If Stern is the most notable left-of-center basic income advocate in America, then Charles Murray is his most notable counterpart on the right. The conservative public intellectual, who laid out a basic income proposal in his 2006 book In Our Hands, has an odd CV for a basic income supporter. Before dipping into race science in The Bell Curve, Murray made his public reputation with a book-length attack on welfare called Losing Ground.He sold the book to publishers with a proposal stating, "a huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not."
Why would someone with those politics embrace a plan to eliminate poverty through welfare spending?
The short answer is that Murray's plan would do no such thing. Rather than eliminate poverty, it's designed to eliminate the welfare state. Murray specifies that he would have a universal basic income replace all transfer spending. And when he says "all," he means all. As laid out in the new 2016 edition of In Our Hands, Murray's plan would eliminate:
- Social Security, both old age and disability
- Unemployment insurance
- Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare subsidies, the Children's Health Insurance Program, and Indian health care
- All federal assistance to students, including veterans' programs, Title I, and Pell Grants
- 9/11 victim compensation (seriously, this is explicitly listed, despite raising a pittance)
- Food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, the earned income tax credit, Supplemental Security Income, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families
The last category is a reasonable set of programs to replace with a basic income; they all provide cash or a food/housing voucher that's pretty close to cash, and there's a good argument to be made that a basic income or negative income tax could do what they do better.
The other categories, however, cannot be replaced with a basic income. Social Security and unemployment insurance are, well, insurance programs: They're supposed to replace wages forgone due to retirement, disability, or unemployment. As such, they often provide benefits far exceeding Murray's proposed $13,000-per-adult benefit. Social Security's average annual benefit to retired workers is $16,400 a year; Murray's plan would offer them a benefits cut of more than 20 percent.
Medicaid and Medicare often pay for long-term care services for elderly, disabled, and mentally ill patients that cost tens of thousands of dollars annually, and are not covered by conventional health insurance. Murray would require everyone to spend $3,000 of their grant on health care, but that would pay for far skimpier insurance at best, with considerable cost sharing. $13,000 a year in UBI doesn't mean much if you lose insurance that was paying $60,000 a year on chemotherapy.
Murray's basic income plan would leave millions of poor and sick people, especially seniors, worse off. It's doubtful such a plan would even cut poverty. So why do it? In his opening statement to the Intelligence Squared debate on basic income, Murray made his motivation very clear: He wants to make it easier for Americans to socially pressure their neighbors, to push them out of being "complete screw-ups":
Let's think of the guy who is your complete screw-up. He drinks too much, he can't hold on to a job, and he runs out of money 10 days before the end of the month. Well, under the UBI, he can no longer plead helplessness. His friends and his relatives can say to him, as they cannot say now, "Okay, we aren't going to let you starve, but you've got to get your act together, and don't tell us there's nothing you can do, because we know you've got a thousand bucks hitting your bank account next month. You've got to start dealing with your problems." That's good. That kind of interaction, multiplied millions of times around the country, is having friends and relatives deal with human needs in ways that bureaucracies inherently are unable to deal with them.
Throughout his life, Murray has auditioned a series of theories to explain poverty and deprivation in America, theories he sees as working in concert with each other. Losing Groundexplained the problem primarily in terms of poor government program design; The Bell Curve explained it primarily in terms of the poor's innate cognitive deficiencies; Coming Apart, his latest book, identifies the decline of virtuous character and values in white communities as a central problem.
What these explanations have in common is that they preach fatalism about the ability of government to address poverty. If Losing Ground is right, then the government is just not good at designing programs that cut rather than increase poverty; if The Bell Curve is right, then inequality and poverty are rendered more or less inevitable by the IQ distribution, which government action largely can't alter; if Coming Apartis right, then cultural values need to change, and surely there are better ways to do that than writing checks.
Murray's writing on basic income is in this same tradition. At the outset of In Our Hands, he admits that if he had his druthers, there'd be no redistribution at all. "Imagine for a moment that the $2 trillion that the US government spends on transfer payments were left instead in the hands of the people who started with it," Murray writes. "If I could wave a magic wand, that would be my solution."
Murray wants to live in a world where people have his general attitude toward poverty, that it's a problem of individual character and ability rather than social structure. And he sees basic income as a tool to get him to that world. In an America with basic income, he thinks, more people would join him in shaming the "complete screw-up" in their hometown.
It's certainly a unique vision of the good society, but it's not one that people drawn to basic income as a tool to address poverty and inequality should countenance. It's nice to act as though basic income is an idea that transcends ideological lines. But it's really more like a Rorschach test, a canvas onto which people of various bents can project their hopes and dreams.
There just isn't a single specific policy that is supported by both Charles Murray and anti-poverty basic income advocates alike. And people who care about basic income's poverty effects should oppose the Murray vision just as vehemently as they oppose cuts to welfare state programs in any other context.
This isn't just a problem with Murray's specific plan. It's a problem with just about any libertarian or conservative effort to fashion a universal basic income. Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute has similarly suggested that "the federal government could consolidate its current amalgam of programs, and both federal and state governments could provide more benefits in the form of cash payments rather than in-kind benefits" like health care.
"We should be careful of the illusion of bipartisan agreement on the issue, even among its advocates," Tanner notes. "Free market advocates see the UBI as a replacement for the existing welfare state. Many on the left call for a UBI as an additional benefit on top of existing programs, funded through new taxes on carbon, natural resources, businesses, or 'the rich.' Bridging those differences will likely be much harder than advocates on both sides may believe."
I would go further than Tanner: I think those differences are basically unbridgeable. There might be limited agreement between principled libertarians and anti-poverty advocates on making, say, food stamps into a cash program so that families using it have more flexibility. But if real-world political experience is any indication, elected Republicans will oppose any effort to make food stamps more flexible and instead push for work requirements and restrictions on what kind of food they can purchase.
It's hard, when that's a reality, to see there being a viable basic income plan with real political buy-in from both the left and the right.