A Progressive Rejection of Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is gaining popularity in America as the next logical economic step in a post-automation world. Touted as a way to save America’s Capitalism, it ensures that people have enough money to keep consuming while raising the quality of life for our most impoverished. UBI boasts some attractive benefits for the majority of Americans, but is it worth the cost? I argue that given the present ideologies driving UBI implementing the policy will do more harm than good.

Scratching the surface

Universal Basic Income is a form of social protection that provides an amount of money to every citizen within a population.  Money transfers occur periodically and without condition. The premise is that this method of wealth redistribution will alleviate many of the economic burdens facing so many American families.

There have been numerous studies on the impacts of cash-transfer programs that have shown positive results.  A 2007 program by New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity [1] demonstrated that small cash stipends reduced poverty and material hardship for recipients but saw those impacts decrease once the money was rescinded.   The World Bank reports [2] that it’s a myth that our poorest squander wealth transfers on wasteful activities such as increased alcohol and cigarette consumption. These studies and more [3] are pushing UBI from a fantastical idea to a legitimate policy discussion.

Visionaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and Elon Musk all have vocalized support for  UBI given the trending automation that will redefine labor as we know it. Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang is making UBI a significant focus of his campaign, saying “UBI is necessary for the continuation of capitalism through the automation wave and displacement of workers.”  

How do we even begin to structure an argument against a program that demonstrates positive, data-driven results and is supported by some of the greatest minds of past and present?   It all starts with why.

Understanding Intention

The purpose of all proposals of Universal Basic Income is to increase the access and agency of every individual operating within a capitalist system.  The core argument is that as the nature of work continues to change so will the necessity for higher levels of economic distribution, typically funded by new taxation models such as a Value-Added Tax.  UBI is in many respects a recognition of a new human right. A fundamental requirement for every individual to function within our world today.

Here we identify the first problem with UBI as it exists presently.  Is Universal Basic Income a human right or is it an attempt to attenuate the inequalities created by capitalism?  

If we believe UBI is a human right, then we should be approaching the implementation in the form of Constitutional Arrangements, not economic policy.  We would want to ensure that a standard of living is codified into our most sacred laws, preventing present and future politicians from meddling with the ideal.  Funding could occur from a variety of sources, but each solution would ensure that decisions regarding the implementation and collection of those funds would be in the hands of society.   Universal Basic Income as a human right would lend itself to the restructuring of present arrangements. This is not what is being suggested by most proponents today.

If Universal Basic Income is a means to address inequity created by current structure than it does nothing to create agency for its recipients, a UBI funded by tax and transfer would calcify poverty and class structure within the U.S. even more than the present arrangements.  Accepting that the solution to the hyper-concentration of wealth is a small stipend for the masses is a choice to perpetuate class structure and division. Remember that Universal Basic Income is being proposed as a solution to the future impact automation will have on labor.  It does nothing to address the ownership of said automation, only focusing on ensuring that the vast majority receive a minor kick-back.

A Universal Basic Income focused on economics is a system that appeases the individual by providing just enough to survive while denying them the opportunity to transform their situation in a meaningful way.

Image by Mike Ramsey

Belittlement or Bigness?

When we think about the transformation of individual agency through a suite of social protections, we must ask ourselves if our actions are complimenting structural change or merely substituting one inferior arrangement for another.   Exploring implementing an entitlement like Universal Basic Income must begin with the question of what direction is this leading us?

We understand that most popular and dominant ideas in society today do more to reinforce existing arrangements than they do to support institutional reformation.  When we frame UBI as the savior to our present form of single-market Capitalism we unwittingly submit to the past’s dominance of the present. If UBI is not accompanied by structural alternatives to codify the raising of the human condition, then we must see it for what it is, more of the same under a different name.

As someone who supports a suite of vital protections for every person, it seems counter-intuitive to argue against a wealth redistribution model that would generate immediate benefits for so many.  But, if our shared objective is the raising of the human condition, then we cannot settle for economic policies that would appease the burden of a structure that places 99% of the wealth and power in the hands of 1% of the population.
Together we must reject belittlement under the guise of support, focusing instead on the rearranging of institutions that generate the very inequities we seek to address.


[1] Conditional Cash Transfers in New York City by  James A. Riccio, Nadine Dechausay, Cynthia Miller, Stephen Nuñez, Nandita Verma, Edith Yang MDRC.org https://www.mdrc.org/publication/conditional-cash-transfers-new-york-city

[2] Do the Poor Waste Transfers on Booze and Cigarettes? No  by David Evans & Anna Popova http://blogs.worldbank.org/impactevaluations/do-poor-waste-transfers-booze-and-cigarettes-no

[3] Basic Income Earth Network https://basicincome.org/research/


Ron is the Founder and Executive Director of the OurSociety Experiment.  He’s passionate about shifting our social, political, and economic institutions towards a system that maximizes agency and access for every individual.