thing.

But a lot of it, unintentionally, is cheap community. What community do we serve? Why that community and not another? What are the necessary conditions for maintaining a community? How might the interests of maintaining a community be in tension with other legitimate interests?

The interests of the church, of course, we must painfully sacrifice to the common good, in confident expectation of supernatural protection and sustenance. But what about other legitimate interests that might be in tension with “community”? What are our responsibilities to community then?

Notice I just used the phrase “common good.” Chances are you hardly noticed it, because that’s another widely used term in the faith and work movement – again, to combat culture-war insularity. But most people don’t know where it comes from. The term originated in medieval natural-law philosophy as a description of the legitimate interests of a political community, which the civil authority exists to serve. It refers not to the good that is “common” to all humanity, but to the good that is “common” to a particular political community. The real existence of the political community is established by the fact that it has a good in common – a particular good, a good that is common to that community and not to outsiders.

The existence of a common good, in the sense in which that term has always been used in Christian ethics, presupposes the prior existence of a political community. This, in turn, implies the existence of borders. And that implies hard questions about what the civil authority owes to those outside the borders.

We have no right to think about social ethics as if humanity were just a huge, undifferentiated mass, every individual perfectly interchangeable with every other individual. That is not humanity, that is cogs in a machine. All ethical schools attempting to treat humanity as a single, undifferentiated mass dehumanize us, whether they are of the liberal (utilitarian) or illiberal (Marxist) variety.

People exist in communities, and those communities have implications for social ethics. Even the very words and concepts we use to define and discuss and debate what is just are culturally bound. This does not imply that ethics is culturally relative or that we have no responsibilities to those outside our borders. It does imply that we have to know the borders exist, and respect what they mean.

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