[This post was requested on Patreon by Daniel, who asked me to write up an argument against guaranteed basic income. Each month, one backer at the $5/month or above level is randomly selected to suggest a blog post or story topic. You may find my patreon here.]
The reason one should not support a guaranteed basic income is that economists don’t support it. In fact, weighted by the economists’ confidence in their opinions, 84% of economists surveyed either disagree or strongly disagree with granting every American citizen over the age of 21 a guaranteed basic income of $13,000/year, financed by eliminating all transfer programs.
…wait, you mean I have to write more than that? Come on.
As always, I’m not an economist, but looking at common themes in the explanations the economists of the IGM Economic Experts Panel, I think I can come up with some more answers.
The GBI is expensive. Really, really expensive. The GBI proposed in the question economists were polled about would cost about three trillion dollars a year, equivalent to all the tax revenue of the United States federal government. It is generally believed, even by the most libertarian among us, that countries should continue to have things like “an army” and “diplomats” and “a place for the President to live.” Most of the liberals I know would go so far as to say that we should have environmental conservation, publicly funded science, and foreign aid. A GBI is either going to lead to a massive increase in taxes or a cut in a lot of really basic things.
And the benefits aren’t actually that great. Thirteen thousand dollars for each adult is enough to get most families over the poverty line (although not single parents with two or more children). Living at the poverty line is pretty terrible, but it’s not the worst possible thing; you don’t starve. Of course, most people who are at or below the poverty line benefit from food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs intended to help the poor, which don’t exist anymore because we slashed them to fund the guaranteed basic income. So we’d expect that being a poor person would become significantly harder.
I’m talking about one specific proposal, but these arguments apply to pretty much every level of guaranteed basic income. You can give everyone $20,000, which is enough to live on happily in many parts of the country, but then you’d better find some more sources of tax revenue. You can give everyone $5,000 and be able to afford the continued existence of the White House, but then it’s not going to do a hell of a lot of good for most poor people.
Part of the reason the GBI is so expensive is that it goes to everyone. Bill Gates gets a $13,000 check; I get a $13,000 check; the homeless guy down at the bridge gets a $13,000 check. This is often justified by pointing out that means-tested programs lead to disincentives to work. If working to earn a thousand more dollars will lose you your food stamps, and you have to pay taxes on the extra thousand dollars, you can quickly wind up with more than half of your additional income going to the government (either in the form of taxes or in the form of means-tested programs you’re not benefiting from). In some cases, nearly 100% of your additional income would go to the government.
That’s a serious problem with means-tested programs. However, there has got to be a better way to solve it than giving everyone in the United States $13,000. For instance, we could phase out benefits more slowly. We could also work on simplifying the absurdly complicated array of social welfare programs. A lot of times, no one intends to make someone have a 80% marginal tax rate; it’s just that when you have dozens of programs affecting poor people, it’s impossible to account for all the ways they could interact with each other.
Related to targeting the most vulnerable: a guaranteed basic income does not account for the fact that severely disabled people are more expensive than other people. For instance, consider a quadriplegic. She is currently unable to work, so she lives on her $13,000 guaranteed basic income check. Let’s say she requires a home health care aide to bathe, dress, and use the bathroom, which costs her $19 an hour for two hours a day of care. Over the course of a year, this adds up to $13,870– which is more than her basic income check, leaving her with zero money for food, rent, entertainment, or health care.
Right now, home health care aides– as well as innumerable other services required by the severely disabled– are covered by Medicaid. If we eliminate Medicaid, then many– perhaps most– severely disabled people will be unable to afford the care that allows them to live. Some will be taken care of by friends or family, or will be rich enough to afford it themselves, or will go into the kind of nursing home you can afford for $13,000 a year (spoiler: it is a really terrible nursing home). Many will die.
Many of my readers, I know, basically think that severely disabled people should not exist. That is another conversation for another time. But let me point this out to those readers: most quadriplegic people aren’t born quadriplegic. You could walk out of your house today and get hit by a car and wind up quadriplegic. So the question is whether, if that happened, you would like to continue to be able to live independently, or you would like to die.
Finally, the idea of a guaranteed basic income does not necessarily work well with increased immigration. If the guaranteed basic income is available to everyone, there is an incentive to come to the United States and not work. If the guaranteed basic income is not available to everyone, we create a permanent underclass. Neither is satisfactory.