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:

  1. Creating the scheme as truly universal (and keeping it that way) may be politically untenable in a democracy.
  2. In many likely worlds, some people will depend on this non-universal UBI for survival, leaving them vulnerable to coercive control and arbitrary punishment by the government (lawfully), government officials (unlawfully), even corrupt bureaucrats.

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.[1] 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.

Two main problems

1. You probably can't make it universal, and you probably can't keep it that way.

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?[2] 
Ok, what about convicted terrorists? What about people (accused of) traveling abroad to join terrorist organizations [3](accused by members of the government or security agencies without a trial)?[4] 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? [5]
And obviously child sex offenders are barred from the UBI for life, right?[6]
What about people who refuse to get vaccinated or vaccinate their children[7]
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!')[8] 
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?[9]

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[10].

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.

2. If any people depend on the UBI for survival, they're vulnerable to coercive control.

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[1], today, focusing mainly on Australia (the country to which I've been paying the most attention.)[11]

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[12] posts on Twitter.)

  • Cashless debit card for welfare (intended to stop welfare recipients accessing cash and/or purchasing alcohol, tobacco, porn, gambling products).
  • 'Mutual Obligations' welfare recipients coerced to 'jump through hoops', perform work for free, and exposed to summary punishments (having their income cut off) without trial or due process, via a system that empowers petty tyrants entry-level employees of private 'job agencies' to cut off people's welfare payments based on their own discretion, often in error.
    • 'Job Agencies' ostensibly help job-seekers to find work, but much of their daily activity is disciplinary, in some cases spending 30-40% of their time managing compliance with mandatory job-seeking activities (and doling out punishment for failures), rather than providing job-seeking assistance.
  • Unlawful collection of fake 'debts': a scheme that used a literally wrong[13] algorithm to identify fictitious 'debts' alleged to be owed by people who had previously received welfare payments, sending threatening letters demanding immediate repayment, then selling those fake debts to private debt recovery agencies.
    • After years, the government settled a class-action lawsuit and paid ~$1.2 billion (USD) (of which ~500 million was wrongly-collected money being paid back and ~74 million was compensation to victims for lost interest. They didn't have to pay damages for the harm caused.)
    • When served with a 'robodebt', you were assumed guilty by default, and required to present evidence of your innocence. (For example, a complete set of payslips from a casual job you had while studying at university, six years ago.)
  • Electronic surveillance of welfare recipients to prevent fraud. Especially scary when combined with:
  • Unlawful privacy violations (leaks of personal information to the tabloid press) to punish welfare recipients for political activism.


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.

  1. ^

    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.

  2. ^

    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.)

  3. ^

    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.

  4. ^

    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.

  5. ^

    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.

  6. ^

    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.

  7. ^

    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. 

  8. ^

    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.

  9. ^

    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.

  10. ^

    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.)

  11. ^

    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. 

  12. ^

    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.

  13. ^

    "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


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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.)

