The Dark Side of a Universal Basic Income

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UBI, or Universal Basic Income, has been touted by economists, technologists in Silicon Valley (like Y Combinator), and 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang, as a solution to our growing inequality gap and a strategy to hedge against the coming AI takeover that will render millions of Americans unemployable.  I’d like to make abundantly clear: I believe UBI can help mitigate these problems and improve the lives of millions of Americans, especially in the short term.  Having a guaranteed income that’s meant to supplement wages from a job allows people to stay in consistent housing, put food on the table, afford other basic needs, and have the opportunity to work in jobs they prefer, without fear of losing their safety net on any given day.   


However, I’d like to discuss the potential psychological tradeoff that comes with a guaranteed check from the government each month: a sense of complacency among the population, and a way for the government to subtly and indirectly manipulate the American psyche, enabling them to hopscotch from pleasure to pleasure without thinking deeply about the world and their society around them.


Now, you might think this to be somewhat conspiratorial, but bear with me.  I’m not arguing that the government will intentionally brainwash us with a UBI; rather, that this expected “free cash” can force people into a complacency where they mindlessly seek shallow pleasures like a mechanical robot, devoid of all pieces of the identity and emotions that create our sense of liberty and independence as humans.  


This type of society where people stay in their place and live on the surface of life can be seen in Aldous Huxley’s famous dystopian novel, “Brave New World.”  He describes a “World State” heavily regulated by the government, but even more worrisome, never challenged by any of its citizens.  The fictional government provides everyone with “happy pills” known as soma, which create an artificial sense of happiness. The members of the society never had any qualms about their socioeconomic or class status since everyone is “happy”…all the time.  Huxley notes that the people in this society never questioned their government or emotions since there was “not a moment to sit down and think.”  And here lies the crux of the potential dark side of UBI.

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A possibility exists that when the government provides no-strings attached money to everyone, people will stop questioning the government.  If they act in ways that take away liberty, people will turn a blind eye. Give them the $1000 to buy their Netflix and hamburgers and iPhones, but don’t bother them with Supreme Court decisions or important international treaties (this idea borrowed from Huxley).  In the age of Trump, people have become more attentive to politics.  But at what level? Deep below the surface? If the Trump government provided everyone with $1000 each month to supplement their income, would liberals still call out for impeachment?  Who complains about injustices when the government fattens their wallets with cold hard cash?


Another argument pro-UBI revolves around providing economic stability and less “degrading” or “tedious” jobs, increasing net happiness for us citizens.  As Huxley again points out though, “Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”  Again, UBI has the potential to lift up millions of Americans into financial stability, which undoubtedly relieves an enormous burden and provides tremendous opportunity in every sense of the word.


But what can we do with it?  Will it truly make us happier, or will the steady check lull us into a sense of complacency and actually extinguish the drives and desires that provide so many a sense of purpose?  Don’t get me wrong; this is NOT an argument calling people lazy and using the weak and unthoughtful notion that people need to do SOMETHING (like a basic jobs argument), whether or not it has value to anyone or anything, to get money.  The argument, or more so the question, asks: does this increase in stability create psychological instabilities, produce only surface level thinking, and enable us to settle for jumping from pleasure to pleasure without thinking deeply about what we want?


The idea that UBI can provide people the breathing room to actually think about how they want to utilize their talents and time most satisfying to them appears ironclad.  But in an age where outrage spreads quickly without any thought on the topic whatsoever, and more and more people are unhappy with their careers, will we actually manage to use this newly created wiggle room to think for ourselves?  


Or will we continue our “automaton” status, as German philosopher Erich Fromm labeled us back in the 1940’s: as no better than robots taking our cues around what we should want or desire from external forces, rather than taking the time to think for ourselves?  While a UBI certainly could help in this regard by bringing time and economic security to the table, it won’t necessarily change our behavior in the positive sense, and has the potential to exacerbate our reliance on external forces to shape us, and the complacency to not care.  This Medium article describes well the “massive mindset shift” that would need to occur for a UBI to become successful


A final caution from “Brave New World”, stated by a bureaucrat of the society-dominating government: “Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions!”