A Response to the Basic Income FAQ – In Five Parts (4/5)

(Nick’s Notes: If you’re looking for the previous part click here, the first and second parts are here and here)

This post and the next one revolve around the political philosophy of anarchism.

A lot of my criticisms come from an anarchist perspective which Santens doesn’t really address in his FAQ to begin with. That’s understandable given most of the folks he talks to about the universal basic income (UBI) likely aren’t anarchists. The majority of issues folks have are likely coming from liberal perspectives, conservative ones or some mix of the two.

That said, this article and the next article are in response to the closest things that Santens says to my arguments about incentive structures within the government. I don’t find either of the responses particularly satisfying but they’re still wroth highlighting and addressing given that they come close to some concerns I have.

The first of the two is Santens article “Won’t basic income give too much power to whomever distributes it?” which hasn’t been my exact fear but it’s similar enough. My general concern is that having the government control income in the way that UBI proponents desire wouldn’t be a good idea from many angles but especially in trusting the government to distribute it in any sort of moral or effective way.

Let’s take a look at Santens counter-argument to that concern:

One of the more common responses to first hearing about the idea of a basic income guarantee, is the fear that it would give too much power to government. The thinking goes that if government is giving money to everyone, then they could threaten to discontinue doing so at any time, preventing any dissent and potentially creating an authoritarian regime where all citizens are afraid to say “No” to their government.

I just want to point out here that the government is already a largely authoritarian regimes where many citizens (especially those in marginalized communities) are afraid to say “no” to the government. This is especially the case with the militarized police presence in the US. So I suppose on the “positive” side, the UBI isn’t a necessary program for the government to implement for an authoritarian regime to be in place.

The answer to this question is as simple as looking at an existing basic income program.

Senior citizens already have their own form of basic income and it is paid by the government. It’s called Social Security. If the government decided to cancel Social Security tomorrow, this would throw millions of seniors into poverty immediately.

This seems like an implausible comparison to me as social security only acts in marginally similar ways to a UBI.

For one thing, the process of waiting until you’re in your 60s is dissimilar to what the process of a UBI would look like given that it would happen once you hit 18, if not younger. And once you actually have your Social Security (which is mainly funded by the taxation of millions of people over 50+ years) it’s not unconditional because it’s primarily happening due to your age group. And the amount is just however much you paid in, not a static amount per month and year as is with the UBI which is often at $1000 a month.

If UBI was going to be paid for upwards of 50 or so years towards folks who are working and then given to the recipient, it would defeat the universal part of the universal basic income. It might be a basic income for some folks but that’s not particularly helpful for those of us who have struggled in finding employment all of our lives.

Regardless, do I think Social Security would be swept out from under seniors feet? Unlikely.

Well, I thought unlikely until Donal Trump got elected.

That’s actually a huge wrench in Santens argument, at least insofar arguing that a UBI is even possible to begin with, let alone wouldn’t be used maliciously. And although Trump doesn’t necessarily endorse the health care plan that’s come out it still shows what the US government is very much capable of doing. And while it may not actually happen, the fact that this is seriously being proposed is troubling, to say the least.

Time for questions and answers!

How likely do you feel it is that this would happen?

Well, before that health care plan came out and Trump got elected I would’ve said not very, but…

And if it did actually happen, how do you feel seniors would react?

If my grandmother took to the streets in Black Bloc that would be awesome.

As a secondary question, would you say that seniors are more involved in politics or less and why?

Yeah, I would and likely because of these benefits.

Do governments not need to worry about anyone over about age 65 and act accordingly?

It makes sense to think that governments would care about what the huge voting blocs say, because they ideally have the most amount of authority in a democracy, right? But for whatever reason, the US government seems to be leaving that idea behind as the years move forward and especially with the Trump administration.

By the way, it’s obviously not Santens fault or problem that this is the case. He couldn’t have seen any of this coming and so it’d be like blaming Marx for having a less relevant theory in the 21st century because the internet exists, etc. Whether that’s actually the case or not, it’d be disingenuous to blame Marx for something he couldn’t have seen coming.

