Why doesn’t the left push a universal basic income?
The value of these numbers is easy to overestimate. Liberals point out that the lost jobs number amounts to only a 0.3 percent decrease in employment – a rounding error, essentially. But by the same taken, lifting 900,000 people out of poverty – when, according to the 2010 US census, 46.2 million Americans currently live in poverty – comes out to only about a 2% decrease. That’s hardly inspiring stuff.
What these debates really show is a lack of imagination on the behalf of the American left. Most liberals would certainly prefer to debate a much-expanded social safety net over something as small ball as a minimum wage hike. Most tend to think of Obamacare as a messy compromise, far from the nirvana of single payer or a public option. Yet these options are obviously off the table and the minimum wage hike is the best they can think of.
This need not be the case. It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where, instead of arguing for a minimum wage hike, progressives pushed the idea of a universal basic income. Where a minimum wage hike would impose costs on businesses directly, a universal basic income would do no such thing. Rather, it would enable businesses to offer minimum wage jobs, safe in the knowledge that, if people at the bottom of the income distribution needed help, the government would be there to pick up the slack.
Moreover, if accused of being radicals, supporters could argue the UBI is actually an idea that has been supported by the likes of Milton Friedman, albeit under the name of a “negative income tax.” Some liberals who wanted to distance themselves from Obamacare could even argue that Obamacare’s subsidies should be folded into the UBI, rather than being kept as part of an unpopular law. One doesn’t have to agree with any of these arguments to see how easy they are to make from a liberal perspective.
Yet no one on the left is seriously entertaining this proposal; at least, not publicly. Instead, we get Obamacare and the aforementioned minimum wage hike, which clearly are meant to bring Americans closer to the standard of living that such a proposal would provide. But why shouldn’t they actually make the proposal? Conservatives have proposed imitating the health-care systems of Singapore and Sweden. Surely resurrecting a McGovern-era idea shouldn’t be a bridge too far for the left?
Instead, the idea sits on the backburner among liberals and bleeding heart libertarians. This is a shame because, even to conservatives and libertarians who oppose welfare statism, it is surely preferable to hear liberals arguing for ideas that stand a chance of doing something for the poor and unemployed, rather than merely nibbling at the margins.