But some actually are called that already, like the UK's Universal Credit.
Where do I call existing welfare systems UBI? That's a misunderstanding of my argument. My point is that I don't think it's likely that future real-world policies will BE universal. They'll be touted as such, they might even be called UBI, but they won't be universal. I argue they're likely to emerge from existing social welfare systems, or absorb their infrastructure and institutions, or at least their cultural baggage. I can see the confusion, and maybe I should have put 'UBI' in quotes to indicate that I meant 'the policy I think we'll actually get that people will describe as UBI or something equivalent.'
You use the term "UBI dystopia" in the title of the post. If you aren't speaking about UBI that's heavily misleading. 
I'm speaking about the policy that's going to be called UBI when it's implemented. You're allowed to discuss e.g. socialism without having to defer to a theoretical socialism that is by definition free of problems. Anyway, it's a quibble, feel free to find and replace UBI with 'the policy we'll eventually call UBI', it doesn't change the argument I make.
Your whole post is about deferring to your idea of theoretical UBI. We do have real-world trials of UBI and there are policies that are used in those trials.  If you want something nontheoretical it makes sense to call the kind of policies that are in UBI trials UBI. Language is valuable. What you are doing is an attempt to remove the current meaning from the term UBI which makes it harder to talk about the underlying policies. 
Edit: removed a bad point.  If you object strongly to the use of the term UBI in the post, you can replace it with something else.  Then I make a number of substantive arguments. Your response so far is 'if it's a UBI it won't suffer from these issues by its very definition.' My response is 'yes it will, because I believe any UBI policy proposal will degrade into something less than the ideal definition almost immediately when implemented at scale, or just emerge from existing welfare systems piecemeal rather than all at once. Then all the current concerning 'bad things that happen to people who depend on government money' will be issues to consider.
LessWrong is more about healthy epistemics than it is about political conclusions. Arguments about bad epistemic like redefining words matter independent of the conclusions. When it comes to taking Australia as an example for how political dissent is treated, it's worth noting that Australia takes actions like COVID-19 Quarantine camps that didn't happen in Europe or the US.  This year in Germany we changed our system in the direction of UBI. While it's still not UBI it does show the political viability of moving the system in that direction. If the FDP wouldn't have been in the government we likely would have moved more into the UBI direction. Apart from the change we see in Germany, how people who receive government money are treated also depends a lot on class. Various companies that get government subsidies are treated well. If you have a scenario where upper-class people think that they might receive UBI in the future you are likely to get laws that are a lot more friendly to UBI recipients.  You yourself said: This is evidence of political movement in the direction of real UBI, but somehow you take it as evidence against UBI. This journalism/civil society/activism is the political muscle pushing for UBI and its power is growing. 
1M. Y. Zuo5mo
I've noticed this as a trend for LW essays, whenever non-standard definitions are used there are bound to be logic gaps that are just below the surface, or sometimes even visible on initial glance. At least for every one that I can remember.
My point is not to argue that existing welfare systems are UBI. I don't use any non-standard definitions. I don't call existing welfare systems UBI.  My point is that the real-world policy we're likely to eventually call UBI probably won't actually be universal, and if it emerges as a consequence of more and more people relying on social welfare, or else is associated with social welfare culturally, bad things will likely happen. Then I give some examples of the sort of bad things I mean. This is a good point. I would like it very much if we could implement a UBI policy that did not come with the cultural baggage of existing social welfare systems. I would like it if existing social welfare systems would become more unconditional. I see why people think UBI would achieve this. I think they're more optimistic than I am about our ability to shed our social attitudes to work and welfare. Maybe it'll change with demographics, who knows...
1M. Y. Zuo5mo
Is your point then a 'true UBI' system is practically impossible? And any feasible implementable system shouldn't be called UBI?
Why? Every universal healthcare system I have heard of was introduced at a stroke. And is "we" just the US?

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:

  • The requirements are very minimal so almost everyone who lives long[1] enough qualifies (11 years of earnings[2] and reaching the age of 62)
  • There's no requirements going forward, so there's no point to re-checking (i.e. if I'm 62 this year, I'll definitely be 62-or-older next year)
  • Older people are a big enough portion of the voting population that making this worse would be politically unfeasible

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)

While I share your ignorance about how things are done in Australia and your general description of Social Security I think a couple of points might be worth considering. First, Social Security is not a UBI or even supposed to be sufficient to support someone in retirement. It is a supplemental income program that, that people pay into. I agree that there is a rather large disconnect between what you pay in and what you can expect to take out based on your personal situation. That said, it also seems to share some of the same concerns that OP makes. Many question if those paying in now will actually be able to collect, solvency issues. While I don't think any talks about this (but I don't look so it could be well known and discussed in some circles) there seems to be a very clear bias towards the "haves" actually being able to pull the most out compared to those most needing it. Look at the payout schedule for delaying your payment until 70. Those that need cannot wait. My supposition is that this incentive to delay for a few years is largely about cash flow issues related to the whole question of solvency. But clearly that introduces some, arguably, undesirable distributional effects. I would also point out that while you can start collecting at 62 you will not be collecting what is considered your full monthly supplemental income. You get penalized for taking payment early (full age and full payment depends on when you were born -- for me I have to be 66 1/2 to collect a full payout) just as you get a premium for waiting. I think one can find plenty of similar points of contention related to Social Security as is raised in the OP.   Edit to add a small pointer to Alaska. That State, unless it's changed, has something of a UBI type payout. It's based on the royalties one mineral and oil leases on State land. All Alaskan citizens get their share (not sure if it's uniform or proportional to some factor). Perhaps some make similar complaints about that program as
2Brendan Long5mo
I think the intention of Social Security is to provide enough money for you to survive, but not neccesarily live comfortably, which matches how UBI's are marketed. It's possible with inflation it's not even good enough for that, but I suspect if it actually caused major problems it would be fixed, since it's a very popular program. I don't think solvency is a real problem for Social Security necessarily. For historical reasons we pretend that workers pay in and then get benefits and Social Security supports itself, but that's not true and hasn't been for a while, but the program is still popular. I expect that if Social Security's surplus runs out, the funding from general taxes / printing money will increase to compensate. Note that really the only argument I've heard against Social Security is that it's too expensive, but that argument will have much less power if we're living in a world of such extreme abundance that most people don't need to work.
Are you limiting the phrase "Social Security" to the funds given to the elderly or are you including things like disability payments?
2Brendan Long5mo
I was only talking about funds given to the elderly. The disability system is very bad and I'd recommend not making that the inspiration or a UBI.
Thanks for the clarification.

