Why Neo-Progs Oppose Universal Basic Income
January 15, 2022•1,468 words
By Aaron Ekman
Aired March 25th, 2021: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0WL1kAKE38
For better or worse, the economy we seem to prefer requires each of us to hold down a job. If we don't, we risk either starving, or in the case of the north, freezing to death. The contradiction inherent in this system is that there simply aren't enough jobs to go around, and increasingly, the majority of jobs available simply won't pay the bills. If left unchecked, this contradiction can spark significant political movements, and they're often not progressive at all. It's a historical fact that the common denominator preceding the rise of most fascist regimes is mass unemployment and economic instability.
And so we've devised all sorts of schemes aimed at reconciling this contradiction: Welfare, Unemployment Insurance, old age security, disability benefits, etc... all of which are meant to transfer funds to people we've deemed to need the money most. The result has been the erection of entire government ministries in BC, employing thousands of people whose sole job it is to determine who is eligible for payment, and who is not. This process is called "means testing," and it's the opposite of "universal programs" such as our health cares systems, because it employs condition or wealth-based discrimination to target money to some groups while excluding others. Universal programs provide a benefit to everyone based on their citizenship in a nation, or province, whereas means-testing represents all the factors a government would use to disqualify you from a benefit, like, you didn't injure yourself at work or, you don't have disability, or you make too much money, or conceivably in the not-too distant future, the colour of your skin is wrong. That's what's meant by "means-testing" and progressives are just as addicted to it as many conservatives traditionally have been, but for different reasons.
For some conservatives, the idea that anyone might receive any sum of money without having worked in the traditional sense to earn it, is abhorrent. They hate it. They consider it a reward for laziness. For these types, means testing is often employed to frustrate the highest possible number of benefit applicants in hopes that they might in future define the program as underutilised, thus providing them the rationale to shut it down. These such conservatives, often traditionally representing the interests of employers small and large, complain that providing a universal minimum income creates a disincentive to work, which they see as economically counter-intuitive.
Progressives like means-testing because it requires a lot of staff to go over all the benefit applications, which, in the case of the public sector means more union members, and more union dues. I don't say this as a criticism, it's simply a fact. This is very rarely ever mentioned, however, because it's hardly a popular position. More often, progressives will claim that "means testing ensures the benefit won't be wasted on the rich. But when it comes to the discussion of a "universal basic income," a rather pesky contradiction emerges here from progressives who say they're concerned about growing income inequality between the rich and the poor. These are the people who often complain about the so-called 1% controlling the vast majority of wealth in society... (and make no mistake, I'm one of them) But do you see the contradiction here? Your point is that the wealthiest comprise such a tiny fractional segment of our population. They're so small that when we talk about a universal minimum income program, remitting to you say... a $1000-$2000 dollar cheque every month simply because you're a citizen, as far as inefficiencies go... 1% barely even registers. In fact, providing $2000 per month to British Columbian millionaires and billionaires is far cheaper for the BC taxpayer than paying for all the bureaucratic infrastructure required to disqualify that same 1%.
When presented with this reality, progressives often retreat to the argument that the threat of a universal basic income is that it replaces other necessary benefits like welfare, disability insurance, old age security, etc. Here progressives are not entirely wrong. Indeed, UBI adherents on the right like the Fraser Institute, and Milton Friedman in his discussion of the similarly minded "negative income tax" do intend for a UBI to replace these things, but despite this motivation, it's a mistake for progressives to associate UBI with the same disdain they have for the right's efforts to cut social programs. A Universal Basic Income is only a Trojan horse for cuts to social programs if progressives allow conservatives to use it that way, and keep in mind, conservatives have never before needed such an excuse to cut taxpayer services. They'll do it with or without a UBI to point to.
The reality is, a UBI can exist alongside any existing government service or benefit just as private pensions co-exist with the Canada Pension Plan and old age security. Welfare co-exists with disability insurance, all of which used to co-exist with the old BC Family Allowance benefit. What distinguishes all these programs from a UBI is that just like Universal Health Care in Canada, qualification to receive a Universal Basic Income requires nothing more than your citizenship. It's entirely possible that a UBI might reduce the amount one receives from one government agency, but the total amount one receives per month doesn't have to change, and if a recipient now receives the same amount of money via UBI rather than some means-tested program, it eliminates the possibility that some day they'll fail the means-test and no longer qualify for the money. So if a new government initiative can be devised to make the distribution of needed funds to people who need it the most more efficient and reliable, then surely we SHOULD shut down some of the old less efficient means-tested programs, yes?
Well, when presented with this reality... progressives who remain opposed to a UBI are forced to retreat to their underlying, and vastly unpopular argument, which is that shutting down old inefficient programs might eliminate some public sector jobs, and unless you're talking about the environment vs private sector jobs, for which progressive concern is registered at a distant second, very few progressives today will entertain any policy which threatens any number of public sector jobs, and this absolutely includes a Universal Basic Income, which is rather ironically, the one program which most efficiently mitigates the risk of job loss.
I'm not going to try today to convince you that a Universal Basic Income is our province's best immediate step towards weathering the coming economic storms... we will have that conversation soon... but today I just want to highlight this one glaring contradiction on the Left today which views itself as a progressive force for change in society. The moment you argue to protect some tradition or program based solely on the financial welfare of that program's bureaucracy, you cease to be a progressive. It doesn't matter which political party you hold a membership in, if you oppose changing or improving a government program because you're primarily concerned about the employment impact it will have on the bureaucracy, even if that change would literally put more money in the pockets of those who need it most, you are BY DEFINITION, a conservative. All bureaucracies, given enough time, however well-intentioned will eventually grow self-awareness and work to preserve their own existence. It's the nature of human group self-preservation. It's the exact same drive which prompts workers to organise unions, to fight for contracts, and conserve, or protect the gains they win.
The challenge for progressives, however, is to remember that unions were created to defend the rights of workers, not the indefinite proliferation of outdated bureaucracies. Progressives fought hard in previous generations for the social programs we have today - the hardest fight was for universal healthcare, but every single one of these programs was an attempt to put a band-aid on the gaping wound that capitalism is destined to re-open in our society. If it were up to me, we'd forget about the band-aids and focus our attention on the source of the wound, but that's for another day. For as long as we insist on organising our economy along capitalistic lines, the bandages will need to be changed regularly, and if progressives insist on directing their efforts towards defending the old "band-aid" brand over any other possible innovative alternative, particularly one like a universal basic income which actually achieves their stated end-goal more faster and more efficiently... then a political re-alignment is indeed occurring in which self-identified progressives come to embody the most conservative elements of society. It's part of the reason union density continues to decline even though working conditions for workers are becoming worse. And it's part of the reason an increasing number of Union voters have been trending towards more conservative parties.