The Corner

Two Bad Arguments Against a Universal Basic Income

Eduardo Porter takes up the idea of a “universal basic income,” which would have the government send checks of, say, $10,000 to everyone. He’s against it, and makes some good points in response to it: It’s expensive, and it would create a “non-negligible disincentive to work.” This passage, though, seems off:

[R]eplacing everything in the safety net with a check [as the libertarian variant of the proposal would do] would limit the scope of government assistance in damaging ways. Say we know the choice of neighborhood makes a difference to the development of poor children. Housing vouchers might lead them to move into a better one. A monthly check would probably not.

And those who think a universal benefit would be more politically resilient than a means-tested one might stop to ponder the unceasing chatter about trimming Social Security.

The first argument presumes a great deal of knowledge. For it to be persuasive, we would have to know not just that neighborhoods make a difference, but that a housing voucher would lead to significantly better outcomes for poor children than just giving their parents cash. If a UBI really did keep the government from undertaking more fine-grained interventions based on what it thinks it knows at this moment — as in Porter’s premise — that would be an advantage of the policy.

The second argument contains its own refutation. All Porter alleges is that there has been “unceasing chatter about trimming Social Security.” Actually, what you hear “unceasing chatter” about is trimming the growth of benefit levels, and the chatter never ceases because it never becomes anything more than that. The program is indeed politically resilient. If you wanted to use Social Security to argue against a universal basic income, you would be better off flipping Porter’s argument: Political pressures could cause the level of that income to be set to grow on auto-pilot in a way we can’t afford, and then make it impossible to reform.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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