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.

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)

It also occurs to me that Finland has some semi-"universal" benefits that are at least commonly understood to maintain their popularity exactly because they are paid to everyone who passes a very basic eligibility criteria. In particular, the amount that you're paid child benefits depends only on the number of underaged children that you have and you being a permanent resident of the country - it's not tied to your income or any other factors. I've often seen it claimed that the system enjoys wide support exactly because it's universal for all parents, so everyone who has children has a reason to be in favor. Some people do feel like it should be made less universal, but mostly in the direction of "what's the point of giving it to those who are already the wealthiest and don't need the extra money" - I don't recall hearing anyone saying that it should be restricted because of some of the recipients being Really Bad People. Finland also has housing allowance which feels pretty UBI-like to me, since anyone with a low enough income (and who is a permanent resident) is eligible to get it to cover part of their housing expenses.

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)

7Said Achmiz5mo
Is “QT” this? Or something else?
It's that.
I think this is susceptible to David Graeber's "bullshit jobs" argument. Why do people need cheap food? Lack of money. why do people need out-of-hours shopping? Lack of time.
What does that have to do which what Graeber said about "bullshit jobs"? Someone who stocks the shelves at Wall Mart isn't working at what Graeber called bullshit jobs.
You can have an equilibrium, compared to the US, where the poor are less poor in nominal terms, the food is more expensive in nominal terms (but not in Purchasing Power Parity terms) the rich are less rich, and so on. If you are European,you probably do already.
I don't understand how what you wrote has anything to do with the "bullshit jobs" thesis.  Graeber calls jobs that don't produce anything of value bullshit jobs. Someone who works at Wall Mart to stock the shelves does produce value. 

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.

4Jackson Wagner5mo
First time I've had the opportunity to comment "just tax land lol" -- if we're thinking about how to craft an ideal policy situation (which we are doing, by talking about UBI), it shouldn't be too much to posit that UBI would pair best with: * Georgism, so that the rent on land is not monopolized by landowning elites, but rather flows mainly to the public purse (perhaps this land rent is the main thing that helps fund the UBI)!  More detail on georgism and how this would work can be found at this series of long but engaging blog posts: https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/does-georgism-work-is-land-really * Unfortunately Georgism would not be a complete solution, because of course land is not the ONLY thing that parasitic elites could seek to monopolize and rent-seek with.  So you'd need an enthusiastic, competent state that could play a bit of consumer-protection whack-a-mole, trying to spot new rent-seeking monopolies and break them up.  Eg, enact YIMBY policies to prevent a monopoly on housing, stimulate competition and free trade in general to prevent monopolies in goods and services, etc.  It would be a dynamic situation, and there would always be a little bit of elite parasitism going on, but the more competent and human-thriving-aligned your government is, the better they'd be able to play whack-a-mole. That said, on a larger, more philosophical level, if the economic fundamentals of society are naturally super unequal (huge number of powerless people hoping that elites take pity on them and implement an ideal UBI+georgism+etc policy regime, while a tiny portion of the population produces like 99% of all economic value), that is inherently gonna be a more precarious situation than one in which the economic fundamentals are naturally pretty egalitarian (maybe imagine a world where manual labor is in high demand, and pretty much anyone can do manual labor, so wages are naturally high across the society).  The unequal
UBI will always have some power imbalance. if not due to how that income is provided, then by how that income is exchanged for the basic goods. if we want to universally provide for the basic needs, while avoiding that kind of power imbalance, it seems sensible to focus exactly on that: automate more and more of the housing/food production chain, and distribute the tools for that to decrease the power of whichever hierarchies might otherwise bar access to them. so Universal Basic Income is the practical implementation for providing basic needs for as long as there’s actually a significant labor requirement in that loop: but further into the utopian future it will need to shift to Universal Basic Production, where individuals/households/communities are granted both the power and responsibility of operating whatever machinery actually does the providing.
No love for this last time I posted it, but you might appreciate Aldous Huxley's introduction to this particular unfinished utopian fiction. I think he shared your vision, and it's tragic to see how far we are from it. http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Hopousia_or_The_Sexual_and_Economic_Foundations_of_a_New_Society
no love for it from me either, i’m sorry to say. the “society only exists when we overcome our base sexual desires” meme is tired. my university days were simultaneously my most promiscuous and my most productive (subjectively, measured by my extra-curricular contributions to technology). that’s a sample size of 1 (or dozens? depends how you measure it), but Huxley doesn’t even claim a single sample for the opposing view — much less an experiment, despite claiming this foundational assumption as “scientific”. are complex systems like societies path-dependent? absolutely. the example of decentralized Swedish production arising after centralized English production is intriguing, in that this diversity appears to be predicated on the two societies having been only loosely connected prior to this — suggesting that this sort of divergence become more difficult as societies become more globalized (the opposing point of view being that globalization means those people with similar, but niche, divergent interests can more easily locate and collaborate with eachother). but that’s sort of the only interesting thing i could scrape from that intro, and it’s 80% my own extrapolation.
Maybe every alternative will have a worse power imbalance.

