Why a Universal Basic Income Would Be a Calamity
Leading voices in the tech industry—from Mark Zuckerberg to Sam Altman —are warning that increased automation risks leaving an unprecedented number of Americans permanently unemployed. In response, many concerned Silicon Valley luminaries have called for a universal basic income, or UBI. Guaranteed income from the government may seem like the easiest way to address long-term unemployment, but UBI fixes only the narrowest and most quantifiable problem joblessness causes: lack of a reliable income. It completely ignores, and may exacerbate, the larger complications of mass unemployment.
Finland has been testing a basic income for 2,000 of its unemployed citizens since January, and UBI proponents say the Nordic country is providing an example for the U.S. It will be interesting to see the Finnish results, but Americans shouldn’t read too much into the outcome of a small-scale, early-stage trial. Look instead to Saudi Arabia, which for decades has attempted the wholesale replacement of work with government subsidies. Perhaps more than half of all Saudis are unemployed and not seeking work. They live off payments funded by the country’s oil wealth.
And what has Saudi Arabia’s de facto UBI created? A population deeply resistant to work. Efforts by the Saudi government to diversify the economy have been hamstrung by the difficulty of getting Saudis to trade in their free income willingly for paid labor. Regular citizens lack dignity while the royal family lives a life of luxury. The technocratic elite has embraced relatively liberal values at odds with much of the society’s conservatism. These divisions have made the country a fertile recruiting ground for extremists.
It’s true that Saudi Arabia has a host of other social problems. For one, it is ruled by a hereditary monarchy and a strictly enforced set of religious laws. Yet the widespread economic disempowerment of its population has made it that much harder for the kingdom to address its other issues. Don’t expect the U.S. to fare any better if divided into “productive” and “unproductive” classes.
At the heart of a functioning democratic society is a social contract built on the independence and equality of individuals. Casually accepting the mass unemployment of a large part of the country and viewing those people as burdens would undermine this social contract, as millions of Americans become dependent on the government and the taxpaying elite. It would also create a structural division of society that would destroy any pretense of equality.
UBI supporters would counter that their system would free people to pursue self-improvement and to take risks. America’s experience over the past couple of decades suggests that the opposite is more likely. Labor Department data show that at the end of June the U.S. had 6.2 million vacant jobs. Millions of skilled manufacturing and cybersecurity jobs will go unfilled in the coming years.
This problem stems from a lack of skilled workers. While better retraining programs are necessary, too many of the unemployed, or underemployed, lack the motivation to learn new skills. Increasingly, young unemployed men are perfectly content to stay at home playing videogames.
UBI would also weaken American democracy. How long before the well-educated, technocratic elites come to believe the unemployed underclass should no longer have the right to vote? Will the “useless class” react with gratitude for the handout and admiration for the increasingly divergent culture and values of the “productive class”? If Donald Trump’s election, and the elites’ reactions, are any indication, the opposite is likelier.
Rapid technological advancement is already presenting American workers with unprecedented difficulties. Facing this challenge is going to require creative approaches from the government and the private economy. UBI is a noble attempt. Perhaps it could work as only a supplement to earned income. But as currently envisioned, UBI addresses the material needs of citizens while undermining their aspirations.
In the same Harvard commencement speech in which Mr. Zuckerberg called for a basic income, he also spent significant time talking about the need for purpose. But purpose can’t be manufactured, nor can it be given out alongside a government subsidy. It comes from having deep-seated responsibility—to yourself, your family and society as a whole.
Silicon Valley’s leading innovators should understand this better than anybody. In an era when civic participation in all forms is falling, employment is for many the last great equalizer. It is worth preserving.
Mr. Nidess is a writer in San Francisco.
Appeared in the August 11, 2017, print edition.