The Universal Basic Income: Another Tool for Disciplining the Poor
The Universal Basic Income: Another Tool for Disciplining the Poor

On both sides of the argument over the efficacy of the Universal Basic Income (UBI), there is the claim that the UBI might encourage unemployment. The critics of UBI claim this is a defect, but the Left often argues that employment is not the only value we should have, and that a universal net will encourage people to pursue their own ends, rather than have their life consumed by a job that might not foster such individuality. While I am sympathetic with the Left’s claimed desire for a sort of autonomy-expanding benefit to a universal basic income, I think we have good reason to doubt that such a state of affairs is possible or that the Left in this country is genuinely interested in the free expression that would result from such a state of affairs.

Over at the “Bleeding Heart Libertarian,” Jacob T. Levy’s entry, “A worry about the basic income,” proposes that while the unconditionality of a basic income might be promising in theory, there are serious worries as to a basic income remaining universal for long. He quotes Don Boudreaux to begin, “That policy might well be better than what we currently have, but I fear that the chances are high that we would soon hear – not long after its implementation – cries such as “You are hypocritical to object to government policy X because government is the root source of your income. Because government guarantees each of us an annual income of at least $10,000, our prosperity and well-being and civil peace spring from this policy. As such none of us has any right, or strong grounds on which to stand, to engage in civil disobedience or even to oppose government regulation.”

Boudreaux’s worry is apt. The history of modern government welfare stems from 19th century German chancellor Otto Van Bismarck, who stated that welfare was a way to bribe and distract the working class. Indeed, even the more benevolent advocates of the German welfare state admitted that the program was meant to be paternalistic, so that a state had control of a worker’s life. Those who became dependent on the state would be necessitated to obey its commands as Frederic Howe explained, “The state has its finger on the pulse of the worker from the cradle to the grave. His education, his health, and his working efficiency are matters of constant concern. He is carefully protected from accident by laws and regulation governing factories. He is trained in his hand and in his brain to be a good workman.”

Not much has changed in the justification for the welfare state or how it is used. American intellectuals took the ideas of Bismarck and over the 20th century transformed America into a vast welfare state. Thaddeus Russell notes that one of the founding documents of today’s welfare state, “The Other America” is highly paternalistic. The author, Michael Harrington, claims that the poor are naturally dependent on their betters, the wealthy.

As will happen, the culture of the elites trickled down into the American subconscious. Today, Americans exist in a reactionary craze over those who, for a plethora of reasons, do not work. This can be unfortunately be seen quite well even among the working class, who rightfully believe they have been overworked and are resentful towards those who can successfully avoid such toil. Levy points out that even when conditions for welfare have no foreseeable economic benefits to anyone, Americans will still demand that discipline be implemented in such programs. Simply put, after working 8-16 hour days, you do not want to be informed that your neighbor sat at home and smoked weed. Why should they, who are not disciplined enough to work, get to enjoy themselves?

As much as some leftists claim that they want autonomy for the poor, people are naturally skeptical of those who they strictly associate with unemployment or shiftlessness. I will here posit a possible explanation for why: people are averse to being ripped off. As a result, a basic income or any other welfare program will inevitably lead to the disciplining nature of being treated as a ward of the State. Libertarians should stop entertaining new schemes for using the violent arm of the state to create social stability. Society is not stable and caging it will not sedate its members.

Leftists are right to point out that employment can be restraining of autonomy, of individual creative action. However, they often ignore that their own worldviews are rarely respecting of autonomy themselves. The Progressive Left rightly knew that control of the poor was necessary in order to maintain societal order. If the poor become too free, too distanced from the prevailing culture of work, discipline and promoting the “social good,” the Progressive path of our culture is in trouble. The point of all welfare schemes is not to allow the individual to flourish for himself, but for the collective to be carefully cultivated for the State’s interests.

We must begin focusing on the liberation of mutual aid if we truly want the end of careerism, of working for the purposes of others through our most vibrant and alive years. Local organizing by lodges and fraternities was the norm in America and England before the Bismarckian ideal of welfare became the enforced norm.