[ 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.

4Seth Herd5mo
Humans treat each other horribly under conditions of scarcity. That is literally all we've ever seen. The most powerful humans yet to live still haven't been able to protect themselves and their loved ones from horrible deaths from age and disease, if not betrayal. I have some vague hopes that real abundance will, over time, shift human nature toward the generosity we also see now in the better (or more privileged) of us.
Scarcity is elastic.  There's literally thousands of times the resources and only 20 or so times the population as 1000 years ago.  Humans CREATE conditions of scarcity, and then treat each other horribly within those conditions.   Scarcity is literally all we've ever seen because it's universal.  It's relative to imagined/preferred resources, and that imagination grows faster than actual resources.  
2Seth Herd5mo
That's true, but not infinitely true. There's a difference in the drive for getting shelter when you're cold, and getting another hundred followers when you're rich. That's why I mentioned death and sickness. We haven't yet eased the scarcity of good years of life and living dying without pain by more than a fraction. It's an unproven hope, but I do think that the direction of less meanness with less material scarcity and danger is pretty certain. How much it changes, including cultural change over time, is to be seen.
Ok.  Not sure if that's true, but even if so, we're a long long way from infinite.  It's quite possible there is no infinity. Right, there's lots of differences in scarcity of different things.  However, for each thing, more of the thing is better than less.  There may be declining marginal utility for many many things, and even declining close enough to zero for some things, but there will always be stuff for which marginal utility is positive for each and every distinct human. Yeah, and an unlikely one IMO.

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)

100% agree. Worse, I think you can't really get to the Star Trek like future and stay there unless you give the people a way to lock it in place and not have their rights taken away. Sam Altman speaks explicitly about "capturing all the value in the world" and redistributing it in the form of UBI but that's... like... a Saturday morning cartoon supervillain's plan. "Get all the money and then give it to everyone else, trust me". Even assuming he is being 100% sincere, you can't expect things to go that smoothly, or that system to fix the problems of the entire world rather than the US alone, or that he'll be allowed to do it by those around him, or that he'll be the one to win the AI race. This is like a modern version of "just have an absolute monarch and trust that he'll be an enlightened, wise dude with everyone's best interests at heart". There's a reason why that never worked.

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)

