As a proponent of a UBI, I often encounter some version of the surfer objection: what if some people who could work instead spend their entire income allowance on surfing or drinking or some other unproductive activity? There are two main reasons behind this objection. Some people think it’s a bad for people to live on government benefits because it is bad for the person who isn’t working. Others object that it is unfair that taxpayers are required to provide an income for someone who doesn’t feel compelled to contribute to the economy by working (let’s set this objection aside for another post).
I was recently reading Brink Lindsey’s Human Capitalism and I came across a version of the first objection. Lindsey emphasizes labor-force participation as one of his primary policy goals. He writes, “Rampant joblessness among the less skilled is a terrible social blight” because it is bad for jobless adults who are “marginalized by their failure to contribute to the economy” and their children who are “raised in a deprived environment.” Lindsey then advocates a dramatic overhaul of public education and work incentives, as alternatives to programs that just cut people a check.
Then, on the excellent Free Thoughts podcast, Lindsey addressed the basic income directly. There he said that a UBI may be better than the intrusive and inefficient welfare state status quo, but he nevertheless objects to the UBI proposal(around 48 minutes):
“My own inclination would be not to basically subsidize joblessness with a basic income, but rather to have a system of wage subsidies that pay employers for hiring low-skilled people. That is, instead of accelerating the mismatch between the market value and the social minimum you now amplify the market wage to get that above the social minimum to keep people in the workforce. I think the welfare state designed with positive work incentives to keep people engaged in the economy, which then gives them incentives to develop and maintain skills and capacities is much more likely to lead to world where more people are living better lives than a world with a big unconditional dole.”
This argument is paternalistic. Lindsey opposes a UBI because people would live better lives if they were working than if they stayed home and did something else. He thinks this is true even in low-skilled and low wage jobs because he imagines the alternative (joblessness) doesn’t develop or maintain people’s skills as well. Therefore, Lindsey concludes that the welfare state should aim to get people to work.
There are several reasons to resist paternalism. The strongest reason is that paternalistic policies often violate people’s rights. But the right to a basic income is controversial, and if you think that people are not entitled to any welfare benefits than you probably won’t be moved by the paternalism objection. So a proponent of work incentives could argue that all welfare benefits are basically like gifts, and so the recipients cannot complain that a benefit they weren’t entitled to in the first place isn’t their first choice.
But even if you don’t believe that a UBI or any welfare benefits are rights, there are other reasons to reject a system of benefits that aims to make people live better lives by telling them what to do (e.g. telling them to work). First, there are epistemic concerns about the effectiveness of paternalistic policies at promoting well-being. Paternalism consists in substituting your judgment about what is good for someone in place of his own. Sure, lots of people think that a life on the dole is not ideal, but if it’s so bad then why not give people a basic income and if they want to they can still work? In contrast, if you only provide incentives to work then people who are rightly convinced that working in a low wage low-skilled job wouldn’t be a better life do not have the alternative option of not working available to them.
Second, paternalistic polices express a condescending or infantilizing judgment about people. By rejecting a UBI on the grounds that it is bad for people to live on the dole, Lindsey is saying that people cannot decide for themselves how best to live their lives. To borrow an old trope, the UBI has no problem with people going to work, but positive work incentives have a problem with the UBI. If you want to use redistribution to help the worst off, why not help them in a way that lets them choose how to live their lives?
In any case, I’m just not convinced that Lindsey is right that a life on the dole is so bad. Why does engaging in paid labor make people’s lives better and more flourishing, rather than doing some unpaid activity they love or doing nothing at all? Do early retirees, senior citizens on social security, college students, surfers, and wealthy men and women of leisure really have it so bad because they aren’t in the labor force? Is a society so bad when people can survive in it while pursuing projects that don’t pay? It’s just hard to believe that getting a monthly check could be a life-ruiner.
Even if joblessness fails to develop people’s capacities, lots of jobs are definitely worse than not-working. As a bonus a UBI may give employers incentives to make those jobs better (either higher quality or better compensated) so potential workers have incentives to take them instead of living off a UBI.
Or, if nothing else, the benefits of any alternative social welfare policy should be measured against the UBI as a benchmark. Just as global aid programs should be required to show that they are more effective than cash transfers, if any redistributive policies are justified then they must at least prove to benefit the worst-off more than a UBI. Lots of libertarians do not advocate for redistributive welfare benefits, but those who do should advocate for a system that doesn’t presume such a narrow view what can make a person’s life worthwhile.