One of my lesser objections to the Universal Basic Income (UBI) past the issues I’ve already mentioned is the fact that the UBI is universal and thus gets applied to people regardless of their income level. This seems obviously unfair because why should folks like Bill Gates get the $1000 amount in a month when he clearly doesn’t need it? Say what you want about means-testing welfare programs, but at least they’re not giving to Bill Gates anytime soon.
Santens response to this is…interesting. Basically he uses an analogy to explain how the current system works and how a UBI system would work. I’m not entirely convinced this analogy is accurate on either fronts but I’m also not totally not sold it’d work any differently. To be honest, I found his analogy an unhelpful way to navigate this particular query.
But let’s get into it:
Imagine you enter a room full of 1,000 people. You are told that water will soon be pumped into the room and those who cannot swim will drown. You have a limited amount of time and $20,000 to determine who can’t swim, and how to prevent their imminent deaths. What is your best course of action?
For starters, this analogy is working with a much smaller amount of people than the US. So what works for 1000 people may not work as well, for say a few million. In which case, even if Santens ends up being right about this analogy or the fact that the UBI would be particularly helpful in this sort of scenario, it doesn’t tell us much about the UBI’s place in a gigantic economy like the one the US has.
But that’s fine. I’m a sucker for philosophical hypotheticals and I can respect that Santens wants to use them. Plus, I think we can still glean useful things about the UBI and it’s potential even if I’m right about the limited scope.
And to be clear, I agree with Santens by and large about the present welfare system in that it’s paternalistic, bureaucratic, a net-loss for the poor, a trap, etc. etc. So our disagreement here isn’t necessarily about the UBI being better or worse than the current state of affairs. I’m fairly confident that a UBI would be better than the current welfare system and I’ve found attempts to argue otherwise (c.f. Bryan Caplan) unpersuasive, to say the least.
But what I am arguing is that the UBI, at least as devised by liberals and other reformists of capitalism and the state is an insufficient way to get us to a better safety net. I think a better safety net should be based on solidarity, mutual aid and equality of authority, not the government. Perhaps that’s utopian or unrealistic of me, but I think it’s much less unrealistic than thinking the government is going to undermine its own bureaucracy and authority by proposing a UBI.
Here’s what Santens conceives of under the current system:
Knowing all about how our current safety net system works, you decide to interview each and every person there. To do this, you hire 100 interviewers and pay them each $50, which is a quarter of your budget, leaving you with $15,000. Each interviewer is responsible for 10 people.
I’m not sure whether this part is supposed to be a criticism of the welfare system but if so, it’s a great one.
Trying to get benefits does indeed feel like an interview (I feel like it’s even termed like that sometimes) and each of the interviewing people are highly overworked and underpaid. This exacerbates the already-existing problems in efficiency with this system by making it easy to burn out on, either from the interviewers side or the interviewees.
Everyone is asked if they can swim. Those who say they can’t swim are given lessons in how to swim using virtual reality goggles courtesy of Oculus and an additional expenditure of $3,500 for 10 DK2 headsets, which leaves you with $11,500. Some people feel they will be able to swim thanks to the lessons, but others worry they still won’t be able to swim. These people ask for life vests.
“Give a man a life vest, and he can’t drown for a day. Teach a man to swim, and he can’t drown for a lifetime,” is your response.
Makes sense, right?
Everyone can and should be forced to learn how to swim, right?
This particular examples shows how a conservative mentality is threaded throughout the current welfare system. If people aren’t forced to work then they won’t learn. And if they don’t learn then the economy will collapse and the queers will take over and basically degeneracy will reign supreme (though I hardly see the harm there).
And while not giving a life vest in the long-term makes sense, right now people are drowning and that’s the important part. The important thing isn’t what happens in 10 years at a beach somewhere in Maine, it’s important what’s going on right now and what you’re going to do to make sure that folks don’t drown. And this is why the UBI is superior to the current welfare system in this respect, it’s much more trusting, forward-thinking and less bureaucratic than the current scheme.
So full points for Gryffindor here.
Meanwhile, one of the people in the room asks for $5,000 so he can buy an Aquaflyer Jetpack. He’s already got more than enough to buy one himself, but he thinks it’s important you pay for half, because of how important he is. He promises that if you give him the money, he will use it to show people how awesome jetpacks are, so they can want one enough to build one for themselves.
This sounds like a good idea, so you hand over the cash.
Here’s a good example of the welfare state being an easy system to hijack for your own personal wealth. I’m not sure in practice how much the rich can actually use the welfare system for their own benefit (or how much I’d care) but the issue of lobbying for how the system actually works and how it distributes funds seems like a plausibly large issue.
Another person in the room says they’ve heard that terrorists from Mars are looking to blow up the room, so they need $5,000 to make the room Martian terrorist proof. You point out that the room is going to fill with water, which will most certainly kill more people than Martian terrorists ever have, but he convinces you that the danger is real and you must have a strong room if you are going to guarantee the freedom of those in it.
And here (I feel like I’m doing a slideshow of old family photos…) we have a great illustration of how state actors tend to hijack the funds supposedly set up for welfare recipients and put it towards their own ends. It’s likely that anyone who is lobbying incredibly hard for more war is also likely to profit from it in some financial way.
Still, this also seems to cut against Santens as well. Despite my agreement with him about this scenario and it’s relevance for the current system, I’m not clear on why politicians wouldn’t do something similarly harmful under a UBI system. Or why they wouldn’t try to get their rich friends in on it to benefit them over the poor. What’s changed?
