WHAT if America were to scrap all its anti-poverty programmes””welfare, food stamps, unemployment benefits, the works””and replace them with an unconditional basic income (UBI) for everybody? Even in a Congress beset by less extraordinary levels of dysfunction, the idea would have little chance of becoming law. It’s fun to theorise, though. And if Switzerland approves a referendum to send all of its citizens $2,800 a month, the debate will have a fascinating new reference point.
Annie Lowrey’s article in the New York Times Magazine explains that both the left and the right have reason to favour a basic income. Liberals support the idea because it would elevate 50m Americans above the poverty line overnight. Some on the right, like Charles Murray, are keen to eliminate rent-seeking””and much of the federal bureaucracy””with a UBI that gives everyone the same government benefit. “A single father with two jobs and two children would no longer have to worry about the hassle of visiting a bunch of offices to receive benefits,” Ms Lowrey writes. “And giving him a single lump sum might help him use his federal dollars better. Housing vouchers have to be spent on housing, food stamps on food. Those dollars would be more valuable””both to the recipient and the economy at large””if they were fungible.”
The economic effects of a basic income are debatable. Some economists think a UBI would disincentivise work; others argue that it would enhance entrepreneurialism by easing the path to start a small business or switch careers.