Disclaimer: This does risk being a little culture-war-adjacent. This is more political than I normally see on LessWrong, but the spirit of it is intended to be less "Smash Capitalism" or "Become Ungovernable" and more "look at these things that are happening in Australia."
Inspired by: Basic Income, Not Basic Jobs: Against Hijacking Utopia, SSC Gives A Graduation Speech.
Some bad things are happening today to people who depend on the government for money. This suggests that similar bad things could happen in the future if more people depend on the government for money.
If you're an advocate for UBI, or it's a linchpin in your plan for how we'll live well post-AI, it's important to consider two connected worries carefully:
Worries along the lines of "UBI could make us all serfs" and various techno-futuristic dystopian visions are already common enough. There's also a growing part of journalism/civil society/activism concerned with an industry that "farms the unemployed" — billing the government for services it ostensibly provides to poor people, while in fact spending their time on coercive control and a moralistic form of discipline. A "digital poorhouse" per Virginia Eubanks.
I think the average LW reader has also probably heard worries about Government Issued Digital Currency (GIDC), which is certainly part of the concern here. Others have expressed worry about payment processors and banks being politically manipulated.
But I think many people here are less familiar with arguments about problems within the social welfare system that already exist today. These problems are suggestive to me that, absent a change in the culture of these institutions, a UBI might lead to serious abuses.
After listing some reasons it might be hard to actually make an actual universal policy, or 'make it an inalienable human right', etc., I then briefly survey some of the abuses of welfare recipients that have recently occurred in Australia, due to the ability of the government, public servants, and employees of private companies to 'turn off the tap' on their money.
The most compact way to pump this intuition is to imagine a caricature of a political debate, where a outrage-stoking populist politician is tearing shreds off a nervously stammering, principled, liberal, establishment centrist candidate.
Are you seriously proposing to give access to our hard earned tax dollars to migrants? Refugees? Oh, you're not? How can we trust you on this? So you'll demand government-issued photo-ID and proof of citizenship for people signing up? Ok, what about convicted terrorists? What about people (accused of) traveling abroad to join terrorist organizations (accused by members of the government or security agencies without a trial)? What about 'terrorist sympathizers?'We won't be giving it to convicted felons, though, right? Oh we ARE? But not while they're in prison, right? And obviously child sex offenders are barred from the UBI for life, right?What about people who refuse to get vaccinated or vaccinate their children? What about people who take part in unpopular protests?What about draft-dodgers? Taxpayers would be paying for them to sit on their behinds while everyone else who gets conscripted does their duty and answers the call.What about billionaires? ('Boo, hiss!') How are you going to guarantee there's no fraud? You can't? So it's ok to be a welfare cheat? How can we ever trust you not to allow any fraud to go unpunished?
I think at least one of those points probably hit for >70% of readers, and each of you feels that either: (1) the point that convinced you is an obvious, common-sense exception and I was silly to include it or (2) the point is unlikely to come up because it would be outside the Overton window.
It's worth noticing that it's impossible to maintain universality without being prepared to 'hold your nose' and give money to Really Bad People, and that arguing for that position is likely to be unpopular, politically salient, and plain suicide for lawmakers.
Rather than sketch a too-specific futuristic sci-fi scenario for how this coercive control could look, I want to point at the existing social welfare system, today, focusing mainly on Australia (the country to which I've been paying the most attention.)
Here are some of the abuses witnessed in Australia recently. I'll probably write a post about each of these soon. (Or, just read literally anything Jeremy Poxon posts on Twitter.)
This is only a brief survey, and much more can be said about any of its points.
If you're not engaged with these issues (maybe because they're mostly documented by firebrand leftists and framed in sweeping political terms), it's easy to miss how bad things have become in this sector of society.
If we can't make a 'clean break' when we create the UBI, and it thus inherits some of the cultural and institutional baggage of current-day social welfare systems, there could be many challenges to individual autonomy and liberty.
I think it's likely that UBI will grow from existing social welfare programs over time, with eligibility criteria widening as more people require the assistance. Even if it's created as a brand new universal payment, it seems likely the existing infrastructure and expertise will be recycled when implementing it. At a minimum, if the UBI is culturally treated as 'welfare', the existing cultural norms around work and welfare might still apply to it, in some ways.
