There’s an old economic saw that goes: If you pay a couch potato to sit on his ass, he’ll keep his rear-end parked firmly in front of the TV.
OK, so maybe the proverb didn’t mention slothfulness and prat. The more well-known version concerns fish and pedagogy. But I think the lesson needs an update in light of an increasingly popular welfare ruse.
In the pages of the Wall Street Journal, social theorist Charles Murray proposes the ultimate form of the dole: a guaranteed income for all adult Americans. “The UBI [universal basic income] is an idea whose time has finally come, but it has to be done right,” he writes. How does one give away loads of free money “right,” you ask? By eliminating the entire welfare state, including Social Security and Medicare. Rather than have the less-well-off jump through bureaucratic hurdles trying to get food stamps, Medicaid, section 8 housing, and Obamaphones, just cut them a check and cut out the middleman.
“Under my UBI plan,” Murray notes, “the entire bureaucratic apparatus of government social workers would disappear, but Americans would still possess their historic sympathy and social concern.” The concern would be replaced with a faceless monthly bank deposit, presumably debited on the “1st of tha Month.”
Murray is an adept social thinker but his grab-bag of easy cash is not an original idea. Economists, from libertarian Milton Friedman to liberal John Kenneth Galbraith, have proposed a universal basic income. Martin Luther King, Jr., also favored the redistributive scheme. Even artificial intelligence expert Jeremy Howard agrees with the concept. The idea of paying people a minimum income to both keep them fed and out of trouble actually dates back to the Renaissance Era.
But like bloodletting, the universal basic income is a bad means to get to a noble end. So why the persistent effort to make it a reality?
As libertarians are wont to do, Murray mistakes theory for good policy. Sure, eliminating the entirety of the U.S.’s bloated welfare machinery and replacing it with an automatic payment system would be fiscally smart. The less bureaucratic turds sitting at desks all day the better. The problem is, the federal welfare apparatus isn’t going anywhere. Does Murray really think Social Security can just be unfurled overnight? The program has been collecting data and dispensing checks for over 75 years. How about Medicare/Medicaid and the half-century our health care system spent adapting to the entitlement?
If Murray thinks the litany of special interests centered around our paternalistic leviathan will stand down for a cheap-and-easy money transfer, he needs to get his nose out of the Hayek.
If a guaranteed universal income ever becomes law – and given the excitement behind the Bernie Sanders campaign this year, it’s not impossible – it will supplement that current welfare state, ballooning the federal deficit even more than its current ungodly sum. The fiscal motivation behind the plan will be lost.
Putting aside dollars and cents, the case for a guaranteed income is still weak, even from a right-wing view. Progressives use welfare as a way of bribing potential voters. Since the government dole is synonymous with liberalism, it won’t matter who is responsible for enacting a new entitlement. Even if Republicans were to pass a basic income guarantee, the Democrats would reap the electoral benefits. Every single Dem, from Burlington to Walla Walla, would campaign on extending the benefits indefinitely, forever guaranteeing liberal rule.
The electoral stupidity behind enacting a guaranteed minimum income is plain enough. But the morality of the entitlement can’t be forgotten. At a time when 43% of unemployed Americans have given up looking for work, incentivizing them to say off the job market creates a permanent underclass. Why labor when Uncle Sam is paying the bills?
The real danger behind the guaranteed income proposal is in the society it would help create: A more stratified and polarized populace based on class. Murray isn’t totally off the mark when he notes that the labor market is going through a fundamental change. Technological innovation will render what are seen as normal jobs obsolete. Vehicle operation, manufacturing, and number crunching all stand to be wiped away with advances in artificial intelligence. Murray writes “it will need to be possible, within a few decades, for a life well lived in the U.S. not to involve a job as traditionally defined.”
In his book Average is Over, economist Tyler Cowen presents a dystopian view of America’s future as technology becomes more and more pervasive. As robots replace workers, those who lack the cognitive skills to make it in the digital economy will be left behind with little to do. Cowen predicts we’ll soon be living in “two nations, a fantastically successful nation, working in the technologically dynamic sectors, and everyone else.”
Murray thinks a guaranteed income will help buffer some of the harm done by technology’s creative destruction. That may very well be true, but the unintended consequence remains the same: We pay to subsidize the lifestyle of indolent slobs.
Don’t get me wrong, the motivation behind the universal income policy is pretty good. As you age, you become more familiar with all of life’s unique hardships. I’ve made my peace with the welfare state, and don’t see keeping the old and destitute from having to survive on cat food as cryptic tyranny. The problem is, government assistance has the unholy quality of overstretching itself into bankruptcy. Making sure grandma isn’t on the street is one thing. It’s another to bankrupt the nation for the sake of the aging population.
I’m sure Charles Murray means well with his guaranteed income proposal. But we already have a ton of welfare programs on the national, state, and local level. The goal should be to roll these back as much as possible before crafting a brand new ploy to disburse tax dollars. The principle should remain the same: Don’t give people a handout unless they absolutely need it. Like Ecclesiastes warned, “By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through.”
And if we’re still worried about layabouts having nothing to do when AI takes over, I hear mandatory work camps do wonders in shaping a productive ethic. Hey, it beats paying leeches like Lazy Lucy to sit at home smoking grass all day.