According to the logic behind such a fear, because the government gives seniors the money they need to survive, the government can do anything they want with them. Seniors should accordingly not be involved in politics at all, or if they are, they should always support whichever party is in power, and they should always support ruling government policies, whatever they may be.

I see what Santens is saying here but I feel like there’s some potential middle ground.

While the government may not be able to do anything they want with the money they get, they do have ultimate say over it. In the end, the senior citizens can’t measure up to the power or legitimacy of the US government on a national scale. If all of the old people demanded all of their money now from the US government, it’d be unlikely to happen in that exact way. Instead, they’ likely get some sort of piecemeal solution to tide them over so the government could formulate a plan.

It’s also worth noting that “whichever party is in power” is slightly contestable. If a democrat is in the White House but the republicans control the majority in the Senate and House of Representatives, then who is the party in power? This was similar to the situation that was happening while Barack Obama was in power, if I remember correctly.

Now for Q&A Round 2!

Seniors according to this theory, should be the puppets of government. Are they?

  • Do we know a lot of seniors who are fully behind Obama and support everything he does in fear he will cancel Social Security?
  • Do we know a lot of seniors who are fully behind Congress and support everything they do in fear Congress will cancel Social Security?
  • Do we know a lot of seniors who refuse to say anything negative about the government whatsoever, out of fear they will lose their Social Security?

Given these positions that could occupy a sort of median between total support or total disobedience, I think seniors have a broader array of attitudes and actions they might engage in. Seniors don’t need to be in complete fear, complete obedience or complete support of whatever policies happen, just because of Social Security.

It could be the case that seniors are simply less likely to vote against certain policies or candidates, etc. because of Social Security while still broadly supporting or opposing the current administration. Again, I understand what Santens is arguing for and I find his argumentation somewhat compelling, but I think it’s at least partially because he’s engaging in black-white thinking and not allowing for a middle ground.

Here’s the reality. Senior citizens turn up at the polls in greater numbers than any other age demographic, and they do so largely due to programs like Social Security and Medicare. These programs give them skin in the game, and so they make sure their voices are heard. They vote like crazy. They are also more organized. Do you know what the publication is with the highest readership of all? It’s published by the AARP.

It’s also partially because seniors are retired. They don’t have anything to do but pay attention to politics, what effects their lives and how to change those things. Young folks (such as myself) don’t have the sort of time or energy that seniors have once they’re on Social Security. And some of them waste that political awareness on driving themselves crazy from the news and politics that they are suddenly able to pay so much attention to.

And so I’d honestly rather have the lifestyle I have now where I’m not paying attention to the news, CNN or whatever else they might be watching, as much as they do. And just because they’re voting like crazy and are much more mobilized doesn’t mean that’s actually a good thing.

The same goes for Medicare. If the US government doesn’t need to listen to seniors because they wield power over them through Medicare, why did Medicare Part D ever happen? They had Social Security and Medicare already. According to this fear’s logic, the government should entirely ignore their interests. Why would the government instead do something that helps only seniors?

This actually points to an issue of government: The seniors control so much power that the government expanded a program entirely for the benefit of seniors. That’s a lot of power and it speaks to the problems of democracy when it exists within a governmental context. A subset of the population made a decision to impose a new cost on the majority of people because they have the privilege to have more energy and time.

So while I’m not disputing Santens argument here, I don’t think it as positively to the merits of democracy as he’d like.

Santens actually briefly mentions the time factor that I just did:

When it comes to senior citizens and government, who is at whose beck and call? Seniors get what they want. They get it because they come out in droves to vote, and they have a lot of time on their hands compared to the rest of the population.

But he doesn’t realize that this is actually a problem. And while it may speak to the benefits of Social Security those are benefits that only a subset of the population actually receive. And they only receive those benefits because everyone has to pay into the system and is forced to at the threat of violence (being arrested and thrown in jail, etc.).

Not exactly a pristine system of social cooperation.

There exists somewhat of a misunderstanding that the government doesn’t give a shit about voters. Although true that the government cares more about rich voters than poor voters, it cares relatively more about seniors than other age demographics because they are mobilized and actually vote.

I can believe this, but I can also believe that either way, your vote doesn’t count.

