A universal basic income does not offer hope, but a siren song. To meet the challenges of automation and deindustrialization, we must pursue a social order akin to what was lost under industrialization. UBI would make that impossible.
As Americans receive so-called stimulus checks of at least $1,200, there is growing popular support for a universal basic income. Conventional wisdom is conforming to the line that UBI is our best bet if not our only option in this time of COVID-19.
On Twitter, #CongressPassUBI was trending recently with more than 46,000 tweets. Earlier in April, a Rasmussen poll showed 40% of likely voters favor a UBI, up nearly 30% from just nine years ago. Another survey found over half of young people, ages 18-35, support a UBI.
Economic arguments against UBI seem to be falling on deaf ears. While that is a problem, there is a more foundational case to be made against UBI. What’s exciting is that it also implies an actual solution for workers, families, and their communities in uncertain times.
Consider the most extolled virtue of UBI, that it gives equally to all individuals unconditionally. This means no mediating force standing between the individual and the state. The UBI binds them together in an unholy matrimony. From the start, this detached relationship is sterile, unable to produce beyond what it consumes and is destroyed.
As Robert Nisbet wrote in “The Quest for Community,” “[T]here has never been a time when a successful economic system has rested upon purely individualistic drives or upon the impersonal relationships so prized by the rationalists.”
Nisbet concludes that “non-economic processes of kinship, religion, and various other forms of social relationships” give rise to thriving civilizations.
The modern welfare state has, since its inception following the Industrial Revolution, incrementally supplanted the family and social institutions, including mutual aid and fraternal associations. A guaranteed minimum income would simply accelerate this trend.
It is important to note that centralized welfare did not follow industrialization by mere happenstance. The move to cities, among other economic factors, meant individuals were set relatively loose from their families and other traditional forms of community. The welfare state swooped in during favorable conditions.
If industrialization necessitated a rupture of the traditional social order, why shouldn’t deindustrialization demand a renewal of those communal ties?
That question is anathema to the UBI pushers, who vainly seek relevance for the welfare state. Helicopter cash drops may seem unconventional, but simply prolong the crisis of meaning at the root of society’s woes.
Approximately three out of every four Americans cope with loneliness, while 25% lack even a single close confidant. Along with the sharp uptick of so-called deaths of despair, such as suicides, drug overdoses, or alcohol-related deaths, this is just some of the evidence of how atomistic society has become.
Even the most efficient bureaucracy is no match for organic human connections when individuals lack a sense of purpose and meaning. Unfortunately, just like the conventional welfare state, the UBI undermines or marginalizes traditional institutions so vital to healthy and free societies.
Historian David Beito unearthed some remarkable evidence of the transition away from a decentralized social support system in his book “From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967.”
Beito quotes one fraternal order leader, William Lloyd Harrison of the Mystic Toilers, lamenting in 1910 the “wholly commercial” nature that life insurance societies took on to conform with relentless regulations.
“The fraternal has been legislated out of the plan. In other words, we have too many laws that go into the minutest details,” Harrison told a law group of the National Fraternal Congress of America. He continued, “The management of fraternals is awakened in the morning by the groaning of statutes, and lulled to sleep at night by the mingled voices of inspectors.”
From the fraternal order to the paternal order, Beito keenly observed that “instead of mutual aid, the dominant social welfare arrangements of Americans have increasingly become characterized by impersonal bureaucracies controlled by outsiders.”
This development meant not just a loss of genuinely compassionate human connection, but also the extension of formational values such as reciprocity, often enforced on aid recipients by canceling membership if they failed to live up to the oaths they swore to uphold.
Such an antiquated form of welfare is probably offensive today. Indeed, even current means and drug testing policies for welfare applicants is criticized as crude or a violation of a right to privacy.
Not only would self-responsibility be diminished with every deposited UBI check, but also one’s obligation to serve others. The first of these others is the family, the core institutional structure of society. Unlike the fraternal insurance societies of old, it hasn’t been totally hollowed out, yet.
Broken families and their consequences are exacerbated and enabled by the welfare state. The situation shouldn’t be expected to change for the better when every adult member of every family has basic living expenses covered under a compulsory government check.
As philosopher Christopher Dawson wrote in 1930, “As in the decline of the ancient world, the family is steadily losing its form and its social significance, and the state absorbs more and more of the life of its members. The home is no longer a centre of social activity; it has become merely a sleeping place for a number of independent wage-earners.”
A sleeping place for basic income guarantee beneficiaries comes next, perhaps?
The health of families is reflected in communities and the nation. Economist Wilhelm Röpke described the “well-ordered house” ideal in “A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market.”
Röpke insisted “we cannot abandon” values of self-reliance and voluntary mutualism “without shaking the very foundations of a free society and making its difference from Communism no more than a matter of degree.”
That was written over 60 years ago. Now the foundations are shaking enough that support for UBI, a permanent unconditional guarantee of income for 300 million people, is reaching a consensus.
At this point, is it possible to break that consensus for paternalism and instead revive affection for hearth and home, family and fraternity, church and community? If it were possible, what would be required of us?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but as long as we’re trying to answer the right questions, a silver lining will be revealed out of this cloud of coronavirus over our society.