Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Left's Case Against Basic Income

One curious thing about calls for the government to introduce a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) for all citizens is that they come from all over the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right.  Most people express surprise that such a seemingly 'socialist' proposal can be supported by some ultra-conservatives, but once you grasp their thinking, it naturally follows that some progressive liberal thinkers are therefore (unexpectedly) opposed to the GBI concept.

I have selected an article that expresses this perspective, and gives a fairly comprehensive list of the objections from the left that I have seen.  I leave it to the reader to first review the article, and then we will try to formulate some kind of response to their concerns and counter-arguments:
A basic income would be a major concession to the capitalist takeover of everyday life  (by Nicholas Erwin-Longstaff, York University graduate student in labour geography)
Before we begin, it should be made clear whether Erwin-Longstaff was comparing a Basic Income system to the status quo, or to his preferable system of government-supplied necessities of life (a la Medicare).  Unfortunately, he does not make this clear , and his various objections seem to waver between the two.  I will attempt to do both comparisons.

I've broken down the primary concerns into three general topics:

Deep Cuts to Social Safety Net

This is perhaps the most easily refuted objection to implementing a GBI.  Erwin-Longstaff says there would be "deep cuts elsewhere in the social safety net, resulting in a deepening of government austerity".  The first part is not only expected - it's desirable.  The second part is absurd.

Could there be a more comprehensive social safety net than a GBI - a program that is available to everyone, at any time, no questions asked?  Realistically, no, there couldn't.  Would the existing social assistance programs be reduced, if not, in some cases, eliminated?  Yes - because they would no longer be needed to the same degree.  If, on the other hand, certain programs were still necessary for those in dire need, there is nothing to say that such programs could not be retained.  The arguments for keeping a particular program under a GBI would be exactly the same as the arguments for having it now.  To say that they would all automatically disappear once a GBI is in place is no different from the panic that they could all disappear tomorrow, even under the status quo.  A GBI is not going to cover every single dire need in our society, so we still have to provide for those situations.  However, a GBI would categorically reduce the need for the vast majority of our social welfare system, along with its administration, assessments, failings, etc.

To then complain that a GBI, where the government is giving a guaranteed subsistence income to every citizen who needs it, amounts to government austerity is ridiculous.  I have seen many ardent supporters of GBI programs, but not one has ever suggested that the government would be spending less on a GBI than it does now on existing social programs.  Giving every person an annual income with no strings attached is a very strange definition of government austerity.

Erwin-Longstaff also fears that the government would "whittle away even the most ambitious BI to a barely subsistence-level support".  Of course, this is a danger for any program implemented by any government using a status quo paradigm.  However, I think it reasonable to insist that any true GBI program has to be implemented very differently from the come-and-go social welfare systems that we create and modify now.  A GBI is a long-term total gamechanger.  The only way that it's going to be truly effective is if it's implemented in such a way that future governments cannot later pull the rug out or whittle it down.  (That's part of the "Guaranteed" in the name.)  Perhaps it even needs to be a Constitutional amendment.  (Yes, it is that significant.)

All that being said, the author is correct that Basic Income programs are not intended to replace all current social provisions, but I don't think they should be viewed as complementing them either.  GBIs simply take survival completely out of the realm of social assistance and even out of standard paycheques - for everyone.

One specific present-day program needs to be addressed here - subsidized daycare.  The author makes the pseudo-liberated assumption that all women should choose to be out their having their own job; that the modern-day necessity of two-income families in order to get by is something to be retained.  When it was noted that some GBI trial outcomes showed more women staying at home to raise children, he highlights the absurdity of this with sarcastic quotes: "women 'choosing'  to remain at home".  And yet the authenticity of that choice is the very essence of a GBI.  He fears the ceaseless pursuit of capitalist growth and profit, and yet he wants more people working to produce those very ends.

