This year’s NSDA China nationals resolution asks the question of whether or not just governments should provide a universal basic income for their citizens. In this essay I will discus the basic ideas in the resolution and provide an overview of the arguments.
There are two critical terms in the resolution – “universal basic income” and “just government.”
Universal basic income. Most advocates of a universal basic income (UBI) argue that a UBI is a certain minimum amount of money that is paid out to each citizen regardless of existing income. Most advocates argue it should be paid monthly. Different advocates argue for different amounts, but approximately $1,000/month is a common proposal.
Most advocates say it is not income that covers any gap between a set income standard (say $50,000) and a person’s current salary, though there are some advocates for that approach.
All advocates agree that it is not a job guarantee.
UBI is contrasted with welfare, in that it is provided, regardless of current income level – it is not means tested – meaning that it is provided reagrdless of income level, which makes it considerably different from welfare. It is also different from welfare in that there are no restraints on what it can be spent on – it doesn’t have to be spent on food, heat, rent, etc.
There is considerable debate within the literature as to whether or not a UBI should be provided in addition to current welfare spending or whether it should replace current welfare spending. Some conservatives argue that it should replace welfare spending ands support it for that reason.
Although there are not plans in Public Forum debate and specific advocacies are generally not accepted, debaters do need to think about whether or not they will argue that it should either replace welfare or be provided in addition to welfare. It obviously can’t be both.
Debaters also need to think about how they will position themselves regarding what countries should provide a UBI. Again, it needs to be debated as a general question, but is it practical for the developing world to provide a UBI to its citizens.
Just government. The resolution doesn’t ask whether or not any government should provide a UBI to citizens but whether or not a just government should.
What is a “just government?”
There is certainly no easy answer to that and determining exactly what a “just “ government is a critical part of the debate.
Pro teams will articulate concepts of “just government” that argue government should provide material support for the poor, that they should protect “positive rights” – rights to financial well being. They will criticize the free market as being unable to provide such supports. They may make a case that the free market unequally distributes wealth and that governments have an obligation to correct that redistribution.
Pro teams may draw on the work of John Rawls who argues that if people were to imagine a society before we were born and didn’t know where we would end up – if we could choose from the “original position” – that people would chose to provide protection through a base level of financial support.
Other Pro teams may argue that we have an obligation to support the least disadvantaged and yet others may argue that we should act altruistically – that we should act to help others.
Arguments for and against UBI should be contextualized in terms of this discussion. I will review these arguments.
Inequality and poverty. Within most countries and across the world, income inequality continues to increase. And not only are almost all of the gains going to those in the top 5%, in some countries such as the US, the relative purchasing power (what you can get for your money) for those in the middle to lower class is declining. Many, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk, fear that the advance of robotics and artificial intelligence will soon mean massive unemployment (as high as 40%, it is currently around 3% in the US. This means that even the majority of people who are seeking work will not be able to find work. Relative inequality between classes can generate substantial social conflict and absolute inequality means poverty that can kills. Former US president Barack Obama recently gave a speech in which he argued for consideration for a UBI for these reasons.
Entrepreneurialism. If people have a basic income they can rely on they may be more likely to start new businesses and develop new products.
Freedom. Economic security is important to freedom because people need more than political rights to be free.
Meaningful work. If people have a basic level of economic security they won’t be forced to take any job they can find and this will leave them with the option of finding meaningful work.
Avoiding poor working conditions. If people aren’t forced to work for low wages then companies cannot hire them for low wages. This will prevent the exploitation of workers.
Financial freedom for women. Financial freedom for women means they won’t have to stay with abusive spouses.
Costs. The costs of providing a UBI are astronomical. In the US, for example, providing a UBI is estimated to cost $3 trillion. The US currently spends approximately $1 trillion on all social spending, so providing a USBI would likely involve a combination of welfare cuts, deficit spending, and tax increases. The first could hurt the poor and the latter two could make the hurt the economy. And economic downturn could hurt the poor.
Inflation. Stimulating high demand into the economy by increasing the amount of money that is available to purchase goods (the poor spend most of their income) then demand for goods and services will skyrocket, causing prices increases. Quick prices increases not only subsequently reduce the purchasing power of the poor, but they also tempt governments to raise interest rates (the costs of borrowing money)
State welfare good. Other advocates argue that targeted (and maybe expanded welfare programs) are the best way to help the poor.
Discourages work. Some argue that providing a UBI to everyone could discourage them from working.
This topic is a very interesting and a contemporary one that addresses some critical social, economic, and technological issues facing the world. It also intersects some very important values and philosophical issues and hopefully it will generate some great debates!