Last week in the Wall Street Journal, Charles Murray wrote in support of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). A UBI would reshape and revitalize the United States welfare system. In lieu of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies, etc., every American citizen would receive a $13,000 annual grant. The grant would be deposited to citizens’ bank accounts in monthly installments. Although $3,000 would be earmarked for healthcare costs, citizens could spend the remaining $10,000 however they choose.
Murray gives three arguments for a UBI. First, it would protect Americans from the disruptions of a changing labor market. Second, it would erode government bureaucracy and give civil society room to breathe. Finally, it would be affordable: “As of 2014, the annual cost of a UBI would have been about $200 billion cheaper than the current system.”
I sympathize with Murray’s position, but believe he understates his case. The missing argument for a basic income is the moral value of independence.
Since 1776, Americans have placed independence at the center of their political order. James Madison defined it as freedom from an arbitrary government. Andrew Jackson promoted democracy and the virtues of self-rule. Franklin D. Roosevelt added the conditions of freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Certainly, part of independence pertains to government. To be independent is to participate in politics. It is to have individual liberties under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It is to be a free citizen, to rule oneself.
The other part of independence is personal. It involves membership in a family, in businesses, charities, clubs, and churches. These voluntary organizations make us greater than ourselves, enmeshing us in partnerships of rights and duties. We are our best selves when we participate in them.
Murray argues, correctly, that bureaucracy weakens these voluntary groups. One problem is crowding out: “Why continue the mutual insurance program of your fraternal organization once Social Security is installed?” Another follows from regulatory burden: It’s hard to start a business or a nonprofit when you’re subject to 175,000 pages of federal regulations, the equivalent of 130 King James Bibles.
However, Murray understates the consequences of this threat. For him, the central problem with bureaucracy is that it’s inefficient; “Government agencies are the worst of all mechanisms for dealing with human needs.” Voluntary groups are “inherently better able to tailor their services to local conditions and individual cases.”
Inefficiency is one problem of bureaucracy, but it is not the only one. Indeed, an overly bureaucratized state poses moral harms. In regulating what citizens do, as well as when and how they do it, the administrative state compromises citizens’ independence. Slowly, it diminishes and replaces the rights and duties of voluntary groups—central components of human flourishing.
Such it is that the growth of bureaucracy in America has accompanied the weakening of civil society. More than ever, Americans are subject to onerous, stifling regulations. At the same time, American church attendance, small-business growth, and Little League participation are all in decline.
A UBI could help reverse this trend. In the absence of category requirements on welfare payments—determining precisely where each dollar should be spent—low income Americans would be at greater liberty to invest in their communities. The result could be a renaissance of community organizations, small businesses, and church-affiliated charities.
These groups would have implications beyond resource efficiency. New businesses would expand access to the dignity of work. Stronger churches would be spaces for moral education, communal discussion, and personal reflection. Private charities would combine resource allocation with community engagement.
The final product would be a fuller sort of independence. No longer ruled by bureaucrats, a larger number of citizens would rule themselves. That outcome is an end in itself.
I’ll grant that the UBI is no silver bullet. There are three strong objections to the policy: that it would disincentivize employment, that it would undermine the moral value of work, and that it is politically infeasible. I’m interested to hear what my co-bloggers think of these problems, from both empirical and normative standpoints.