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The UBI’s Parent Trap

eye on the news

The UBI’s Parent Trap

Advocates on the right and left are getting behind the Universal Basic Income—but would they offer it to their own children? March 21, 2017
Economy, finance, and budgets

Universal Basic Income, or UBI, is one of the hot policy ideas of the moment. It calls for the federal government to provide every citizen with an unconditional cash stipend sufficient to meet basic needs. Just this week, Harvard University Press released Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, a major work by Belgian professors Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght. Tomorrow in Manhattan, Charles Murray and Andy Stern (both authors of pro-UBI books) will debate former Obama advisors Jason Furman and Jared Bernstein on whether “the Universal Basic Income is the Safety Net of the Future.”

These discussions tend to focus on the feasibility of the policy, and comparisons with the current safety net of government programs like Medicaid and food stamps, while ignoring a crucial question: What would it mean to remove the expectation that one provide for oneself and one’s family, instead assigning that role entirely to the state? While policymakers sift through the data, non-economists will find their answer in common sense and lived experience.

The UBI’s implications are clear from a family perspective. Imagine promising your child a basic income beginning at age 18. This is not just providing support—most parents already do that. Within the constraints of their own resources, they may give their young-adult children assistance with educational costs and even the down-payment on a first home; other government programs already seek to offer such support to those with lower incomes. But the UBI goes well beyond that, to an unconditional, irrevocable right to receive the cash for meeting basic needs: basically, the ultimate handout, not a hand up. A child would not receive payments himself, but he would grow up expecting them in a culture that endorsed them.

So if a parent wants the UBI experience for his children, he should not only promise the payments but also envision having “the UBI talk” with each one at least once a year, beginning no later than age 10. It could go something like this:

Son, it is important to me that you not feel obligated to support yourself. That’s my job. Nor should you feel a duty to be a productive member of society. It is a central principle of this family, rather, that you feel entitled to everything you need.

I hope you will get a job, because I think you will find it fulfilling, and it will allow you to buy nicer things. I also hope my support will encourage you to take some extra risks and pursue a challenging career, or become an entrepreneur, or dedicate yourself to helping those less fortunate. But none of that is a condition of my support. You can also backpack through Europe indefinitely or just sit in the basement smoking pot. In fact, as soon as we are done with this talk, let’s go watch one of the many movies Hollywood has produced recently in which they show the enormous benefits of those choices and viciously mock anyone who frowns on them.

If you find a girlfriend, I’ll be happy to double your payment. If you have kids, the payment will increase further. But lest you feel tied down, rest assured that you can break up, abandon the kids, and I’ll continue making payments anyway. And we’ll start those payments as soon as you turn 18, at a critical inflection point in your future.

Of course, some parents do provide their children with a system of automatic support. We call the result a “trust-fund baby.” The term is not usually synonymous with “kind, well-adjusted, productive member of society.” The day when parents embrace trust-fundism as a child-rearing ideal is the day when the UBI will gain mainstream traction as a public policy.

If the UBI’s advocates really believe in the policy, they should start with their own children. Granted, the “what about your own kids?” argument is usually a cheap rhetorical ploy. Advocates of foreign intervention don’t eagerly send their children into battle, nor do advocates of higher taxes voluntarily pay higher taxes themselves; they don’t claim that fighting wars or paying taxes benefits the individual, but rather that society as a whole would benefit. A policymaker might rationally enroll his children in private school while pursuing a public school model of education reform, or sign up his family for better health insurance than he believes the government should guarantee to all, without necessarily being hypocritical. What’s best for one’s own child need not align with the public policy one believes most appropriate for the government to adopt.

But UBI is different from these other examples, because one of its primary claims is that entitlement to an unconditional cash stipend is ideal for the individual recipient. Freed from the imperative to earn a wage, individuals can take more risks, pursue chosen careers, and commit more time to family. The advocate’s self-implementation should work especially well because his children will still live in a society that expects self-sufficiency; he gets to free-ride on community norms even as he undermines them from within.

A UBI advocate planning such payments and delivering “the talk” to his children is one to take seriously. He may not be right, but at least he seems genuinely to believe that his policy is a good one. On the other hand, an advocate who adopts a more traditional philosophy at home would seem to want something different for his family than he suggests imposing on everyone else. And an imposition it is, because the UBI promise (and its culture) would await every child, no matter his parents’ wishes. If you’re not prepared to offer UBI to your child, don’t insist that the government offer it to mine.

Photo by Scott Eells/Getty Images

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