Why Not Just Mail Out Checks?

A friend writes:

Let’s suppose that the United States could get a Universal Basic Income, but it had to trade a bunch of stuff for it. What would be important to keep after a UBI?

Obviously, various income support could right out the door (food stamps, unemployment insurance). But would we be willing to trade labor regulations (minimum wage, union laws)? Public schools? Medicare? Curious as to your thoughts.

This sort of choice comes up all the time these days. Of course in practice it’s a false choice: They take our parks and public insurance, and never send out those UBI checks. Or occasionally, as in New York, they give us our universal pre-K and parks and bike lanes, and we don’t have to give up our meager income-support checks to get them.

Still, it’s an interesting question. How should we answer it?

1. At least for an important current on the left, the goal isn’t to distribute commodities more equally, but to liberate human life from the logic of the market. Or, a society that maximizes positive freedom and the development of people’s capacities, as opposed to one that maximizes consumption of goods. From that point of view, diminishing the scope of the market — incremental decommodification, as Naomi Klein used to say — is the important thing, so we’d always reject this kind of trade. (Assuming it’s on more or less “even” terms.)

2. Setting that aside. Shouldn’t we have a presumption that the goods that are currently publicly supplied are subject to some kind of market failure? Presumably there’s some reason why many governments provide insurance against old age and health costs, housing, education, police and fire services, and very few governments provide clothing or restaurant meals. Of course one wouldn’t want to say the current mix of public-private provision is ideal. But one wouldn’t want to say it carries no information, either.

3. There’s a genuine value in institutions that pursue a public purpose, rather than profit. We can debate whether hospitals should be public, nonprofit or even private at the level of management, but presumably in the operating room we want our doctor thinking about what’s most likely to make this surgery successful and not what’s most likely to make him money. (And we don’t think reputation costs are enough to guarantee those motives coincide — so back to market failures as above.) In the same category, and close to many of our hearts, are professors and other teachers, who teach better when they’re focused on just that, and not worrying about their paycheck.

4. Related to (3), how do we manage a system in which the public sector is disappearing? Seems to me the logical outcome of the UBI-and-let-markets-do-the-rest approach is stuff like this. Either you agree that intrinsic motivation is important, in which case you have to honestly ask in each particular case whether self-interest adds more than it detracts. Or you deny it, but then you’re left with the problem of how to you assure the honesty of the people sending out the checks. (Not to mention all the zillion commercial transactions that happen every day.) DeLong somewhere calls neoliberalism a counsel of despair, which makes sense only once you’ve given up on the capacity of the state. But without minimal state capacity even neoliberalism doesn’t work. If the nightwatchman won’t do what’s right because it is right, you can’t have markets either. Better pledge yourself to a feudal lord. And if the nightwatchman will, then why not the doctor, teacher, etc.?

5. How confident are we that unfettered markets plus UBI is politically sustainable? Being a worker expecting a certain wage gives you some social power. Being a participant in a public institution gives you, arguably, some social power, an identity, it helps solve the collective action problem of the poor. (Which is the big problem in all of this.) But receiving your UBI check doesn’t give you any power, any capacity to disrupt, it doesn’t give you a sense of collective identity, it doesn’t form a basis of collective action. My hypothesis is that the parents at the local public school are more able to act together — they have the PTA, to begin with — than the same number of voucher recipients are.