I’m a big fan of Basic Income. It’s an idea with huge potential benefits and it appeals to people across the political spectrum. Nevertheless, it’s also an idea that attracts its fair share — and probably a lot more than its fair share — of criticism and negativity. And if Basic Income is to become a reality, it’s important to understand the naysayers and understand their objections.
Based on my personal experience, I would say that the vast majority of Basic Income naysayers fall into one or more of the following categories:
Some relatively well-off people are concerned that the value of the Basic Income they receive will be outweighed by the extra tax they will have to pay. They may not think of themselves as rich, but in relative terms, they are. And their objections to Basic Income are usually based on a significant degree of selfishness.
Their selfishness may be unethical, but it is also understandable. They’re ‘looking out for number one.’ And before condemning them, we should stop to ask ourselves whether we might do the same thing in their position. We might hope we wouldn’t, but it can be difficult to be sure.
Perhaps these ‘rich’ people are also being rather short-sighted, however. Even if they lose out financially, there are huge gains to be made from living in a kinder, more efficient and happier society, with less despair and less crime. And Basic Income can help us create that society.
There’s a related category of reasonably well-off people who may object to Basic Income, even though they may not be rich enough to be adversely affected financially by its introduction.
They feel they’ve worked hard, without much help, for what they now have. They may even have struggled with poverty themselves at some point in their lives. And they find themselves feeling a little resentful that a Basic Income system would give other people the sort of help that they didn’t receive when they most needed it. It seems unfair.
Well, in a sense. it is unfair. It is unfair that we didn’t have Basic Income a long time ago. But what can we do about that now? It’s silly to reject Basic Income on the basis that it should have been instigated ages ago. We can’t go back in time. All we can do is try to look after the present and the future.
Some people may also object to the idea of anyone being given ‘something for nothing.’ They may resent anyone who they think might be given more than they deserve.
But what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to set up committees to decide who deserves food? Or are we supposed to let the market decide who deserves to starve to death?
Basic Income won’t be taking over the role of deciding who deserves what. It will give people what they need to buy necessities. Beyond that, people will have to work with employers and customers and contend with market forces, just as they do now.
And doesn’t everyone deserve enough food to stop them starving? Doesn’t everyone deserve sufficient shelter and warmth that they don’t freeze to death?
I think an ethical response to those questions is to say that any society that can afford to do so, should adopt the working assumption that people do deserve the food, shelter and warmth they need to survive. Otherwise that society might struggle to justify its own existence, from an ethical perspective.
As I said at the start; Basic Income attracts support from across the political spectrum. This is a good thing — but it also leads to some objections based on tribalism.
There are right-wingers who oppose Basic Income because they think it’s a left-wing idea. And there are left-wingers who oppose Basic Income because they’re convinced it’s a right-wing idea.
Is Basic Income part of a conspiracy to impose full scale communism? Or is it part of a right-wing conspiracy to mollify the masses as Jeff Bezos’s robot armies take over the world?
Calm down. Basic Income is just such a good idea with so many potential benefits, that there are good reasons why almost anyone from almost any part of the political spectrum might support it. Let’s not attack it out of petty tribalism.
People Who Think They’ve Got a Better Alternative
Some people oppose Basic Income because they think they’ve got a better idea. They may, for example, support the idea of having Universal Basic Services instead. Or perhaps they champion the idea of having some sort of Job Guarantee Scheme.
What I’ve found, however, is that many such people may be underestimating the importance of the fundamental simplicity of Basic Income. And they’ve not clearly thought through how complicated and bureaucratic their alternative schemes are likely to be.
And secondly, they may be unnecessarily framing their ideas as alternatives to Basic Income, instead of as complementary ideas. For example, there’s no particular reason why you couldn’t have a job guarantee scheme as well as a Basic Income. Indeed, it could work much better and be administratively easier that way. If someone loses their job, they’d already have their Basic Income to support them as they look for work in the usual way. And then perhaps the job guarantee scheme could become available to them if they were still unemployed several months later.
The It-doesn’t-go-far-enough Brigade
There are some rather vocal people around the internet who have very passionately-held views about what’s wrong with our societies. And some of them think there are fundamental flaws in our economies and in capitalism itself that require a solution much more radical than Basic Income.
Often basing their ideas on common misunderstandings about our money system, they may envisage a need for new cryptocurrencies distributed by advanced AI. They may dream of a whole new system of economic organisation that banishes recessions, unemployment and all forms of poverty from our lives forever.
They often have laudable aims. As part of their efforts to promote their proposals, however, they may attack Basic Income as being almost pointless, unless it is part of a much broader and more radical overhaul of our entire economic system.
Well of course Basic Income won’t solve all our problems. It’s not a mechanism for instant utopia. But it does go far enough to make a huge and positive difference to many millions of people’s lives.
The Objectors to Specific Proposals
And then there are people whose arguments against Basic Income are really just arguments (sometimes perfectly logical and reasonable arguments) against specific Basic Income proposals, rather than against the general idea. And perhaps the specific proposals most commonly at issue at the moment are those of Andrew Yang, the US Presidential candidate.
It seems logical to me, however, that we ought to start by debating Basic Income as a broad concept. And we should consider it in comparison to the alternative concept of having the sorts of means-tested welfare schemes and uneven tax allowances that we employ at the moment. Once we have broad agreement on the principle of having a Basic Income system, we can devote more time to debating what specific forms of Basic Income each country should adopt.
It is perfectly reasonable to have proposals for specific Basic Income arrangements, but these shouldn’t be evaluated as if they are set in stone.
Yes, Mr. Yang’s specific proposals are getting a lot of publicity at the moment. But we’re still some way off him becoming President. And even if he does become President, he’ll need the support of Congress to be able to make good on his promises. And if he does eventually get some form of Basic Income implemented, that scheme will likely be significantly changed from his current proposals.
It would be silly, therefore, to dismiss Basic Income simply on the basis of not agreeing with one specific Basic Income proposal, as if no alternatives exist — or as if it would be impossible for that proposal to be adjusted and evolved.
The Myth Swallowers
There are many myths around the internet claiming that Basic Income isn’t affordable, or that it would lead to massive inflation or mass worklessness and the collapse of the economy. None of these claims are true. They’re built upon flawed assumptions, flawed arguments and an almost total lack of understanding of some very basic economics.
So why do people believe them?
Well, some claims and arguments look reasonable to non-experts, upon initial inspection. But mainly the myths spread and get believed because people have personal, prejudicial reasons for wanting to believe them. They’re willingly taken in by them.
A rich person, for example, who deeply resents paying tax, probably doesn’t need a good argument to convince them that Basic Income will lead to disaster. A transparently ridiculous argument will do just fine.
I think Basic Income is a wonderful idea and it may well gain majority support, in some countries, within the next few years. But we Basic Income advocates shouldn’t be satisfied with that. Democracy isn’t just about getting the most votes. The decision to implement a Basic Income system will significantly affect everyone — so we should try to build as broad a coalition of supporters as we reasonably can.
And anyone with concerns about the policy should have their concerns listened to and addressed — whether we need their votes or not. This isn’t changed by the fact that their reasons for being concerned aren’t usually as solid as they initially believe.
And when naysayers are being selfish or unreasonable or are basing their objections on myths and misunderstandings, this should be exposed. Some of the naysayers themselves won’t be open to persuasion, but it is important that other people should appreciate the real sources of their negativity.
Basic Income can help us build a fairer, kinder, more successful society. I contribute my time and skills to help explain and promote the idea. But I could really do with your help. If you can, please help support my work by making a small donation via Patreon.