There's a difference between "how many you actually catch" and "how many you actually catch, plus how many more are discouraged from cheating by the possibility of being caught". Instincts to punish people are how actual humans precommit. And it's necessary to precommit to punishment. If you don't. the punishment would always be uneconomical when considered after the fact, so nobody would follow up on any threats to punish. Anyone who might be discouraged by punishment would then anticipate the lack of followup, so the threat of punishment would have no effect.
i think you could equally frame this as “people precommit due to an expectation of reciprocity”. like, i don’t generally follow through on my commitments to plans with friends because i fear punishment for breaking them. it’s more that i expect whatever amount i invest into the friendship will be reciprocated (approximately). you could frame the fallout of a commitment failure as “punishment”, but if the risk of punishment exceeded the benefit of cooperation that would discourage me from pre-committing; from interacting with the thing at all. if i thought my crush would beat me should i break things off with him, then i’d simply never ask him out to begin with and we’d probably both be worse off for that.
I realise that much, but even with all that, I still think that realistically we're vastly, vastly overcommitting resources and effort to preventing welfare fraud compared to the actual benefits. There's a reason why some suggest that UBI might be not only a better, but a cheaper scheme, simply by virtue of removing all the bells and whistles of actually trying to double check who has the correct rights and who doesn't. The kind of welfare fraud you'd need to worry about is "one guy pretends to be one million guys and then a lot other people imitate him". Most benefits (I'm writing from the UK, personally, but I guess this probably applies elsewhere too) are so thin, even if everyone was a scammer (and that's a vast overestimate no matter what), you wouldn't lose much compared to the total size of the national budget. In practice, the mildest and most superficial of checks to root out the obvious problems would likely be all that's needed. Instead we regularly err on the other side, with checks so expansive that they cause false negatives instead (and thus people who need the benefits go without) and also cost more than the benefit fraud they prevent. It's not a particularly rational system, not in a regime of fundamental abundance as we have. We could definitely afford a lot of slack before "lazy people who don't want to work" actually became anything remotely close to a real economic problem. The reason is ideological, cultural and sometimes religious commitment to the idea that work is sacred and not working has to be discouraged and punished, not economic sense or decision theory. That still works, kinda, but in a post-AGI world people would have to either abandon those ideals really quickly or create an incredibly cruel and self-destructive system that would punish people for not doing what no one needs them to do anyway.

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)

