Opposition to a Universal Basic Income lies in how we think about the relationship between work and one's right to live.
Study after study seems to show us that direct cash transfers do indeed work. The problem lies in convincing people that they are deserving of the money.
Direct Cash Transfers work.
We’ve had numerous trials of direct cash transfers. At this point, we know that people constantly use the money for what they need. Even more so do we know that they benefit not only recipients but local communities as a whole.
Still, we face resistance in actually implementing them. That lies far more in existing stereotypical beliefs of how we perceive the relationship between work and life.
History of opposition to UBI
But opposition to a UBI has been a long-standing theme. The origins may date as far back as some biblical quotes. 2nd Thessalonians 3:10 states:
The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.
But the more modern of the ancient oppositions to direct cash relief may come from the intentional misinformation of the Speenhamland System. This misinformation would have repercussions so severe, that even Marx himself would come to oppose direct cash relief.
Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists writes:
If there were ever a story to prove that things could be different and that poverty is not a necessary evil, it’s the story of Speenhamland, England.
The social program had been put in place at the dawn of the French revolution. This event had sent shock waves through England. Grain imports weren’t guaranteed. The nation (especially its poor) had been struggling.
Soon, a few magistrates would assemble at an inn and propose assistance. This assistance would supplement the income of “all poor and industrious men and their families”.
The program had great success. Rutger writes:
Hunger and hardship decreased and, more importantly, revolt was nipped in the bud.
But success doesn’t always favor certain ideologies even if it meant human prosperity.
Take for example the vicar Joseph Townsend, who within his 1786 Dissertation on the Poor Law proclaimed:
…it is only hunger which can spur and goad them on to labour; yet our laws have said, they shall never hunger.
The disdain for one’s fellow person was apparent in that statement. But he wasn’t the only one with such beliefs.
There was also Thomas Malthus (you know the “the world may collapse if society creates more babies than food” guy). He felt the program was providing a bit too much comfort and that would give people too much room to be horny, hence more babies and a consequent societal collapse.
There was also David Ricardo, Malthus’ economist friend. Now this guy, he’s more like most modern UBI critics we’ve come to see. He believed a UBI would have people working less, which would, in turn, cause a downturn in food production and result in a French-style revolt.
Ricardo’s predicted uprising did indeed take place, leading to the subsequent imprisonment and death sentences of thousands. An investigation into rural poverty and the program itself would take place. This investigation led by the Royal Commission would be published in a 13,000-page report. The implication of said report?
That the program had been a disaster.
Only 150 years later would we figure out the whole story. Historians in the 1960s and 70s would dig through the report finding out that a mere 10% of the questionnaires had been filled out. The worst part of it all, almost none of the recipients of the questionnaires actually benefited from the program. It was mostly local elite and clergy people. But we already know what their view of the program was…
The actual investigators? Well, they were in on the fabrication as well. Rutger writes:
…Commission’s secretary, Edwin Chadwick, had “the Bill in his head” before the investigation even started, but he was shrewd enough to obtain some substantiating evidence first. Chadwick was furthermore blessed with the “admirable faculty” of getting eyewitnesses to say what he wanted, just like “a French cook who can make an excellent ragout out of a pair of shoes,” according to a fellow Commission member.
Contrasting the significance of this bogus report with the investigation of Canada and US’ basic income programs, Rutger also writes:
Their approach could not have been more different than that of the rigorous experiments conducted in Canada and the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. Those experiments had been groundbreaking and meticulous but had almost no influence at all, whereas the Royal Commission Report was based on bogus science yet still managed to redirect President Nixon’s course of action 150 years later.
This event, tells us quite a bit about policy-making. Something that may not have changed much since then. And that is, we constantly have elites thinking they know what is best for the poor than the poor themselves. All this to terrible effect.
The devastating consequences of this great lie are matched only by the cruelty of the subsequent reforms introduced. The New Poor Law would result in senseless slave labor by breaking stones, inmates gnawing on bones they were meant to use as fertilizers, and women starved—but not due to poverty, but as what should be regarded as a criminal precaution, to pregnancy.
Misinformation is deadly but it also spreads far.
Take for example the fact that Marx would come to view the Speenhamland System as proof that a basic income was a means used to oppress the proletariat. The source of his claim?
The bogus Royal Commission report.
Take as another example the myriad of conservative thinkers ranging from George Wilder who characterized poverty as a moral vice rooted in laziness to Charles Murray who recycled the trope by stating that government support would undermine the sexual morals and work ethic of the worker.
All these examples would come to influence Former American president Nixon, who back in 1969 changed his tune from pitching a Basic Income as welfare to workfare, leading to a chorus of rebuke from the nation.
Who knows what the world would have looked like, if the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, had been more committed to the implementation of a UBI. I’m willing to bet that this world would have been one filled with far less suffering.
The Opposition hasn’t changed its tune.
Today, critiques still exist, let alone from rich people who have the audacity to make moralistic claims about the negative consequences of a UBI.
Take for example Steve Forbes, who quite literally regurgitates all those arguments made in the 1960s against cash relief.
The more meaningful critiques tend to do with its implementation. That said, UBI and direct cash transfer policies are growing in support, in part because of the strong evidence that they work. But crises also have the effect of making people realize how broken certain aspects of a system are.
There are also ongoing trials that are almost certainly going to bolster support for a UBI. The trial in Germany, for example, is said to be one of the most robust tests of a UBI yet.
Regardless of this, there is still bound to be some opposition.
Stereotypes are difficult to beat, especially when we’ve convinced ourselves that they were the reason for our prosperity in the first place. Only time will tell when we can finally shed the false belief, that in a world far more prosperous than that of our ancestors, must we still “work or die”.
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