A Bad Argument for the Universal Basic Income

Matt Zwolinski has a piece at the Washington Post where he argues for a universal basic income (cash income given out annually to every person) on the basis that our welfare system is insulting to the poor. This is an argument that has been picking up steam in the libertarian camp, but it has one obvious defect: you don't need a universal basic income to create a welfare system that isn't insulting to the poor.

In Zwolinski's piece, he notes that we give poor people food stamps (SNAP), which are limited vouchers that can only be used to buy certain foods, generally only unprepared foods. This insults the poor because it tells them they must buy food instead of what they decide they need. It's a gesture that says poor people cannot be trusted to spend money to meet their needs; we must force them to spend on selected items.

He also notes that TANF comes with strange work requirements that rather grotesquely say that the very poor in our society may only receive income to provide for their families (all of whom have children in this program) if they agree to do often pointless work seeking and training.

While it is true that SNAP and TANF have these problems, they don't have to have these problems. You could easily convert SNAP into a cash grant (instead of providing food vouchers loaded onto an EBT card). You could also easily remove the work requirement of TANF. At no point does this type of argument for a UBI explain why we can't just make existing welfare systems non-insulting and non-paternalistic.

Now there are decent political arguments for why we can't do that. Our society has a very negative image of those who receive little income from the market, and so it elects politicians that want to do a variety of cruel and heavy-handed things to poor people like list their names publicly to shame them, force them to submit to drug tests, or only let them pull out tiny trickles of money every day (requiring them to go the ATM every single day and incur the related transaction costs). But if the reason we do this is because our society hates the poor, then obviously that same society is not going to want a universal basic income.

So, this argument walks itself into a self-defeating situation. If society and the political power structure wants to deliver welfare benefits in a humane way that respects the dignity of poor people, then it can do that by simply changing the welfare benefits we have now to conform to that goal. It doesn't need a UBI. If, on the other hand, the society and political power structure does not want to deliver welfare benefits in a respectful way, then it clearly won't go for a UBI.

Because a UBI is not the only way to deliver welfare benefits in a decent manner, the argument that we need to switch to a UBI to do so just doesn't actually do any work in favor of the UBI over other (decent) welfare systems. That's not to say there are no good arguments for a UBI, just that this is not one of them.