How to sell free cash? A Universal Basic Income policy

Universal Basic Income is back, and it has a new face: Andrew Yang, a 2020 Democratic primary candidate. Yang is promising every US citizen $1000 each month. He calls it the “Freedom Dividend.”

It may sound surprising, but many do not want Universal Basic Income (UBI). Yang is at three per cent in the polls. As a policy, UBI has the support of only 40 per cent of American voters, and is opposed by 43 per cent. In the UK, 49 per cent approve, while in Switzerland 77 per cent voted against implementing a universal basic income in a 2016 referendum.

Complicating supporter’s uncertainty is the fact that advocators for UBI have traditionally straddled the left-right divide. While free market libertarians, such as Hayek and Friedman promoted the concept as an elegant solution to poverty, ‘welfare traps’ and government bureaucracy, the left-wing thinkers from Thomas Piketty to Martin Luther King Jr have endorsed UBI as a way to reduce inequality and raise welfare.

Why is the public not convinced? George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972, ran on a $1000 per year UBI ($6000 in today’s dollars). His opponents relentlessly attacked the idea as an expensive “welfare giveaway plan,” and a similar framing dominated the recent Swiss referendum debate. UBI is often framed as a one dimensional and expensive welfare program.

In focusing too narrowly on the welfare and economic argument for Universal Basic Income, Yang’s campaign seems to run the risk of stumbling into a similar discourse: the UBI-as-a-handout frame constructed by his political opponents.

It is undeniable that Yang has raised awareness and popularity of the concept of a universal basic income. His innovative campaign uses memes, Twitter and podcasts to spread his message, and is linking the need for a UBI to developments in technological automation. But behind the shiny new story, it is the same old ‘good welfare policy’ argument. Almost all the supposed ‘benefit’ of UBI listed on Yang’s campaign website fall into a tired narrative. Although it seems to excite economists and tech bro futurists such as Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, the dry arguments do not seem to be enough to motivate widespread, passionate support from voters.

Perhaps the advocates of Universal Basic Income need to rediscover a more radical set of arguments. In the past, UBI has been pitched as part of the nation’s social contract—as a matter of civic justice. American revolutionary Thomas Paine, for example, famously advocated for a ‘citizen’s dividend,’ based on his arguments for individual property ownership aided by a community that permitted, advocated and defended property rights. Such a social contract would tie each property owner to the community. Hence to deny citizens a universal income was seen not just a suboptimal welfare policy, but as depriving them of their rightful share of the nation’s wealth. “It is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for,” wrote Paine in 1797.

Arguments for UBI based on social justice can be affective, as Huey Long — a 1930s Democratic governor, Senator and left-wing populist, exemplified in his “Share Our Wealth” movement, and it worked. In less than two years, they had assembled 7.5 million members in ‘Share Our Wealth’ clubs nationwide. Before Huey was assassinated, Roosevelt privately admitted that a key aim of his radical progressive Second New Deal was to “steal Long’s thunder.”

There looks to be a promising exception to the Yang campaign’s previously narrow argument. Yang is beginning to use the language of social justice causes to highlight the importance of UBI for women’s socioeconomic equality. In the first democratic debate, he emphasised “it would be a game-changer for women around the country, because we know that women do more of the unrecognised and uncompensated work in our society.” The audience was cheering before Yang could finish his sentence.

UBI is a tool to potentially fix (or at least improve) our social contract—for example to pay our unpaid carers their rightful share as contributors to society. Such issues could make people passionate about a Universal Basic Income, and is the discourse that its advocates should pursue.


Image: Collision Conf via Flickr

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