A different argument against Universal Basic Income

post by chaosmage · 2016-12-28T22:35:31.696Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 7 comments

I grew up in socialist East Germany. Like most of my fellow citizens, I was not permitted to leave the country. But there was an important exception: People could leave after retirement. Why? Because that meant their forfeited their retirement benefits. Once you took more from the state than you gave, you were finally allowed to leave. West Germany would generously take you in. My family lived near the main exit checkpoint for a while and there was a long line of old people most days.

And then there is Saudi Arabia and other rentier states. Rentier states(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rentier_state) derive most of their income not from their population. The population gets a lot more wealth from the state than the state gets from the population. States like Saudi Arabia are therefore relatively independent of their population's consent with policy. A citizen who is unhappy is welcome to leave, or to retreat to their private sphere and live off benefits while keeping their mouth shut - neither of these options incurs a significant cost for the state.

I think these facts are instructive in thinking about Universal Basic Income. I want to make a point that I haven't seen made in discussions of the matter.

Most political systems (not just democracies) are built on an assumption that the state needs its citizens. This assumption is always a bit wrong - for example, no state has much need of the terminally ill, except to signal to its citizens that it cares for all of them. In the cases of East Germany and Saudi Arabia, this assumption is more wrong. And Universal Basic Income makes it more wrong as well.

From the point of view of a state, there are citizens who are more valuable (or who help in competition with other states) and ones who are more of a burden (who make competing with other states more difficult). Universal Basic Income massively broadens the part of society that is a net loss to the state.

Now obviously technological unemployment is likely to do that anyway. But there's a difference between answers to that problem that divide up the available work between the members of society and answers that divide up society into contributors and noncontributors. My intuition is that UBI is the second kind of solution, because states will be incentivized to treat contributors differently from noncontributors. The examples are to illustrate that a state can behave very differently towards citizens if it is fundamentally not interested in retaining them.

I go along with Harari's suggestion that the biggest purely political problem of the 21st century is the integration of the economically unnecessary parts of the population into society. My worry is that UBI, while helping with immediate economic needs, makes that problem worse in the long run. Others have already pointed out problems with UBI (such as that in a democracy it'll be impossible to get rid of if it is a failure) that gradual approaches like lower retirement age, later entry into the workforce and less work per week don't have. But I reckon that behind the immediate problems with UBI such as the amount of funding it needs and the question of what it does to the motivation to work, there's a whole class of problems that arise out of the changed relationships between citizens, states and economies. With complex networks of individuals and institutions responding intelligently to the changed circumstances, a state inviting its citizens to emigrate may not be the weirdest of unforeseen consequences.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2016-12-29T18:19:56.902Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's my understanding that in a democracy, the criteria for how various groups of people are treated isn't so much "are these people economically useful for the state", but rather "how much voting power do these people have and use" (the democracy parts of The Rulers for Rulers are relevant here). For instance, as the linked video notes, countries where the vote of the farming block swings elections tend to have large farming subsidies, even though this pretty much means that the farmers need the state financially and not the other way around.

It seems plausible to me that UBI could even make its recipients more politically influential: I used to have some involvement with Finnish politics, and heard that the various political parties rely a lot on pensioners as their volunteers, since pensioners have a lot of spare time that they can use on politics. This would suggest that interventions such as the UBI that may give its beneficiaries more free time, increase the chances of those beneficiaries participating in the political system and thus being taken more into account in decision-making.

Replies from: hg00
comment by hg00 · 2016-12-31T10:02:15.848Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is similar to the current situation, where being unemployed means you have a lot of time to post on the internet and influence elections.

comment by satt · 2016-12-29T19:50:40.282Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The title primed me to upvote the OP, because I think novel, potentially overlooked arguments against promising policies are valuable. However, reading the post from start to finish, I don't think the core critique is communicated clearly. It seems to go from

  1. the UBI making the "assumption that the state needs its citizens" "more wrong", to

  2. the UBI intensifying the divide between "contributors and noncontributors", to

  3. the UBI worsening, "in the long run", the difficulties of integrating "the economically unnecessary parts of the population into society", to, in the end

  4. the UBI triggering "unforeseen consequences", "a whole class of problems that arise out of the changed relationships between citizens, states and economies"

and these four critiques are not the same, and not interchangeable. Moreover, the point where the post ends up (critique 4) is not novel or different to those I've seen before. It's the generic warning of unintended consequences that gets levelled against every public policy proposal ever, basic income included.

While I'm here, I'm uneasy with the handling of the side points as well. Paragraph 2 conflates Saudi Arabia's population with its citizenry, and these aren't the same thing. Yes, that sounds like pedantry, and for a lot of countries it would be pedantry, but Saudi Arabia might be literally the worst big country for which to elide the population-citizenry distinction. And the treatment of existing UBI critiques in the last paragraph is unduly generous. The claim that a UBI would "be impossible to get rid of if it is a failure" is very strong, and the notion that a UBI is mutually exclusive of "gradual approaches" puzzles me, since a UBI could certainly be introduced gradually (whether by gradually increasing the UBI allowance from zero, or by introducing the "U" in "UBI" slowly by incrementally expanding the range of people included).

I haven't downvoted the post either, because I do like the idea of using Discussion as a forum for polishing half-baked arguments about topics popular on LW, and don't (at the moment) want to discourage that activity.

comment by morganism · 2017-10-11T08:40:44.421Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Universal Basic Income and the Threat of Tyranny


"The World Bank gives us a list of countries ordered by what percentage of their merchandise exports comes from fuels. At 50% or more we find, in this order: Iraq, Angola, Algeria, Brunei, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Oman, Norway, Colombia, Bolivia and Bahrain. Can we notice a trend? How many of these countries provide a good set of political rights for their citizens?"

" A country that generates its wealth from its citizens has no choice but to keep those citizens happy, at least to some degree; a country that generates its wealth from oil wells, only needs to keep a handful of mercenaries happy as they guard the access to those wells."

comment by honeybadger · 2017-01-03T13:39:23.678Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Society where a majority requires UBI to live is going to be a perfect situation for any state - this means that the majority knows that without the state, it gets nothing. Soon, they are going to start hating the productive minority. Tax the productive guy maximum he can bear, give part of that to the masses, keep part for yourself. No democratic change possible because the majority needs UBI and would kill to keep it. No popular revolution either.

It's not that unlike the current welfare state model, just taken to its logical conclusion. One of the problems of the welfare state - from the government's perspective - is that many people see eg. public pensions and money from make-work as something they earned, rather than something that they get from the state, which makes it much harder to vilify the actual producers.

Replies from: chaosmage, gjm
comment by chaosmage · 2017-01-03T18:53:18.346Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Germany's welfare state has unlimited unemployment benefits that are actually a lot like a UBI. It is basically 400 Euros plus rent for a cheap place. There's a lot of nagging and hoops to jump through from the agency that gives you the money, but as long as you do those you never need to work.

And still, Germany's unemployment rate is 4,2% right now, the US unemployment rate is 4,9%. How do you explain that?

comment by gjm · 2017-01-03T17:45:42.789Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Society where a majority requires UBI to live

Setting aside various other implausibilities in your comment, I remark that what does the work here is not a majority getting UBI but a majority having no other way to live. In other words, assuming you to be right about everything else, what a state would need to do to get into this allegedly delightful condition is not to provide UBI to its citizens but to deprive its citizens of any other way of getting the necessities of life.