What's Wrong With a Free Lunch

“What’s Wrong With a Free Lunch” by Philippe Van Parijs

“What’s Wrong With a Free Lunch” by Philippe Van Parijs proposes that every person be given an above-subsistence-level Universal Basic Income with no strings attached. The book includes responses from 15 thinkers, mostly sympathetic to the idea. A couple oppose the idea of letting anyone have anything for nothing (as if that were not already the case), and several suggest what they see as similar but better ideas. The majority of these are based on the idea that enacting a UBI in the United States is unlikely, not that it is undesirable.

This may be right, but even an unreasonable goal serves a very important purpose. Many of the right-wing ideas openly discussed in the media are, I dearly hope, unreasonable goals. But they serve the purpose of making somewhat-less-destructive ideas pass for “centrist.” As long as the right wing proposes what it dreams of and the left wing proposes only what it thinks it can get in the foreseeable future, the “center” will be commonly placed further and further from what the left thought it could get. Van Parijis’s book is exactly the sort of thing needed to break this defeatist pattern. We need to direct our energies to the achievable, yes, but we also have to dream — or the achievable won’t be.

I’m not convinced that some of the alternatives offered, such as a Negative Income Tax, are either more desirable or more feasible. And concentrating on how best to convince Americans to pay more income taxes is the wrong thing to be worried about.

Our first project should be to free up the tax dollars we are wasting. We should cut military spending, cut prison spending, cancel the wars on victimless crimes, cut highway spending, cut trash-removal spending, eliminate corporate welfare, tax pollution, tax the use of natural resources, tax corporations, tax the extremely rich, tax wealth, tax union busting, tax estates, eliminate the cap on payroll taxes, eliminate offshore banking, etc., etc. The idea that we need to devise a means of doing good that will most readily persuade a large segment of society to pay higher income taxes is hopelessly misguided. (And the idea that people won’t want others to have free money while they “have to work for it” misses the whole point of the UBI: everybody gets it!)

What I find most attractive about a UBI is the hope that it would eliminate the most unattractive and lowest paying jobs. The response from certain parties will inevitably be that this will “hurt the very people it is intended to help,” that certain people will be stuck with the UBI and nothing more because there are no jobs for them. But this same argument is made against raising minimum wages in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A UBI would doubtless result in higher pay and better treatment for low-skilled workers, but it would also do something that a higher minimum wage does not: allow people to refuse fulltime work and pursue the acquisition of skills.

Here’s an idea for a handout that does not stigmatize and actually boosts wages. Surely that’s a more valuable trick than a “missile defense system” with a test record that would get it thrown out of the third grade.