Unambiguously Bad Idea: The Universal Basic Income and the Gattaca Future

Third in a series.

I’ve already argued that a universal basic income would empower racism and build the wall in the short term. Some further reflection on why it would do these things will help us imagine what it would do in the long term.

We are already moving rapidly in the direction of a future in which large, impersonal bureaucracies control our lives and make our decisions for us based on quantitative, standardized data, without knowing who we are or what we really need. Call it “the Gattaca future.” UBI would accelerate our embrace of that future by creating a key tool bureaucracies need to take their control over our lives to the next level.

UBI has these unpleasant short-term consequences because it is what I called last time “cheap community.” It reduces the solidarity that community members share with one another to a cash transfer, because moving cash around is easy, while dealing with real people and their problems in ways that don’t dehumanize them and destroy personal relationships is hard. But while reducing community solidarity into an impersonal, quantifiable and fungible commodity greatly increases our power to manipulate it, it also increases the rewards for manipulating the conditions of community membership.

In the short term, that means big rewards for excluding people from the community – manipulating the boundary of the community so fewer people are inside. In the long term, it changes the terms of community for those inside.

You cannot create a UBI without creating a national database in which every person will be required to register. Once that database exists, it can be used for any and every purpose the powerful decide to use it for. You think data mining by social media companies is scary? That’s nothing compared to what we’ll be dealing with if there’s a single database where everyone’s identity is tracked. All the data the powerful collect could be collated and used systematically in ways that aren’t now possible.

No, Social Security is not that kind of database. Many Americans are not in the Social Security system, including pastors, stay-at-home parents and those unable to work. They typically get other kinds of identity credentials from state agencies, which they use in the situations where people like me use our Social Security numbers.

So everyone does have a number now, but there is no one database where all the numbers line up and can be checked against one another systematically. And that fact is the only reason we have not already built the Gattaca future. UBI removes that barrier.

Back in the 1990s, when I worked at a pro-immigration think tank for a year, one of the really hot topics was the demand for a national ID card. The idea was to make it hard for those in the country unlawfully to get a job, by requiring everyone to register in a government database and carry a card that would establish their identity in that database. Some of the really advanced thinkers wanted a “biometric” national ID card.

Our coalition fought that off, in large part by pointing out that once you give that tool to the powerful, you can’t control how they will use it. “Today it’s immigration. Tomorrow it will be tracking down deadbeat dads. And then it will be something else, and something else,” my colleague John Miller used to say. Before you know it, you won’t be able to do anything without the bureaucracy’s permission.

I remember vividly the time we held a press conference that featured a statement from someone who had escaped the communist bloc and found refuge here. Where he came from, he said, he had to carry an ID card whenever he left home. The police could demand to see your ID at any time, and if you didn’t have it, you were in trouble. “Here,” he observed, “it’s the police who have to carry an ID. And if they want to talk to me, I can demand to see their identification. That’s the whole difference right there.”

It’s a bad idea to give the powerful a single database of all people at any time. But especially now, during the explosion of data mining, at a time when the Right is being taken over by nationalism and the Left is being taken over by socialism.

I am not, as I have already indicated in this series, a libertarian. I’ve had plenty of innings against them over the years and no doubt will have plenty more. But if you’re not worried about the expansion of big, powerful bureaucracies’ ability to control our lives, you’re not paying attention.

And with that, you’ve heard what you didn’t hear from the stage about UBI at the Faith at Work Summit.

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