Okay, let’s wrap this part of the scenario up:
Now you have $1,500 left. Water begins to fill the room. There’s panic. Some people are definitely going to die, but you have no idea who. People have been taught to virtually swim, but you don’t really know if that will work. You don’t know who has lied and who has been truthful. You don’t know who really thinks they can swim but actually can’t.
In a last ditch attempt to save lives, you buy 70 $20 life vests for $1,400 and give them to your interviewers to hand out only to those they believe absolutely can not swim, and who promise to continue their Oculus training and build their own boats out of thin air.
The remaining $100 you use to buy yourself a gun.
End Result 1: 100 people drown. Hundreds more get water in their lungs and develop pneumonia. 50 people with life vests are killed for their life vests, and hundreds more are beaten and bloodied in a frenzy of panic and rage. The guy you gave a water-propelled jetpack to gets stabbed with a pitchfork, and the guy who was afraid of Martians stands proud as a true defender of freedom in a room full of corpses.
Gosh, that got dark, huh?
I’m not saying it’s inaccurate necessarily but still.
Option 2: Universal Basic Income: You use your $20,000 to buy 1,000 life vests which are dropped from the ceiling.
Everyone grabs one…
And you’re done.
You didn’t need to hire any additional help and everyone is protected now whether they can swim or not.
This seems like a disingenuous response to a very complicated problem.
I know it’s an analogy and analogies are supposed to overly-simplify reality to make real points about how things work, but this still seems like too much for me when it comes to simplicity. In the real world, where does this one person come from who can perfectly distribute $20,000 to each individual who may or may not drown? Where does the money come from? How do we decide what type of life-vest is even the best type to begin with?
I’m autistic and it’s very much possible I’m taking this analogy too literally (I do that sometimes) but it just doesn’t seem to answer any of my questions about why the rich should get any money that the poor seem to need much more.
I guess that’s what this part is for:
As the room begins to fill with water, it becomes apparent that some people need some extra help. Some have trouble putting their vests on, but those next to them help with that. Some appear to be too heavy to be supported by just one vest, so those excellent swimmers who don’t need a vest give them theirs.
It becomes apparent that in a room filling with water and full of a thousand people who all have life vests, it’s really easy to determine who needs extra help and who doesn’t, and others actually help them all on their own. It’s almost like people who have their own safety secured are more willing to help others.
Well, sure. We know Bill Gates is a super charitable guy and that’s probably because he could pay for the futures of hundreds of people and still be cruising pretty well. But at the same time what’s $1000 going to do to substantially change that one way or another? I don’t think it’d be anything but a drop in the bucket for someone like him.
In other words, I don’t get what the UBI would do for someone like Bill Gates or the ultra-wealthy. It doesn’t seem like a particular boon to them and I don’t see how it would change how charitable (or not) they are. Also, I don’t think 1,000 people in a room are going to bond in the same way a homeless man and Bill Gates would be able to bond over within the US’s economic system, even under a UBI.
Again, I’m not saying this isn’t better than the current state of affairs, but I also think that’s an incredibly low bar.
Laughter erupts. Here people were originally worried others would choose not to put on their life vests even when given them, i.e. instead trading them for cocaine, so they laugh at how silly it was to ever think people didn’t want to actually keep living.
It’s funny to think how anyone ever thought people couldn’t just be given life vests.
I agree that’s a silly concern but also don’t think this is the major concern folks should have.
End Result 2: 0 people drown.
A few people still get water in their lungs, but only a few. No one gets beaten or stabbed with a pitchfork. People are not only alive but happier. Some are especially creative and repurpose unused life vests to together build a raft. Others start entertaining each other with stories and jokes and riddles and poems.
Now, which scenario makes more sense to you?
The UBI makes more sense and I wouldn’t argue otherwise. And if it was practical to actually make it happen and could be financially stable, I might feel more positive about it than having it clear that low bar. But given those two things and the shaky morality system that Santens has built it on, I’m not feeling super confident about its prospects.
Perhaps it makes more sense but who gets to make those adjustments? And based on what? The “adjustments” don’t appear out of thin air, they’re made by real politicians and agencies that Santens wants in power. These are people with real incentives and not all of those incentives line up neatly with, “do well for the poorest of society”.
In fact, that’s rarely how governments have operated.
What’s more efficient? All the interviewers, interview equipment, calculations, personal judgments, and spending of resources on stuff we don’t even need? Or is it more efficient to just skip all of that, and cover everyone, no questions asked?
Well, what does “efficient” mean here? Would it take less time? Maybe, that seems possible. Would it cost less money? Well in the example the money seems to be distributed more effectively but it isn’t necessarily costing anyone less. If anything the previous system, while being horribly inefficient in some ways actually saved the guy $100 so he could shoot himself. And sure, we don’t want people to shoot themselves so maybe that point is moot but hey it’s $100, right?
I can see where Santens is coming from here but not quite sure his conclusions are following, even if he was right.
If you were in this room and it was filling with water, what kind of help would you want?
If you were in this room and got a life vest along with everyone else, what would you do?
Unconditional basic income is an answer, but it’s also a series of questions. What you yourself would do with your basic income is a question we all need to ask ourselves.
For it’s when we start asking ourselves this question, we begin to really think BIG.
I’d probably stop putting myself in dis-analogous situations to real life.
Now that is thinking big!
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I’ll be RICH!
(see? I can do hacky acronyms too!)