Some Thoughts on Universal Basic Income

People who oppose redistribution from the rich to the poor generally give two types of arguments against it. Perhaps the more obvious argument comes from a natural rights perspective – the person who created the wealth has a right to do whatever they want with it. However, if you don’t believe in free will (as I don’t), then this reasoning doesn’t make much sense. If you weren’t truly responsible for the circumstances that led you to create the wealth in the first place, why should you get to keep all of it? Shouldn’t some of it go to all of the people that had any influence on getting you to that position?

The stronger argument derives from incentives. Taking from the productive to give to the unproductive makes being unproductive far more attractive and we end up with a society where perfectly capable people choose not to work because they expect others to support them. Any attempt to solve poverty needs to deal with this issue, which makes designing anti-poverty measures difficult.

Our current welfare system has some checks in place that attempt to circumvent incentive problems, but it doesn’t solve them completely. Many of our current welfare programs involve cutoff levels where benefits begin to be reduced and eventually disappear altogether. This type of program introduces an implicit marginal tax on low income earners. Not only do they have to pay a higher official tax rate as their income rises, but they also lose some of the benefits they received at a lower income.

A simple way around this problem is to never phase out those benefits – to give them to everyone. This idea forms the backbone of the Universal Basic Income (UBI). One of the most complete proposals for a UBI comes from Charles Murray (yes, the same Charles Murray who gets kicked off college campuses because of his dangerous right wing ideas). In his version (laid out in his book In Our Hands), each American over the age of 21 would receive $13,000 per year in benefits unconditionally. Of this money, $3,000 has to be spent on health insurance, but the rest comes with no strings attached.

Of course, such a plan would be incredibly expensive. However, as Murray points out, our current system is already expensive. According to his calculations, if we eliminated our entire welfare system (including Social Security and Medicare), we could more than pay for the UBI. Getting rid of these programs would be difficult politically, but Murray offers several reasons why doing so would be desirable for almost everyone. Most notably, he estimates that poverty would be all but eliminated under his program vs the approximately 15% that remains under our own system.

Murray’s justification for some level of redistribution is similar to my own:

Inequality of wealth grounded in unequal abilities is different. For most of us, the luck of the draw cuts several ways: one person is not handsome, but is smart; another is not as smart, but is industrious; and still another is not as industrious, but is charming. This kind of inequality of human capital is enriching, making life more interesting for everyone. But some portion of the population gets the short end of the stick on several dimensions. As the number of dimensions grows, so does the punishment for being unlucky. When a society tries to redistribute the goods of life to compensate the most unlucky, its heart is in the right place, however badly the thing has worked out in practice
Charles Murray (2016) – In Our Hands

If we accept that some redistribution is desirable, a UBI seems like a more efficient way to carry it out than our current welfare setup. One common argument against the UBI is that it doesn’t make sense to waste resources on the rich. Bryan Caplan has given some arguments along these lines and argues that phasing benefits out gradually would avoid the implicit marginal tax rate problems without needing to give benefits to everyone. And it makes sense. If our goal is to eliminate poverty why not focus our efforts there?

But I don’t think that argument really works when you consider that a UBI is inextricably linked to the tax system. A UBI doesn’t look so universal after you consider that the rich are going to be paying for almost all of it. Everyone might get a check for $13,000, but top income earners pay far more than that in taxes. Their net benefit from government programs would still be strongly negative even after receiving the UBI. Depending on your perspective towards redistribution, this feature could actually be a negative, but given that redistribution is going to happen anyway, the UBI seems like a more efficient way of actually doing it.

It’s obviously not without fault, but I do think a UBI would be an improvement over our current system and I definitely recommend reading Murray’s book (it’s not that long) to anyone who wants to help the poor but believes we can do better than we do now.