Is UBI "neoliberal"?

There's been a lot of discourse around the place recently dismissing UBI as neoliberal. Some of this is from the usual centrist suspects, but it's also from various parts of the left.

A lot of these critiques seems misplaced or badly motivated: they deliberately ignore the existence of actual left perspectives on UBI.

Worse, they argue against UBI using ideas that are themselves anti-progressive, and in doing so resort to several (conscious or subconscious) neoliberal (or even right wing) sentiments.

It's absolutely true that there are valid left critiques of the UBI idea, and lots of bad, neoliberal UBI plans out there. A left UBI needs to be funded from collective capital ownership, not welfare cuts elsewhere. It must be fundamentally redistributive, not a means of welfare reform.

But these aren't original observations at all - left UBI advocates have all already said this. What genuine progressive would favour redistributing labour income rather than capital, or accept welfare cuts?

A lot of the critical tropes about UBI seem superficially progressive, but are fundamentally anti-left in nature, and stem from lack of familiarity (or deliberate disregard) of basic progressive left principles like "the welfare state is good" or "means testing is bad".

Let's examine a few of the most popular:

"UBI will cost too much."

This is classic concern-trolling about balanced budgets, straight from the centrist playbook. It's wrong for multiple reasons. First, ~40% of the economy already goes to "money-for-nothing" payments, called capital income, and we somehow afford that year after year. Most of that goes to the rich - redirecting even a small fraction of that into a universal payment would fund a hefty UBI easily.

Also, if you're not cutting other welfare, you don't need to jump immediately to full livable income UBI - you can start with a modest amount and ramp it up, gradually increasing payment (and thus the level of redistribution) over time.

This is why left voices often describe UBI as a "dividend".

Finally, welfare payments aren't "costs" the way that paying for a power station or aircraft carrier is. They are just transfers. The net cost is zero, because every dollar subtracted from a rich person is gained equally by a non-rich person.

"Welfare is too expensive" is always just code for "I don't want to take too much from the wealthy".

"All the UBI plans out there are from neoliberals."

Many UBI critiques seem to deliberate limit their review of UBI plans to people like Charles Murray, Milton Friedman, and Andrew Yang, which is a pretty pathological case of selection bias. Funnily enough when I take out all the blue M&M's from the packet, they all seem to be blue!

Why not mention that Yanis Varoufakis thinks a capital-funded UBI is a great idea?

Why not discuss detailed, widely covered proposals like Matt Bruenig's Social Wealth Fund instead?

"Studies show it just won't work."

More concern-trolling. Alaska already has one that works fine, the recent Finland study shows the effects are positive on wellbeing and even workforce participation. Norway has a great working model for how to fund welfare from capital. It's simple and inherently redistributive.

If you truly believe that taking capital from the rich and redistributing it equally just fundamentally "won't work", you really should give up entirely on calling yourself a progressive, and on any hopes of egalitarianism at all.

"Handing out cash encourages privatization. Instead we should have government services."

An expanded welfare state is an argument for privatisation? This makes no sense, unless you're of the very neoliberal mindset that people can't have or don't deserve both income security and good government services and need to choose between them.

Anti-cash sentiments like this have a long right wing pedigree - look at the current efforts by the LNP to replace cash benefits with non-cash Basics Card.

Nationalizing and decommodifying housing and food entirely sounds great - but until that happy day comes, people need cash to pay for rent and food.

Unconditional, universal welfare is the left, progressive option. Conditions and means testing are the legacy of neoliberal and conservative austerity and welfare state erosion.

"A UBI would encourage insecure employment and lower pay."

That a welfare state is in opposition to workers' interests is a highly reactionary notion. It's reminiscent of the opposition to Medicare for All by the leadership of some US unions who claimed that it would disrupt their employer-negotiated healthcare - a daft idea rightly criticized by their own memberships and many others.

Why would higher and more secure income weaken bargaining power?

"A UBI will just subsidize employers."

The idea that the welfare state subsidizes employers is also very neoliberal - it implies that welfare ought to be tied to employment. You only need to look at American healthcare to see if that's a good idea or not. Welfare doesn't subsidize employers: It subsidizes workers and their families.

"The welfare state should be made up of services, not cash."

This is a poisonous suggestion to replace things that can fix poverty (more money for the poor) with things that can't. Are people who can't afford groceries this week meant to eat tertiary education? It is also highly ahistorical: The USA's greatest anti-poverty success in its history is the cash-based Social Security.

Again the message is that we can't have both these things and need to choose between them because asking the rich to have less is a bridge too far.

"A UBI just means more money in the system to prop up capitalism."

Once more this blithely ignores the possibility funding welfare from capital. It's also something very selectively applied. If more money for the poor is just propping up capitalism, then you need to oppose the entire welfare state, as apparently extra cash for the poor is bad and just props up capitalism!

It's especially strange in the Australian context: If government welfare payments like UBI are just propping up capitalism, what does that imply about a privatised system of individual investment accounts like the Super system? It not only props up markets to the tune of $3 trillion but makes worker retirement savings dependent on them - a lot of the same people making this critique of UBI are the same people who spend a lot of time shilling for the Super system.

What's really going on here?

These left-punching critiques always appear at times when UBI is building popular enthusiasm.

Those with centrist instincts are obviously nervous about ideas that would threaten the rich with too much redistribution, or expand the welfare state more universally, beyond its last-resort role as a punitive, humiliating "safety net" for the unfortunate.

Even scarier is ideas with simplicity and basic intuitive appeal - with simplicity comes less relevance for technocrats who would rather policy ideas remain an elitist domain of impenetrable professional-managerial mystique.

This sort of rhetoric is designed to dampen these progressive urges and manage expectations downwards. It's about superficially appeasing progressive voices with vaguely progressive-sounding sentiments, but with a fairly clear subtext: Better things aren't possible.

Postscript: The UBI vs Job Guarantee sideshow

There's a similar dislike from various others, driven from the concept being too simple, or who prefer to live in a dreamland of entirely reimagined utopian institutions.

There's also the appeal of competing ideas that sound superficially more radical. The main challenger at the moment is the Job Guarantee. It sounds great on a surface level (no unemployment, living wage for all), but contains some fundamentally right wing ideas - workfare over unconditional welfare, erasure of non-earners as a concern, and no challenge of capital.

Because these neoliberal features are so much more fundamental to the JG concept, and since nobody on the left seems to have distanced themselves from these features or articulated an alternatives to them (if they have, I'd love to hear about it, send me links), the neoliberal critique seems on much firmer ground here.

The MMT long con

The Job Guarantee also has a much more explicitly neoliberal origin story: The JG concept comes from MMT, a school of thought invented when (I swear I am not making this up) the founder spent an hour in a steam room with Donald Rumsfeld.

Ever since the steam room incident, MMT advocates have done great work selling themselves as purportedly progressive, while hiding their anti-welfare views and origins.

People who care about core left concepts like the welfare state and explicitly challenging capital rather than simply creating jobs for capitalists, ought to be skeptical, and explicitly distance themselves from the Job Guarantee concept, or at least from the MMT conception of it.

Nothing that undermines the welfare state or leaves capital unchallenged can credibly call itself a left project: Lots of UBI proposals pass this simple test, but I'm yet to see a JG proposal that does.