Is universal basic income a human right?
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Is universal basic income a human right?

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Billionaires Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates all believe the rise of artificial intelligence will mean the elimination of jobs and the necessity of a universal basic income. Some have argued it is "a human right to have enough money to live on," especially during a time of worsening wealth inequality. But others argue a universal income is nothing more than a pipe dream and citizens aren't entitled to cash handouts from the government. What do you think?
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In a CNN interview, billionaire Richard Branson said advances in technology and artificial intelligence will mean the elimination of jobs and the necessity of a universal basic income (UBI).

"I think with the coming on of AI and other things there is certainly a danger of income inequality." The inequality will be caused by "the amount of jobs [artificial intelligence] is going to take away and so on," Branson says. "There is no question" technology will eliminate jobs, he says.
But also, a "basic minimum earnings," or a universal basic income, should be instituted "so that there is nobody that is having to sleep on the street," Branson tells CNN. "One hundred percent, I think that is really important."

Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have echoed similar sentiments in the past, arguing the rise in automation will replace more and more jobs, and will make a UBI unavoidable. Zuckerberg went as far as to imply a UBI should be included in a "new social contract for our generation."

The idea of a universal basic income isn't new. Hillary Clinton wrote in her book "What Happened" that her campaign considered a universal basic income proposal that would be called "Alaska in America" based on the system the Alaska Permanent Fund uses to distribute the state's oil royalties to its citizens every year.

[We] explored the idea of creating a new fund that would use revenue from shared national resources to pay a dividend to every citizen, much like how the Alaska Permanent Fund distributes the state’s oil royalties every year... If you view the nation’s financial system as a shared resource, then you can start raising real money from things like a financial transactions tax...Once you capitalize the fund, you can provide every American with a modest basic income every year.

While Clinton ultimately scrapped the idea because her team "couldn't make the numbers work," many have argued the issue of a UBI is actually a human rights issue. National Coordinator for Basic Income UK and welfare rights advisor Barb Jacobson argues that, while it may seem like a utopian idea, it isn't so crazy to believe that humans should have a right to survive.

In its most basic form, a UBI will give everyone enough to live on. In terms of an amount, I would go for something along the lines of the poverty level–the minimum you need to participate in society... but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that everyone should have enough to live on as a human right.

Jacobson argues we would pay for a UBI by more heavily taxing the rich, and doesn't believe a basic income would disincentivize people from working or contributing to society as some critics suggest.

People will always want to contribute to society, that isn’t the issue. But right now most people are having to work far too hard for survival, whether they have a job or not. They’re not getting enough time with their families, they’re not able to participate in their communities. When someone says “Oh no one will ever do anything if they have enough money to live on,” and you ask them if they had a basic income what they would do, hardly anybody says they would stop doing anything.

If the future is one where robots are doing a majority of the work, a universal basic income isn't just a good idea, it's a necessary one. Every human has a right to survive, and a UBI would guarantee their ability to do so.

But critics argue a UBI would never work for four reasons: cost, reciprocity, politics and work ethic.

The cost of a UBI program would be huge. Getting rid of all welfare programs and funneling that money into UBI would lead to around $3,000 a year, far less than what the neediest are currently receiving. A UBI would remove all forms of personalization, meaning the most vulnerable would end up getting even less help.

The problem is that if you try to bring it up to something a bit more generous, the cost quickly escalates. Cutting everyone a check for $1,000 a month, which most people in that room would consider too little to live on, would cost almost $3 trillion. But if you means-test it to control the cost, or try to tax most of the benefits back for people who aren't low-income, you rapidly lose the efficiency gains and start creating some pretty powerful disincentives to work.

With regard to reciprocity, a UBI would essentially require a new social contract. A small segment of the population would be producing the goods and wealth that the rest of society would benefit from—with no strings attached. Critics doubt this is a stable situation, or that it would truly come with no strings attached.

I think you can make an argument that society should make it possible for those who are willing to contribute to support themselves; I would not be opposed to a system of guaranteed jobs that paid $10,000 a year, or whatever we think this basic income should be. But you cannot sustain a program that posits huge obligations on the part of one group to people who have no reciprocal obligations at all.

A UBI would require a massive change in politics too. Immigration would have to be radically changed as well as how welfare is disbursed to the neediest. Critics say any real effort to implement a UBI would have to end immigration and welfare entirely, which seems like it could violate other human rights concerns.

A guaranteed basic income instead of a welfare state might be attractive, but a guaranteed basic income on top of a welfare state presents a lot of problems, not least that it would nearly double everyone's tax bill.

Finally, critics say that work is an intrinsic part of our culture and identity. Studies that show a UBI having little to no negative effects on work ethic were conducted in the short-term. There's no data to show what could happen in the long-term, although current trends among the poor suggest that people are increasingly spending their free time doing passive activities like watching TV.

Along with family, work is the defining element of most lives and communities. People who are out of work are much less happy than people who are in work, even in European countries with generous social safety nets. Discouraging people from making the short-term sacrifices necessary to gain a long-term foothold in the job market is not good social policy.

Asking a government to give cash handouts to its citizens is impractical, and the idea that humans are entitled to free money would hardly be considered a human right by many.

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