A basic income would need different politics than the present

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Noah Smith has a rather confused refutation of Konczal’s excellent criticism of the libertarian case for a basic income guarantee (BIG). Konczal clarifies in the comments that the libertarian case for a BIG fails on its own merits, not by his (or the left’s in general). This sort of defeats the purpose of Smith’s post but in the process he makes the argument that, politically, a singular BIG would be easier to defend than our current patchwork of safety-net programs.

Redistribution programs (the good ones anyway) are designed to help a lot of people and hurt a few. But this means that the constituency opposing redistribution is much more concentrated and focused than the constituency in support of it. As Mancur Olson might tell you, this makes redistribution a tough sell politically.

But if you have one big, high-profile redistribution program, you can get enough popular support to overcome the concentrated opposition of the rich people footing the bill.

This could be true, but probably besides the whole point because it’s impossible (for me) to see enacting a BIG in today’s political environment. Smith then likens a theoretical BIG to minimum wage today, yet it’s worth pointing out that President Obama’s call to raise it has gone absolutely nowhere (despite being, as Smith notes, very popular). Efforts to raise the wage have been entirely state-by-state endeavors, an alternative avenue for federal implementation that wouldn’t necessarily* exist for a hypothetical BIG.

Instead, I’m more inclined to view that a BIG would need a difficult-to-predict shift in the nature of politics itself to be on the table. This may require that the status quo for income security almost assuredly requires some form of guarantee — imagine, if you will, a generation living under an entrenched hourglass economy with the (continuing) slow erosion of wages. Under those circumstances a BIG would still be a paradigm shift by giving “every citizen a share in economic power […].” That’s the type of future where today’s political considerations might not even apply.


*The existence of the Alaska Permanent Fund partially refutes this prediction. In this context, though, a resource-rich state sharing dividends from the production of natural resources (and thus difficult to reproduce in other states) is not the equivalent of the type of basic income project imagined by the left.


One response to “A basic income would need different politics than the present

  1. Pingback: Basic Income Explained In Under Three Minutes (Video) | Punditocracy·

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