Universal Basic Income and Robots

Megan McArdle discusses the recent defeat of a Swiss referendum to give every citizen a guaranteed basic income here. As usual, she’s an interesting read, but this is the part that I found most thought-provoking:

Handing out a universal benefit of any size at all will be fantastically expensive. You can make it smaller, of course, but then you don’t get any of the vaunted benefits: It doesn’t prevent the benefit cliffs, doesn’t encourage entrepreneurship, doesn’t lessen the distortions of all the in-kind benefits you’ve left in place.

I suspect this is why the advocates of a UBI have recently become so interested in the problem of robots taking our jobs. The idea is that automation will make human labor so worthless, and make humanity so fantastically wealthy, that we practically won’t notice if we siphon a considerable amount of that money into a benefit that will, effectively, allow people to be permanently unemployed without starving to death. I’m skeptical of this story for a number of reasons — starting with the fact that “the machines are about to put us all out of work” has been a staple of science fiction for a century without coming noticeably closer to science reality. This time may be different, of course; even the boy who cried wolf eventually did come across a predator.

I’m not skeptical of robots taking jobs. This will become a problem, and as much as I’m reflexively against the idea of a UBI it might be a solution, at least for a short term, as robots massively disrupt society both economically and culturally.

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