I get it:  If you remove subsidized daycare, it would at first appear that fewer families will have the easy choice to have two careers going while the kids are shuffled off to an institutionalized baby-sitting service. However, I tend to think in broader strokes.  With a GBI accessible to everyone, I believe that communities will have numerous and superior alternatives to subsidized daycare.  Subsidized daycare, to my mind, merely perpetuates educational and opportunity inequities when the wealthy will be using vastly superior services like in-home nannies, etc.  Let's be absolutely clear: a GBI increases options - for everyone.

Capitalism will Adjust Negatively

I can appreciate the fear that with a GBI in place, capitalism could then attempt to eradicate its effects by lowering wages and increasing prices.  And yet I fail to see how a GBI newly introduces either this possibility or the motivation behind it.  Erwin-Longstaff says: "a BI would leave people vulnerable to rising rents and prices".  So if there was no basic income, people would somehow not be vulnerable to these?  That makes no sense.  The objection is similar to saying "a pay raise leaves people vulnerable to rising rents and prices" - so we should abolish pay raises.  Ridiculous!

And while we're on that topic - a basic income is not  a pay raise or a wage subsidy; it is something completely different.  Employment and wages would still be there to allow one to set and maintain a standard of living, but they would no longer be the determinants of life or death.  Under a GBI, survival is free - it is a basic human right.

To say it again, a GBI, to my way of thinking, should not  be intended to directly lift everyone out of poverty.   The function of a GBI is to remove the question of having or not having the absolute necessities from the whole poverty/wealth equation.  For other things, there will still be haves and have-nots, but a GBI offers those at the bottom of the ladder what our current social welfare system absolutely does not: the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.

Philosophical Impact and Preferable Solutions

Another concern expressed in the referenced article is that a Basic Income program would "commodify all aspects of life".  In other words, under this revised paradigm, food and shelter would still be items bought and sold in a marketplace.  I can't argue with that.  Since this is obviously also the status quo, I presume Erwin-Longstaff is now switching gears and comparing a GBI to an entirely alternate solution - one which would "remove the need for cash altogether - reduce or eliminate the costs associated with other vital human needs, such as housing, education and care work".

That entirely socialist solution might indeed be preferable, but somehow I don't see it as having anything like the realistic opportunities that a GBI has for implementation.  The state handing out all food and shelter?  Not a very attractive near-future prospect.  Let's take things one giant leap at a time, please.

The author also points out that "expanding public services reliably pushes back against the logic of the market, whereas BI represents a deep concession to the ongoing capitalist takeover of every aspect of social life".  Again, there may well be advantages to radically altering how each one of us acquires what we need, and to the core definitions of ownership and commerce, but I don't think that we as a society have evolved to that possibility yet.  Indeed, I continue to argue that a GBI has the very opposite effect from the latter part of the concern expressed.  When everyone can access the necessities of life without having to sell their labour to the capitalist system, I would hardly call that advancing the capitalist takeover.  No, it is in actual fact a complete reversal of the extortionate stranglehold that the marketplace holds over practically every living human on the planet.

The article references another critic, John Clarke (writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty), who wrote another contrary viewpoint in the context of the CoViD-19 pandemic.  As a bonus, I'll give the critics another shot at things:  The False Hope of a Pandemic Basic Income

Left-leaning critics of Basic Income programs seem to continually view the world using the glasses of the right.  They are understandably wary because we have always played by the right's rules, so our social programs have always been vulnerable to their tinkering.

I, on the other hand, believe Guaranteed Basic Income programs create a whole new playing field, and a very real opportunity for society to shift - perhaps even in the direction that those critics dream of.

1 comment:

  1. I heard a speaker recently, talking about the danger of privatizing healthcare under a GBI: "We've given you the money - now buy your own healthcare!" This would be a perfect (and very significant) example of a social program that should NOT go way once a GBI is in place. Universal healthcare is a social safety net that pays very significant bills, unevenly spread across the entire population, with limited ability of any user to truly influence that need.

    Take another look at welfare and Employment Insurance, but universal healthcare stays!


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