There have always been certain issues that function as litmus tests, in that there is a factually correct position and many factually incorrect positions. Those wrong position, however, tell us things about the person holding them. Gun control is the best example. The right position is based on a mountain of data collected over generations. The wrong positions range from uninformed to the mendacious. As a result, the gun issues is a good litmus test. A person wrong on guns is telling us things about themselves.
The universal basic income is shaping up to be another one of those litmus test issues, where the self-righteous and fashionable use it to advertise their virtue and edginess, but also tell us about their ignorance. The other day, the leader of America’s hipster intellectuals, Claire Lehmann dramatically announced she is now on board with the universal basic income. In fact, Andrew Yang’s goofy Asian hipster populism platform is starting to become the cool thing among our edgy trend setters.
The giveaway at this point, with this issue, is in that linked Quillette post. “There are reasonable arguments to be leveled in good faith against the UBI platform, which Yang has dubbed “The Freedom Dividend,” but what was once considered a utopian pipe-dream is beginning to sound more plausible in light of the unfolding tectonic economic and technological shifts.” Are there reasonable arguments made in bad faith? That line makes clear that one side is virtue signaling, hoping the other side plays the role of skeptic.
What’s shaping up is the UBI is going to be the hipster beard for the politically active millennials, who dream of living as the Eloi. As was brilliantly explained before, it can’t possibly work as expected, but that is part of the attraction. That’s always part of the appeal to utopianism. The believers are emotionally wedded to the idea because the Promised Land always feels just out of reach. The world without work, where everyone is free to self-actualize and get a gold star from teacher is the millennial dream.
The math of UBI is really not worth discussing, however, as the people excited by it are incapable of grasping it anyway. They are simply using the issue to stake out what they think is the moral high ground. Yang is a very smart guy, who grew up studying the people now flocking to these sorts of ideas. The alt-right thinks they meme’d him into existence, but Yang looks a lot like an East Asian Obama. That is, he is the sort of minority who flatters upper-middle class white Progressives just be existing.
The real problem with the UBI is it is part of the larger trend of infantilizing people, turning them into wards of the custodial state. A society where everyone is watched, where everyone has their speech monitored, where everyone is on an allowance, is called a prison. That’s how prisons work. Given the tender sensibilities of the next generation, this world is evolving into a daycare center. Ideas like UBI are not about economics. They are about normalizing the custodial state. UBI is Faust’s poodle.
The problems that UBI are supposed to address are real and concerning. Automation is replacing labor at an alarming rate. Sure, the robot future is wildly exaggerated, mostly by people who have no experience in the real world. Most people reading this, for example, will not live to see robot trucks roaming the highways. Still automation is a serious issue facing the West. The consequences are frightening, not for material reasons, but because they will force the West to face up to the reality of culture and social organization.
You’ll note that in the linked Quillette article, there is no mention of immigration. The latest data show that Trump’s alleged jobs boom is mostly just a boom in migrants finding work in America. End immigration and automation suddenly is a different issue. In fact, it becomes a tolerable issue, because a society willing and able to put its own interest ahead of strangers is able to rationally address the sorts of welfare schemes required to support friends and neighbors. That’s the fear that truly haunts our ruling class.
In fact, the fear of facing up to the basic questions every society must address is what is behind the fear of automation and technology. When Tucker Carlson told Ben Shapiro that he would happily ban certain forms of automation, Shapiro nearly burst into tears because he lives in fear of ever having to face the questions Carlson raised. When you face the questions “Who are we and what sort of society do we want?”, things like automation and social welfare become less frightening. UBI is a way to avoid facing those questions.
Litmus tests like gun control or now UBI offer an opportunity to introduce the subjects that our betters would prefer not to discuss. UBI is a door that opens to a debate about who we are and what kind of society we want. That inevitably leads to the question of who gets to decide and why. That debate is always a part of what defines a society. For the modern West, it is a part that has no conscious place in our political life. Talking about the details may not be a lot of fun, but even a deal with the devil has opportunities.