This is the most obvious and probably justified exception, but it's worth noting that (1) there are tens of millions of undocumented migrants living in the US, and (2) requiring ID, proof of citizenship, etc. will create the same problems that exist today, where e.g. homeless people, mentally ill people struggle to handle the bureaucratic hurdles. If you're a pretty capable person and you already have ID, a fixed address, etc, it's easy to forget how hard it is to bootstrap from 'doesn't have documents in order' to 'documents in order.'
(My own experiences just getting a simple bank account when I moved to a different country showed me how hard this kind of thing can be. You need proof of address, which you can't get until you have bills arriving at your house with your name on them, and you also need three forms of ID, which you can't get until you have proof of address. You also need ID and bank statements to start a rental tenancy. I'm pretty organized, and it was hard to figure out what order to do things in, and it took time. Try doing it while mentally ill, after sleeping rough and not eating properly for a couple of weeks.)
This may not have actually happened to anyone, but that seems to be because the supposed problem never existed, not because of any legal or ethical norms preventing the government from acting. The government minister responsible seems almost embarrassed the law was never applied because they couldn't find anyone to apply it to.
Beyond just cutting welfare payments, the rights of citizens accused of terrorist offenses are very poorly observed. Several Western governments, including the UK, have passed laws allowing them to revoke citizenship from individuals, without a trial or any means for appeal, when those individuals are simply accused of traveling overseas to assist in terrorist acts. The US has even killed its own citizens without a trial on at least one occasion.
Existing norms and laws often don't support paying social welfare to felons. "In addition to not being allowed to serve on a jury in most states, convicted felons are not allowed to apply for federal or state grants, live in public housing, or receive federal cash assistance, SSI or food stamps, among other benefits." Source.
No politician wants to ever be in the position of arguing that any punishment is too harsh for child sex offenders. It's a uniquely despised crime.
Without debating the merits of the 'vaccine mandate', it should be uncontroversial to note that many governments that stopped short of making the vaccine literally mandatory, did impose restrictions on unvaccinated people that blah blah.
Once you try to link UBI to any kind of means testing or wealth cutoff, you've opened a can of worms and need to create a huge bureaucracy that would eat into the savings you're supposed to be making by reducing bureaucracy.
See footnote 8. The cost of surveillance and enforcement would be high. Welfare fraud is a common tabloid and populist trope, and it's easy to imagine UBI fraud becoming a populist talking point.
I was surprised when writing this to discover that an hour of google searches couldn't turn up any examples of people losing their payments (or politicians calling for them to lose their payments) for just being political extremists, neo-Nazis, ANTIFA, insurrectionists, etc. This was not the gestalt impression I had formed from idly browsing Twitter and listening to the concerns around UBI there. The norm of not cutting people's payments as explicit punishment for political affiliations appears fairly strong. (Attending political protests is another matter, though.)
Because I live here, and because Australia punches above its weight in terms of violating the law and moral norms in its dealings with social welfare recipients.
Some choice tweets from Jeremy's close watch of the submissions to the Inquiry into Workforce Australia: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
"Professor Whiteford said a key flaw of the Robodebt scheme was that ‘overpayments’ for many people were based on averaging recipients’ income over the financial year. ‘Debts’ were then based on the difference between this averaged income and the income that people actually reported while they were receiving payments [reports are every two weeks and payments ONLY consider the previous eight weeks in their calculations of entitlements.]“I warned about this misstep in 2017 and thought at the time ‘they can’t possibly have done that’,” Professor Whiteford said. “Sadly, as the Royal Commission into Robodebt has discovered, this is precisely what they were doing.” Source
"Professor Whiteford said a key flaw of the Robodebt scheme was that ‘overpayments’ for many people were based on averaging recipients’ income over the financial year. ‘Debts’ were then based on the difference between this averaged income and the income that people actually reported while they were receiving payments
[reports are every two weeks and payments ONLY consider the previous eight weeks in their calculations of entitlements.]“I warned about this misstep in 2017 and thought at the time ‘they can’t possibly have done that’,” Professor Whiteford said. “Sadly, as the Royal Commission into Robodebt has discovered, this is precisely what they were doing.” Source
The whole point of the term "universal' in UBI is that it does not depend on conditions like seeking work. There's no good reason to call existing welfare programs that come with conditions UBI.
Yes, this. It's weird for me to say that UBI makes people vulnerable to coercive control when a big part of the motivation behind a UBI is to eliminate such coercive control. That this might be democratically untenable in practice is a valid argument, but as the OP says themselves, the coerciveness and abuses already exist in current, conditional forms of social security. So that sounds to me like an argument for trying to move towards more unconditional systems, even if this was politically challenging at first. (In fact, I frequently hear people saying something like "and this is why we need a UBI" when reading about dysfunctions and abuses in existing social security systems - those are one of the biggest reasons why many people I know are UBI supporters.)
