Universal Basic Income is something usually associated with left-wing movements. The kind of thing you might expect to hear Momentum singing the praises of as the very pinnacle of left-wing redistributionist politics. On the contrary, however, there are good reasons to question the apparent left-wing monopoly on the issue. Indeed the concept of UBI has received support from what might seem like some unlikely places in more conservative circles in years past.
The most widely cited is probably economist and conservative darling Milton Friedman. Friedman never actually came out in support for UBI as imagined in the minds of most people. He did however propose a negative income tax which would operate in a fairly similar vein but with some important differences. This notwithstanding, the arguments for both remain largely consistent.
For conservatives, most of whom generally value individual responsibility over government assistance, a UBI system would serve to streamline the dispensing of welfare payments by amalgamating all available entitlements into a single transaction. This has the dual advantage of cutting government bureaucracy and giving the recipient greater control over their finances. Less government and more freedom? It certainly seems to tick both boxes for the ‘small government’ folks out there.
So goes the conventional case. Perhaps more interesting though, is how such a proposal will interact with our notions of economic freedom. Conservatives, driven by their appreciation of the individual tend to describe freedom as the absence of coercion. In contrast, more left-leaning types tend to place greater emphasis on collective wellbeing, often describing freedom in terms of the absence of want or scarcity.
While these different perceptions of freedom might seem diametrically opposed, they do, to an extent interface with one another. Within this relationship, there is a mediating role for a system such as UBI. If for instance freedom is indeed grounded in the absence of coercion, is scarcity not a coercive force in and of itself? How many options does one really have if they’re starving or homeless? Can we really say decisions made under such circumstances are really ‘free’ choices at all?
That is, of course, the extreme case. But even for those of us who live in relative prosperity, having even just a portion of your income guaranteed would serve to lower the stakes and reduce risk. By mitigating the friction associated with navigating the vicissitudes of life, individuals would be able to mount a more dynamic pursuit of success. Leaving us free to change careers or pursue entrepreneurial ventures without simultaneously gambling our entire livelihoods.
UBI, even in its most basic form, is an opportunity to recalibrate our sense of risk and elevate the individual as the master of their own affairs. All this whilst shrinking and streamlining government intrusions into everyday life. In principle therefore, it’s clear there are many reasons for the more conservative minded to be at the very least open to such a scheme, despite its apparent left wing connotations.