The idea of a guaranteed basic income—that is, the government cutting a monthly, taxpayer-funded cheque to everyone in the country, to the tune of maybe $10,000 or $20,000 a year—seems to be having a moment. Earlier this summer, the Basic Income Canada Network convened a conference on the subject at McGill. Switzerland will soon hold a non-binding referendum on whether to give every citizen around $35,000 annually. And it’s a proposal that opinion writers and policy wonks love to wrestle with. Although basic income is typically associated with the social-democratic left, last week, for The Atlantic, Noah Gordon made “the conservative case for a guaranteed annual income”—namely, that it would be a more efficient way to fight poverty than a sprawling plethora of welfare programs. In any case, you know an idea is catching on when it’s being castigated before it’s even been implemented; recently, for The Week,Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry presented an ostensibly scientific case against it, although his arguments were quickly debunked by Dylan Matthews at Vox.
Basic income is a bit of a blunt tool. Most iterations would not, for example, consider regional differences in cost of living. Additionally, unlike the related idea of a negative income tax—in which everyone gets a cash grant that is then taxed progressively, according to income—basic income would not take into account differences in wealth; everyone would receive the same amount. (This means that it feels, counter-intuitively, almost like a reverse-flat tax, which perhaps explains why it’s earned the admiration of some conservatives.) The most common objection is that so-called “money for nothing” would act as a disincentive to work, but the findings on that are mixed. As Matthews wrote, “The worst case scenario is that we eliminate poverty but see a modest decline in employment. The best case scenario is we eliminate poverty at even lower cost and don’t see much of an effect on employment. That’s a gamble I’m willing to take.”