The Universal Basic Income Enigma
In 2017, Benoît Hamon was in a bind. He had beaten Manuel Valls in the Socialist Party primary running as a radical, promising France’s left-wing voters that he would reverse the centrist tack under François Hollande, which drove the careers of both Valls and Emmanuel Macron. But if he was to have any shot at winning the presidency, he would have to also mobilize left voters turned off by the populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In other words, Hamon’s campaign had to reject economic neoliberalism while also steering clear of the “sovereignist” or “protectionist” rhetoric that made La France insoumise unpalatable to many on the moderate left.
Hamon’s solution to this problem was to center his platform around the idea of a universal basic income (UBI). Campaigning for UBI made sense for Hamon given France’s economic situation and the positions of his rivals. Macron promised to tackle unemployment by removing the obstacles of France’s labor code. Seeking to protect the labor code from the likes of Macron, Mélenchon promised both to save jobs through protectionism, and to create new jobs through state investment in things like green technologies. Hamon’s platform, on the other hand, suggested that both promises to put France back to work were illusory. Instead, the Socialist candidate sought to “change our relationship to work” in a future where middle- and working-class jobs risk being phased out by automation, guaranteeing decent living standards for everyone regardless of work status. Hamon’s UBI proposal was at once radical—echoing arguments on the left for de-growth and a “post-work” social order—and “realist,” deflating French nostalgia for the full-employment trentes glorieuses in the face of the inevitable automation of everything.
As we now know, Hamon did not have much of a shot at winning the presidency. His attempt to create a political space between Macron and Mélenchon won him only around 6% of the first-round vote. Still, in a country suffering from high unemployment, and where many left voters had reserves about Mélenchon, his UBI-centered campaign on the Socialist ticket made sense.
UBI is by no means an obscure idea in the United States. Anyone familiar with the idea will inevitably point out how it was championed in the 1970s by seemingly everybody from Milton Friedman to Martin Luther King, Jr. (read Melinda Cooper’s Family Values for a fascinating explanation for why UBI failed under Nixon). Unemployment is not as high on the political agenda in the United States as it is in France, but the long-term issues associated with automation, precarious or “flexible” employment, and diminished prospects for younger workers are no less salient in the American context. Curiously, though, as the Democratic presidential nomination has begun, only one minor candidate has apparently followed the lead of Benoît Hamon.
Unlike Hamon, Andrew Yang is no leftist. A Silicon Valley investor who constantly praises the entrepreneurial spirit, he bears a closer resemblance to Emmanuel Macron. Though Yang as well has characterized UBI as a starting point for a major transformation of the American economy in response to the threat of automation, his is apparently far less ambitious than Hamon’s proposal. Notably, whereas Hamon sought to supplement existing allocations sociales, Yang believes the basic income should ultimately replace other forms of welfare spending. One can imagine many reasons why a wealthy start-upper might not support the most progressive version of the UBI idea. Still, Yang’s willingness to defend a notion of basic social rights probably puts him further to the left in the American context than Macron has ever been in France. Though Yang has little chance of winning in 2020, he has made headlines recently for having apparently qualified for DNC debates, after receiving a sufficient number of independent donations.
There’s much to say about the peculiarities of Yang’s campaign that is not worth going into here, such as his curious stance on circumcision, or strange enthusiasm for him among alt-right trolls (having risen to prominence largely thanks to podcasters like Joe Rogan and Sam Harris, Yang might be said to be the candidate of the so-called “intellectual dark web”). What seems to me to be the more interesting question his campaign raises is why none of the more viable “progressive” candidates has latched on to UBI, whether vanguard candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, or center-left opportunists like Kamala Harris or Cory Booker. Plenty of democratic socialists and social democrats are sympathetic to the idea—though some left writers like Daniel Zamora have made powerful cases against it—but it does not appear that UBI will likely join proposals like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal in the emerging left agenda.
There’s a reason for this. Politicians like Sanders, Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who have been most successful in making audible a political discourse to the left of the Democratic mainstream—have tended to speak about issues of social inequality in a way that makes UBI unattractive. Inspired by the language of Occupy Wall Street, these politicians have made a case for equality as a good in its own right, and attacked concentrated economic and political power as a social evil. Of course, they too have championed more robust provision of basic services like healthcare and education, and giving people money to ensure a minimum for subsistence is not exactly in contrast with their goals. But what separates these politicians from other Democrats who have now signed on to similar proposals is a belief that, in a world where people like Jeff Bezos can acquire seemingly unlimited wealth and influence, “basic” provision is insufficient (or as Samuel Moyn might put it, “not enough”).
If Andrew Yang can push people like Sanders and Warren further towards articulating what a more equal American society might look like—following a Green New Deal or some other transformative social platform—his presence on a Democratic debate stage will be worth the money his supporters donated to get him there. But that might be the limit of the UBI idea’s usefulness in the current political moment.