Who Decides What’s “Basic”?


Why, it’s an idea whose time may have come, you see and hear and read over the airwaves these days. The “Universal Basic Income”. And not just from the usual suspects, the bleeding-heart communists, either. No, it’s being introduced into the parlance in all kinds of circles, from tech companies to conservative think tanks and beyond.

There are various proposals, stipulations, rationalizations, and projected manifestations of the “Basic Income” school of thought, but they all center around the government sending a check for a certain amount of money every month to every citizen within it’s borders.

Most justifications for this center around the purported “realities” of the age in which we live, with increased automation and complicated and erratic welfare and other public program costs and administrative headaches, and so on and so on. The main argument seems to be that if you give everyone in the polity a subsistence payment, you can eliminate all public assistance programs, apply those costs to this new program, and allow the individual citizen to do as he chooses with the money – for subsistence if he needs it, for investment, or presumably to squander it if he has other sources of revenue, or even if he doesn’t.

The question I ask in the title, who decides what is “basic” and how is that figure derived, aren’t discussed much in these early stages of the conversation. You will usually hear something on the order of “$1,000/month” or “$16,000/year”. And that is not per ‘family’, or ‘household’, that is per individual. Supposedly that means a month-old-baby gets a check. Since most proposals say that individual decides what to do with the money, the kid had better be a quick study, I guess. More probably, you would quickly get into the situation where the spending decisions are made by the parent/guardians like they are nowadays, and with a population boom unseen in the world, even in the China of old. The devil is always in the details, isn’t it.

The economic gurus coming on board the idea talk about the economic boom that will result because of “consumer spending” and similar Econ 101 principles. They stipulate that taxes will skyrocket, but somehow have it in their minds that with the cheap labor from robots and other automation advances, and the previously mentioned elimination of multiple welfare programs, it will all work out in the end.

Not much thought has preiminarily been given to the factor known as “human nature”.
For example, if the individual has no other means of subsistence and chooses to spend his entitlement on playing the lottery or shooting up drugs or whatever other trivial pursuits he might engage in, theoretically that’s his choice and he can starve to death, get sick and die, or rob and steal and con if he can get away with it. The question then becomes, how many of the 320 million, 340 million, 360,380, soon-to-be 760 million people will be littering the streets? Are you going to tell me that bleeding-heart liberalism will be automatically snuffed out upon passage of the Universal Basic Income?

Those and so many other questions ought to be so obvious as to practically nip all this not-so-subtle push for the “to each according to his needs” solution. But of course it won’t. And the “needs” question brings up another point (we could be here all night) –
If there is a Universal Basic Income, is there going to be a Universal Basic Rent, a Universal Basic House Price, a Universal Basic Property Tax? If the gal on the Lower East Side can’t find a job, and the lousy grand a month, won’t feed, house and clothe her, but the guy out in Bartlesville is living like a king on his, is that fair?

Or, are we to believe that “fairness”, like bleeding heart liberalism, is also going to be jettisoned, removed from the public discourse? Are you kidding me? We already have, on the right side of the aisle as well as the left, many furrowed brows on the topic of “income inequality” and how it needs to be ‘addressed’.

Finally, beside the obvious reality that not only will all of the welfare and entitlement and assistance programs NOT be jettisoned, not only will it NOT be deemed fair that the Bronx dweller only gets what the Maysville resident receives, we already have the wage war going on in this country where the demand is for $15/hour minimum wage. That is presented as a “minimum”, meaning that’s what the supporters insist is the minimum amount clerks, burger flippers, hod carriers and others need to subsist.

That’s about double what most of the talk is about right now for a “Universal Basic Income”. My question would be – what’s the difference between “basic’ and “minimum”?
Once again, the devil is in the details.

No, this thing isn’t going to happen in the very near future (I hope). But the conversation is starting to pick up. This is happening as the push for driverless cars and trucks is proceeding at an accelerated pace. Another idea whose time I believe has not yet come. My trepidation at all of this “automation’, be it “automatic socialism”, “automatic cars” or “automatic intelligence” (my substitute for ‘artificial’) is things are not always as “automatic” as they seem. People may dream, and one day things probably ARE going to be a whole lot different. But I would remind everyone that space travel, at least as far as it involves humans, was a fantasy about a hundred years ago and it still is today. We put a man on the moon in 1969, but as Neil Armstrong said, it was a small step for man. The human benefits of forays into space were many, but many were negated by the socialist central planners and the “income” redistributors.

The main thing I would like to leave you with is don’t be hornswoggled by the talk of getting rid of all the welfare programs as a tradeoff for the UBI. And don’t be fooled by the appeasement argument of “this much and no more”. Finally, the Utopian Fantasy Future has been a long time coming, hasn’t it? That’s because human fallibility is both a fault and a virtue.

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Larry Eastbay
January 13, 2018 12:35 am

Bob, my favorite author Mr Heinlein, wrote a short story covering this idea a long time ago. It was his only work that I didn’t like.
Why can’t otherwise normal people just ‘do the math’?

January 15, 2018 10:21 am

Socialism is never sustainable. As far as, “who decides” – easy, the elites decide. Peons need not apply.

Allen Ness
Allen Ness
January 16, 2018 7:00 pm

Your Automatic Intelligence was covered, in depth, by Issac Asimov in the 60’s and 70’s. He wrote several short stories and a few series of sci-fi novels about Robots and the “Three Laws of Robotics” he invented to control the robots in his stories. His “Foundation” series kind of fleshed out the entire story. Absolutely fascinating reading and, like Star Trek before it, Science Fiction of the past is fast becoming science fact of today. 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey… Read more »