I'm not sure exactly how Australia does this, but in the US, the largest welfare program we have manages to be fairly universal, politically popular and not abusive (as far as I know). That program is Social Security / welfare for older people.
I think some important pieces of how it manages to work are:
Part of the popularity is that there's a general agreement that people over a certain age should get a break, but people used to work basically until they died and the idea that 62 year olds should be given retirement is fairly new. I suspect if we slowly pushed the retirement age down, the age at which people consider retirement reasonable will also go down. Past a certain point you might reach some political instability when people in their 20's realize how much they're getting screwe... (read more)
This might be the case in the US but it's not the case universally. E.g. Finland's basic income experiment, while ultimately discontinued and sabotaged in many ways, still had enough political support behind it to actually get to the point of a two-year national trial. A basic income has also been on... (read more)
I think this post's thesis (populists will stop any attempt at UBI) is perhaps narrativizing the situation. Dems have had, in my lifetime, the full triforce of power at least 4 times. They've never even tried to pass UBI, and that's not a coincidence. The consequences of doing so would not flow from populists, but from its so-called supporters.
I worked at a QT for a sizable portion of my adult life, and the experience never leaves me. The beings I saw, day in and day out, are your UBI support. Let me tell you, it is a mile wid... (read more)
Military housing allowance (BAH) translates to 'rents in the commuting vicinity of a military base have a price floor set at BAH'.
UBI for landless peasants is destined to become a welfare program not for recipients, but for the parasitic elites who will feed and house them. Standards of acceptability for both will trend downwards long term, while laws against complaining about it will trend upwards.
[ not upvoted because it's a little off-topic for LW. Not downvoted because even though it's close to politics, it does a very good job of walking the line between overgeneralizing and being useless vs taking a specific position on a hot-button topic. ]
I pretty much agree with the premise here, and it does apply (horribly) to alignment in general: humans treat each other horribly, and there's no reason to believe that powerful tools or even aligned powerful allies will fix that.
It's much harder to nibble away at something that's supposed to be universal , than something that isn't. Cf. universal healthcare.
Most criticisms of UBI that I have seen are criticisms of conventional welfare, rather than addressing the unique features of UBI. This is not much different. For insance, complaining about programmes for the unemployed does not directly address UBI, since it is not targeted at the unemployed only, and the assumption is that many recipients will stay in work.
You have a decent set of arguments related to UBI as it may be conceived today, but I think it doesn't accommodate the future or where we are right now in terms of worker productivity as a ratio to capital profitability.
There's a longer term x-risk for non-major (US/CN/IN/etc) countries - especially in my mind AU since I live here - that isn't being discussed as much as it should, since it's already been happening for decades and will only accelerate with tech/AI-centric developments: where is the tax/revenue base going?
This dream of technology unlocking U... (read more)
Hard agree. I wrote my own post not long ago about exactly how I think that at a fundamental economic level, a society in which a large class of people exist who have no leverage and contribute no value yet are kept around seems dramatically unstable - and I'd expect those people to quickly fall into various forms of serfdom or worse, eventually, genocide. You actually make some compelling and more pragmatic arguments for just about how this would go short term.
I think people hope for a change in culture, thinking that this mindset is the product of capita... (read more)
The US has even killed its own citizens without a trial on at least one occasion.
The US has even killed its own citizens without a trial on at least one occasion.
This is mainly a problem with granting birthright citizenship.
One of the biggest problems in a world with UBI- the complete lack of power of the average person.
One worst things about the abuses of people in welfare by those in power (intentional abuse or not) is the utter disparity in power.
And the deep psychological effects of that.
Having been in such a position at one point, I felt humiliated, ashamed and really worthless.
This is not how all people felt or do feel, but by and large, it is not good.
I think a much better alternative to UBI- but one that might be even harder to do- would be to work to make everyone... (read more)
I don't follow your reasoning. You seem to identify two main problems, which is why you think UBI is [unlikely to happen / not a good idea in your opinion] (I'm not sure which one you are claiming, or if you're claiming both).
Problem 2: You show, with examples, that when someone relies on some social program system, then they can be forced to do things, under the threat of being excluded from said program. Does this imply that a program with simple conditions or without any condition, such as UBI, would be a better alternative, because it would make exclud... (read more)