An Argument Against Universal Basic Income

What is Charles Murray missing in his argument for a basic income for every person in the US? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

First, let me nitpick. Murray correctly notes that, "The great free-market economist Milton Friedman originated the idea of a guaranteed income just after World War II" but conveniently forgets to mention that Friedman only argued for a "negative income tax" as a transitory policy, one that would be cheaper and more administratively efficient than current social welfare programs and could be easily tapered over time with the eventual goal of total reduction. Beginning a piece by trying to mislead the reader does not inspire great confidence.

Later Murray proposes financing the UBI in part by getting rid of "agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare," two expenditures entirely unrelated to social welfare. Though I agree these programs should be discontinued, adding those ensuing savings to this calculation violates all conventional accounting practices and significantly muddles the true cost of a UBI. If Murray instead followed ceteris peribus, the annual cost of a UBI becomes $90 billion cheaper per year than the current system, not $200 billion, and is only attainable by suddenly and dramatically reducing the amount of transfer payments to single-parent households and the elderly.

Secondly, Murray's insinuation that US workers will permanently lose their jobs and become forever unproductive dependents is baseless. As I've written before, in 1790, 90% of the US labor force worked in agriculture. By 1990, only 4% did. Compared to that seismic shift, the "threat" of AI and 3D printing to employment is trivial. Clearly humans are capable of adapting to new conditions, technologies, and changes.

Heck, I'd even argue that job cannibalization is a good thing. If a machine can perform a job cheaper and more efficiently than a human (like plow fields), that allows the human to do something more productive (like build a tractor). Improvements in productivity are a good thing for the economy and its participants, not an excuse to pursue extremist policy!

Finally, Murray's arguments for civil society and against government bureaucracy are as valid with a UBI as without. People don't need an extra $10,000 / year to engage in charitable enterprise and the wealthiest in our society have shown themselves to be excellent stewards of their hard-earned resources (Gates, Buffett, Zuckerberg to name a few). Furthermore, many of the positive social implications of a UBI can be achieved by reducing barriers to employment (deregulation, removing the minimum wage, etc).

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