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Policy Shop Blog / Demos

Is a Universal Basic Income Really Utopian?

Mike Konczal had a wonderful piece at Wonkblog over the weekend in which he discusses the sadly-neglected policy idea known as the universal basic income (UBI). Under a UBI policy, every single person receives a minimum cash income from the government. The income would be unconditional and would not be affected by how much money individuals make elsewhere. Everyone gets the basic income and are free to spend it how they'd like.

The upsides of a UBI program are immense. A UBI program would dramatically reduce the amount of poverty, reduce overall inequality, and empower workers by making them less dependent on income from their employer. The specific design of the program would be administratively simple and would avoid many of the incentive problems that are caused by the current crop of means-tested welfare benefits.

In his piece, Konczal refers to the UBI as "utopian," a description he apparently borrows from an Erik Olin Wright book. In a certain sense of the word, it might be fair to call a UBI utopian. As I wrote in my prior post, folks are squeamish about tackling economic equality issues in these kinds of overt ways; instead, they prefer more subtle approaches that deal with equality at the paycheck level. That means that, as a practical matter, implementing a UBI is probably not a serious possibility in the near-future. If we use "utopian" to mean something that has no political legs at the moment, then indeed the UBI is utopian.

With that said, the UBI is not utopian in the normal sense of that word. Generally, we think of a utopian idea as one that proposes to dramatically overhaul society into an entirely unprecedented structure that will usher in a nearly perfect world. The U.S. has a long history of these kinds of utopian projects -- e.g. the Shakers -- but the UBI does not qualify.

For one, a UBI would not dramatically overhaul society. The basic institutions that make up our economic and social structure -- private property, capitalist markets, etc. -- would remain entirely intact. No new basic institutions would be added either: the government would collect tax revenue, which it already does, and disperse benefits, which it also already does. Compared to actual utopian ideas, a UBI is actually quite modest in what it does and does not change.

Moreover, a UBI is not unprecedented. It has been successfully implemented in a number of developing countries, including recently in rural India and Namibia. Additionally, the U.S. actually has a deep-cover UBI program that we call Social Security. It's only for old people, so it obviously falls short of universal, but it is more or less a UBI for old people. And it has been super-effective:  in the 35 years after 1960 -- that being the year that Social Security payments began to rise significantly -- we cut our elderly poverty rate from 35 percent to 10 percent, a 72 percent reduction.

In full scope of things, a UBI is hardly a utopian idea. The political moment does not allow for it, but if we start letting that define something as utopian, then almost everything qualifies. Unlike the actually-utopian projects of yesteryear, the UBI does not disrupt our institutional regime, and has successful precedents both domestically and abroad. We would be wise to heed UBI's successful precedents and give it a shot.

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Matt Bruenig

Matt Bruenig writes about politics, the economy, and political theory, primarily with a focus on the set of interlocking issues that affect poor and working people. His work appears on his own blog as well as numerous other publications, including The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and Demos’ Policy Shop blog.

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