The next big thing in leftist economics is old hat.
Some people just don’t know when to quit.
Despite the historic failures of Communism, and recent rebukes to socialism such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the far left has concocted yet another harebrained scheme aimed at ensuring that society remains forever dependent on the meager allowances of government.
This latest leftist incarnation, known as Universal Basic Income, is little more than socialism on steroids — it grants every citizen, regardless of employment status, social status, or income the same government stipend on which to (supposedly) live.
The collectivists’ boogeyman this time around is technology, specifically the idea that automation and artificial intelligence will soon take so many jobs that governments the world over will have no choice but to tax the owners of these technologies egregiously and distribute the wealth to the unemployable masses. Talk about a vision of hope!
And just as some people never quit, it seems others never learn — despite UBI’s absurdity, the idea is slowly but surely gaining traction. From the snowy steppes of Finland and Canada to more tropical climes in Brazil, communities across the globe are now flirting with UBI-inspired disaster out of fear that humans will soon have no way to earn a living because robots have taken all the jobs.
Even worse, scientific “geniuses” such as Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla fame have begun to endorse an idea that — according to all historical evidence — is bad science. And while rich celebrities’ penchant for socialism is neither new nor great cause for alarm, as automation and AI ramp up and continue to dominate headlines, the threat of UBI as actual policy may well grow in proportion.
While proponents of UBI point to its support among both the far left as well as segments of the right, including Charles Murray who referenced it as a possible means to reduce bureaucracy and eliminate the corrupt third parties that benefit from the welfare state, there is little they can do to deny the failures of similar past programs and the innate need of humans to work and produce in order to lead full lives. Proponents such as Murray would have us believe that America is better off with everyone on welfare, rather than certain segments of society. Unfortunately, history proves otherwise.
If previous experiments in government-issued income have taught us anything, it’s that people can learn to live off the most meager means. Consider the abject failure of the decades-long War on Poverty, in which entitlement programs with price tags exceeding America’s current GDP have had very little effect on the poverty rate.
In fact, LBJ’s trademark disaster provides the perfect rebuttal to one of UBI’s central tenets: that by lifting the burdens imposed by welfare, such as constant justification to remain on the dole, recipients will have more free time to pursue other interests, including employment.
While it may sound somewhat reasonable, the numbers from the War on Poverty tell a very different story: from 1960-1991, the percentage of working breadwinners among the poorest 20 percent of families was cut in half because, well, they didn’t have to work. Rather they subsisted on what Uncle Sam would give them, which was just enough to survive but insufficient to thrive. So much for entrepreneurship.
Beyond the “catch a fish for a man/teach a man to fish” debate, however, is the larger point that working is imperative to the human condition. As the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran proclaims in his trademark work The Prophet:
You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
Melodrama aside, Gibran, like so many others, knew well that work was intrinsically linked to self-worth, and that to not work was harmful to one’s wellbeing. There’s no shortage of science equating unemployment with a number of society’s most serious ills, including addiction and depression. These afflictions often lead to tragedy, and a 2015 study found unemployment responsible for one in five suicides globally.
The consequences of ill-advised and mismanaged welfare programs have been documented for decades, and there’s simply no reason to believe that the outcomes of what is essentially welfare for all will be any different.
Let’s face it: UBI is little more than a cocktail of Communist, Luddite, and Malthusian paranoias, rehashed to prey upon the fears of an uncertain, automated future. But futures have always been uncertain, and historically speaking, innovation and automation have consistently led to greater prosperity; from the Industrial Revolution to the assembly line to the Internet, there have always been John Henry-types preaching dire warnings about the threats posed to labor by technology. Musk and his far-left cohorts are no different, and they too will be proven incorrect.
Make no mistake, automation and AI will certainly shake up the workforce. And, as always, there will be winners and losers, but we will adapt. If anything we should be training future generations to harness AI and automation for the greater human good, not dressing up historically disastrous economic schemes for fear of fictional robot overlords. As famous futurist and director of engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil observed:
You can point to jobs that are going to go away from automation, but don’t worry, we’re going to invent new jobs. People say, “What new jobs?” I don’t know. They haven’t been invented yet. Sixty-five percent of Americans today work at information jobs that didn’t exist 25 years ago, two-thirds of the population in 1900 worked either on farms or on factories.… We’re constantly inventing new things to do with our time, but you can’t really define that because the future hasn’t been invented yet.
But the past has. And if it has taught us anything, it’s that we need not repeat the same mistakes for fear of a future that always seems to adapt to technological progress.
A pro-UBI event in Bern, Switzerland in 2013 (Stefan Bohrer/Flickr-Creative Commons)