What people miss when they ask about the downsides of basic income
I get asked often about the potential downsides of basic income. One of the first questions people seem to have is if all prices will rise as a result, nullifying the entire point of it all. This is actually the first question I confronted in-depth. The answer is basically that it depends on a lot of variables, but for the most part not in any way to the degree people fear.
Another frequent question is if everyone will stop working once they have that ability. That isanother question I've studied in-depth, where the answer is basically that very few people want to earn and spend only $1,000 per month, and that basic income is not giving people money to do nothing, but enabling people with money to do anything. Immigration is another big concern for people, usually because they're assuming UBI will be given to everyone instead of only citizens, and therefore the potential for UBI to actually incentivize legal immigration is missed.
There are many other questions, and most all have likely answers for those willing to spend the necessary time to study the available evidence, but for me personally, these questions are translated in my brain at this point to sound more like, "What are the potential downsides of abolishing slavery? Will cotton get more expensive? Will former slaves just kind of sit around reading and dancing all day? Will the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free decide to walk in greater numbers through our lamp-lit golden door?" This is what I hear as someone who already has a basic income, so it's not to say such questions aren't valid, it's that the very fact we're asking them is itself something to question.
Why should only the lucky few have any choice but to do paid work? What is our infatuation with work, and why is it only paid work that seems to matter so much? What about unpaid work? Why is it considered valuable work worthy of pay when two people are paying each other to watch each other's kids, but not valuable work when they're each raising their own kids? If one concern is that people given basic incomes will work less, and another concern is that there will be half as many jobs due to automation, then everyone working half as much is exactly what we want so as to better share the available employment, isn't it? Plus productivity tends to increase as hours worked decrease, so we'd accomplish more with less as well.
Perhaps most curious of all is the question of consumption without production – this fear that people given basic incomes will do nothing but consume. Why is making bread considered valuable but eating bread considered frivolous? Bertrand Russell once questioned why getting money is good and spending money is bad. He wrote, "Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad." So if people decide to use their basic incomes to just buy what's being produced (by lots of machines mind you) and we have a problem with that, what's the point of producing it all?
There is really but one main thing to consider about the potential downsides of basic income, and we should consider it well. Basic income means more choice, and therefore the ability to take risks and make decisions we might judge to be mistakes made by ourselves or others. Of all potential drawbacks of basic income, I think this one helps further define what basic income is. It's freedom. Freedom is the ability to make our own choices, and therefore our own mistakes. Who better to make choices, and to learn from them, than ourselves? Thomas Edison said he never once failed in making the light bulb. He merely learned thousands of ways of not making one. I think we should consider the possibility that what we currently see as preventing others from making mistakes for "their own good," through the paternalistic application of strict conditions, is actively preventing people from learning how to succeed. It robs people of agency, and it inhibits the pursuit of happiness upon which our country was founded.
With basic income, people may make new choices that you personally would not make. You may also make new choices others would not make. Some may decide to sell less of their labor. Some may decide to watch more Netflix. Some may eat more, or smoke more, or forget to pay an important bill, or neglect to plan for retirement, but all of these are choices. Should the government prevent us from making these choices through withholding of basic income? Or are these choices ours to make for ourselves as free men and women?