Ryan Calhoun is a C4SS Contributing writer and a Philosophy student and activist at the University at Buffalo.

Republished from Center for a Stateless Society under Creative Commons license 3.0.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Epoch Times.

  • Michael678

    *US Capitalism* requires that there be not just unemployment but that the unemployed be unhappy. I say so for three reasons:

    1. Capitalism requires an excess supply of labor in order to bid down
    wage growth and industrial militancy. When Norman Lamont said
    unemployment was a “price well worth paying” to get wage inflation down,
    he was just blurting out the truth seen by Kalecki 50 years earlier –
    that “unemployment is an integral part of the ‘normal’ capitalist

    2. Capitalism needs the unemployed to look for work – to be an effective
    supply of labor. This requires that they be “incentivized” to seek jobs
    by meager unemployment benefits and by being stigmatized. In other
    words, the unemployed must be made unhappy.

    3. Blaming the unemployed for their plight serves a two-fold function in
    legitimating US capitalism. It distracts attention from the fact that
    unemployment is caused by structural failings in capitalism, sometimes
    magnified by policy error. And in promoting the cognitive bias which
    says that individuals are the makers of their own fate, it invites the
    inference that, just as the poor deserve their poverty, so the rich
    deserve their wealth.

  • godenich

    This is a good argument from a social liberal LTV point of view. For
    myself I view it as a two-part argument from a classical liberal view
    having a subjective economic liberal component and a social liberal
    component. Little is spoken of an economic liberal case:

    subjective economic liberal case may be argued for a GDP-Indexed
    Producer/Consumer Liquidity Insurance Fiscal Stabilization Policy. It
    takes the form of an insurance premium paid by employers and employees
    and an insurance payout to currently non-participating citizens in the
    economy. Broken down roughly and incompletely:

    1) indexing
    would limit spending to a percentage of GDP. It would not guarantee a
    livable wage, but may both start out and be maintained as such (like
    Switzerland or the US). It may provide an incentive for every
    individual to maximize their individual liquidity insurance payout for
    self-interest along with the additional benefits of employment. This
    self-interest may manifest itself in popular political thought and
    action by taxpaying voters (regardless of employment status) when the
    state attempts to decrease liquidity insurance payouts by:

    increasing National Debt and inflation by borrowing from Central Banks
    to spend taxpayer dollars which increase the money supply.
    decreasing GDP from the production/consumption chained cycle by raising
    taxes which impede spending by taxpaying consumers by reducing the money
    supply to the free market where it is most efficiently used to satisfy
    the preferences of consumers.
    c) increasing Government spending to
    create welfare programs for either social or economic programs unless
    they are proven to increase GDP. This encourages state participation in
    the free market which do not necessarily represent the preferences of
    d) State actions that may cause war or natural disaster.

    Maintaining a low watermark of transactions benefits both Producers
    and Consumers in the business cycle by insuring a minimum level of
    growth by virtue of increasing value through transactions in the free

    3) Risk and uncertainty is insured at a known minimum level of
    economic activity under conditions other than war, natural catastrophe
    or the perversion of self-interest that would decrease a maximal
    insurance payout from the individual’s contribution to capital
    investment in the economy.

    4) The limited role of government
    granted to it by its citizens is a fiscal stablization policy to insure a
    naturally growing economy along with the role of night watchman.
    Frankly, it may be a rather conservative economic policy for social
    liberal thought ; That is worth noting for comparative purposes to
    contemplate what is accruing now.
    An Indexed Unconditional, Universal
    Basic Income may be either neutral, opposed or in sympathy with the idea
    of monopoly capitalism, central planning and global governance when so
    considered and implemented. In any case, it may have the pleasant side
    effect of reducing or eliminating poverty. The one unfortunate
    consequence is reducing the risk in markets which leads to the thrill of
    victory and the agony of defeat, but there are other distractions no
    less enticing :)

    I would entreat wiser heads to bring the economic liberal argument forth in a more apt and thorough discourse than I am able.

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