The Pro-work Case for Universal Basic Income

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The idea of a Universal Basic Income — an unconditional cash stipend from the government that could, in principle, greatly simplify the existing system of means-tested programs — has come under fire for being antithetical to one of America’s strongest values: Work.


The argument, most recently articulated by Josh Barro at Business Insider, states that while a cash transfer may be able to provide subsistence, it cannot provide the sense of purpose and dignity that only a job can. The problem with these arguments is that they simply assume a UBI would significantly undermine the incentive to work, shifting the debate to the red-herring of work’s relationship with purpose. Noah Smith, for instance, responded to Barro by pondering the difficulties of empirically measuring an abstract sense of dignity, while Matt Bruenig responded by pointing out all the ways the rich receive vastly more “passive income” than the poor (like from interest and capital gains) without an apparent loss of purpose. Both these points are secondary to the most basic point: UBI is simply not a threat to work.

UBI and Work in Theory

The effect of a Universal Basic Income on work effort is theoretically ambiguous without specifying the means-tested programs that would be replaced. The economist Ed Dolan wrote what is perhaps the definitive piece on the subject here, walking through various scenarios in detail.

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