The UBI vs state jobs

The Financial Times has an interesting piece by Manchester University’s Diane Coyle critiquing the UBI.

She makes two points, both based around communal ideas. The first is that people don’t just need income, they need jobs, because going to work is important for one’s identity and levels of social contact; the guarantee of a job is part of the social contract. The second is that one can’t just give people income and leave them to sink or swim; they also need strong, free public services that are universally available.

“…it is not surprising the idea of UBI has been revived. But it is hard to see why it would do better at addressing the economic and social costs of large-scale redundancy than the previous policy of making payments to those who lost their jobs. The problem is a hole torn in the fabric of a local or regional economy and society; giving people money is a temporary patch. Part of the answer must be the simpler one of giving people jobs … [Also] more important that UBI — whose focus is the individual — is a commitment to universal basic service, with a focus on the community or the natural economic region.”

In my view, the second point has some weight. Income alone doesn’t solve all people’s problems; that’s why governments have for a long time provided not just welfare payments but also health, education and other services. And one of the problems for the UBI – which I’m generally skeptical about – is that it creates a large extra cost on top of other government spending.

I’m not so sure about the first point, though. It seems to put paid work on a pedestal, even though much unpaid work – such as child-rearing – is surely as valuable as, or more valuable than, a lot of the jobs that people do. I’d have thought the answer was to redefine what counts as work; then people would be free to work on voluntary activities and the like without the stigma of being ‘unemployed’.

I also think the argument ignores people’s ability to create meaning in their lives. Yes, community and connection with others is important. But if people received a UBI – or some other form of more generous welfare payment – they would presumably be free to create their own communities, their own meaningful connections with others, in a more natural and successful way than if they were allocated jobs by any government, no matter how well-meaning.

In short, I think there are other good reasons to be skeptical about the UBI – but this probably isn’t one of them.

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