If the powerlessness of those relying on UBi comes from those dispensing UBI being able to withdraw it, then the solution is a robust set of rights ... and rights are also a necessary component of any alternative solution, like self sufficiency.
I think with lots of AIs the work everyone should best do is keeping the AIs aimed at their goals. Direct them, orient them, keep them in line with our overall interests. Everyone a foreman for a few instances of AIs doing something. Doubles as a possible alignment solution: give as little agency as possible to the AIs, delegate the decisions to the human overseers. Humans' contribution to the economy will be "their values".
1Meena Kumar5mo
There are already people trying to make an AI that destroys humanity "for the lols". Many people will try to use AI against each other. As they are now. E.g. militaries, scammers, revenge porn makers, etc.
Sure, but in general, given enough adequate tools, most people contribute to keeping those things in check. This doesn't hold if AIs turn out to be "glass cannons" - tremendously powerful attackers, but poor at setting up defences against other AIs - but in that case, well, there's pretty much no way out. Full self-sufficiency would require everyone to have a whole productive chain at their fingertips, it just doesn't seem realistic as something to be achieved before AIs are already incredibly advanced, and there's a lot of danger from here to there. Besides, not sure it'd be realistic with Earth resources either (nor that everyone would want it; but I guess small self-sufficient tribe-sized communities might actually work a lot better for many people). The worries now concern much more realistic, close at hand scenarios.
1Meena Kumar5mo
"Sure, but in general, given enough adequate tools, most people contribute to keeping those things in check. " What are you basing this on? And the issue is if the contributions will be enough. And not even making and providing adequate tools, but trying to figure out what tools will be adequate in the first place and then after that, getting people to actually use those tools. Still don't see what this has to do with UBI.
Society not just spontaneously collapsing under the pressure of the few antisocial types trying to destroy it? True, that's all part of the difficulty of this whole endeavour. I explained why I think this is relevant to UBI in the response to your other comment.
1Meena Kumar5mo
And I don't see how this has anything to do with UBI.
It does because UBI presumes there's just no work for people to do, while what I'm saying is that we shouldn't abolish work entirely - because of what you say, the lack of power (and thus leverage). Instead we should distribute as much as possible the work of governance and decision-making, the only work that would be left and needs to be definitely in human hands, because automating it doesn't relieve us of toil, but it pretty much makes us just spectators to our own history.
There are multiple arguments for UBI, only one of which is that there will be a reduction in paid work. There is certainly no requirement to abolish work.
It tends to be the end point of most visions of AGI. At some point, there's just nothing left for humans to do. But also, if there was a large class (say, even just 50%) of citizens who simply don't do any work and have no real leverage or economic contribution, I think they would quickly end up disenfranchised, UBI or not.
Disenfranchised as in literally losing the vote? Why?
I wrote a whole post on why I think so but the short version is: because they have nothing to offer, and nothing they can threaten anyone else with. They're literally not necessary any more. The people who do hold the money and power might keep them around at their whim - though the mindset that such people would be "parasites" is scarily common and IMO would not go away just because of the absurdity of holding it in a society in which 50% of jobs are automated - but they might also leave them to their own devices, and the drift in that direction would be irreversible. That said, society might be changed even more radically by AI before the process reaches the point of those people being left to die or similarly awful fate. If for some reason you had AGI and then froze the development there, though, that's roughly the outcome I would eventually expect.
That's true of quite a lot of people already, but we are not turning them into soylent..because our societies are based on human rights and civil rights and universal suffrage.
We may not be turning them into soylent, but the true completely powerless - the homeless, the unemployed, the disabled, the clandestine immigrants - tend to have it really bad. And the pressure tends to be on to clamp on their condition even further at the first sign of hardship or scarcity, or dump the blame on them for various problems as "burdens". Even if just that was the fate in store for the non-working masses, it's hardly utopia. But also, I think a society in which, say 95% of all people are fundamentally at least that disposable is a lot more unstable. Human and civil rights weren't born out of nowhere, but out of negotiation and struggle, often backed by threats (not necessarily of violence, but at least of civil disobedience). That windfall ends up benefitting even people who would not be able to exert that same degree of leverage personally. I'm not saying that every rich person is just waiting to have an army of personal robots to order them to slaughter the poor. I'm saying however that the only thing that would stop them from doing that would be if they don't feel like it, and that is a very flimsy basis for a society, and not one I'd expect to survive two or three generations (though again, those would be really long timescales for that sort of world anyway). If you ask me how I think that would look like, I'd guess something similar to what happened to Native Americans. A mix of "why should we give you more, be grateful for what little we pass onto you, it's not like you do anything to deserve it" while progressively encroaching on spaces and living resources at any time when it's necessary, followed by progressively more brutal repression of any hopeless attempt at rebellion (because, hey, it's their fault: they started using violence, so we're justified).
In the US specifically? Are you sure? Capitalists need customers. You seem to be envisioning a situation where elites only care about living in luxury...but capitalists play the game of making the most money.
Not in a society with fully automated pipelines entirely free of human labour, they don't. That's the problem.
How do they make money? "They don't need any more money" "Bezos, Musk and Buffet don't need any more money, but they keep on making it".
Money is just an intermediate step. Money is needed to access capital and labour. Why would you need the money to go through the hands of people who don't do any work if you own both capital and labour, or can trade directly with the others who do?
If you are not selling stuff to other people in some sense, you are not going to pull ahead of other billionaires.
Are you actually visualizing the world that we're talking about here, or are you just generalizing what we know now about economics to a context that's wildly out of domain? Right now, capital alone is dead without labour put in. This means labour is valuable; and the only way to mass purchase labour is to pay people. Labour is the only resource that scales precisely with the number of people, and you can't just make more of it on demand. Because labour is valuable, and virtually every person on this planet has an equal-ish share of it to rent out, everyone who wants to produce goods must pay for labour. This means that workers have some resources (note btw that looking for example at past systems like slavery does not change the situation: slavery is inefficient and expensive, especially for complex cognitive labour, and doesn't overcome the scarcity issues, so even economically speaking and discarding all morals, it's a dead end for an industrialised society). Since workers want to spend those resources to stay alive, and also, having as much people as possible is good because it means more labour with which to produce more, then the best thing to do is to sell them goods. Capital enhances the productivity of workers, allowing them to make a lot more stuff than they would alone; in exchange they get some of that stuff (via salaries that allows them to buy the product of other workers' efforts), and the rest goes to those who own the capital. AGI + robotics is capital that needs no labour. With AGI, you get all the benefits of ideal slavery without any of the downsides. You can command AGI to just make more AGI, it will grow easily way past the limits of a human supply of labour and much faster. It doesn't just make labour a lot cheaper, pricing human labour out entirely; it changes the ownership distribution of labour. Right now, every human owns exactly one human's worth of labour, with some allowance for variable individual capability. With AGI, if you own a s
Capitalists need labour to make things to sell things to make money. Labour needs money for practical things like clothes and shelter. Top tier capitalists are way beyond that: they use money to score their status games. How do they do that if they can't sell anything.

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)

The argument is: 1. You probably can't make it universal. 2. If people can be excluded from the program and depend on it, it creates a power differential that can be abused. 3. There are lots of present-day examples of such abuse, so absent a change, that abuse or similar will continue to exist even if we have a UBI.
You can't make it universal at all, or you can't make it universal incrementally?
1Thomas Sepulchre5mo
Thank you!

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