It could also be argued based on the above reasoning that because seniors have so much power, the government should frequently threaten to entirely eliminate Social Security. It should hold it over their heads, and seniors should be afraid of the government as a result and keep their mouths shut. But that’s clearly not the case.

It’s the government that is afraid of seniors.

Is the government afraid of seniors? I’m sure they curtail their own interests to some extent to fulfill the needs of seniors and I’m also aware that they’ve expanded programs solely for their benefit. But was this on the basis of fear? I’m not convinced of that. And to be clear, I’m not just picking at words here, I think government officials are aware of seniors and their voter blocs but at the same time I don’t think Santens has argued persuasively that this awareness equates to fear.

Fearing would mean that senior voting blocs could pretty much get anything they want. But Santens hasn’t offered any evidence that this is the case. Again, Santens is using black-white thinking to make his rhetoric seem more attractive, but I think we should be careful here to denote easily available median positions.

Such as the fact that seniors and the government are in a perpetual power struggle. Sometimes seniors may have the advantage and other times the government (which also has many seniors itself) may have the advantage. I think it’s likely the government, given their much larger access to resources, weapons and legitimacy are the overall stronger party here.

Santens uses a comparison of Alaska but it’s slightly tangential to my issues here and I’ve already briefly addressed it on part 1 when I talked about the Nambia example. I’ve also addressed it more elaborately here.

Let’s wrap this up by bringing it back to a discussion about anarchism:

This particular fear of basic income is the kind of fear founded on a fear or dislike of government. It thinks of government as being something separate from people, and somehow our enemy. It’s understandable this kind of thinking has developed over the years, as it seems so unresponsive and worthless lately for anyone who doesn’t earn around seven figures, but that doesn’t mean the government is a bogeyman.

We are the government. The government is us.

If we want to make it work better, it requires our involvement.

And it definitely requires reforms of elections to be more responsive to everyone instead of merely the few.

This is, objectively speaking, wrong.

The government is a group of a few thousand people in a population of millions. They are largely white, upper class, rich, men, seniors, they either come from money or got into it via folks who did and so on. I am not the government. My vote doesn’t count in any mathematical way and morally it’d be impermissible for me to do anything the government does.

When the government imprisons me for violating a law, I don’t throw myself in prison. External parties throw me in a cage because they think that I have done something wrong, regardless of whether I’ve actually harmed anyone or not. And even in some sort of weaker metaphorical sense I’m still not the government.

I have no real say over what happens in Washington, nor have I ever. And to actually have any say takes a lot of incentives, time and resources that me and many other people are unlikely to have anytime soon.

If we want to make society better than I agree we need to get more involved with that. But society and the government are two distinct organisms that each require different levels of attention. I don’t want to get involved with wars, corporate subsidies, the prison industrial complex and try to reform it from the inside. I do want to see folks get more active in their communities and try to help marginalized communities and encourage mutual aid and direct action.

But none of those things are going to happen if we keep trying to influence governments on a huge cultural scale that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon in the US. Maybe other countries have a better chance of the UBI happening, I can’t speak to that. But what I do feel confident saying, is that when it comes to the US government and it’s people, the government is a thing apart from the people it supposedly represents and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

And so if we want to improve society and build better safety nets then let’s do that. But let’s do it without the coercive power of the state, it’s bureaucracies, it’s inefficient and hierarchical modes of organization. Instead, let’s build the future on networks of mutual aid done within local communities. The things that Santens sees as bugs in the system, e.g. that the system caters its resources to the few to the disadvantage of the many I see as a feature.

The system cannot be reformed because as Voltairine de Cleyre said:

…the nature of government is to become a thing apart, an institution existing for its own sake, preying upon the people, and teaching whatever will tend to keep it secure in its seat.

Advocates of the UBI need to realize first and foremost that the UBI is best seen as a conversational piece to highlight inequality in society and the injustice in the current welfare state. The UBI does point to some better ways forward but we need to acknowledge that those ways aren’t going to come from the same tired systems we’ve been trying for hundreds of years. We need to rely on methods of organization that revolve around treating people justly, not as means to an end like the method of taxation does. These methods come from the framework of anarchism, not statism.

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