Le Dong Hai Nguyen

M.S. Candidate in Foreign Service

The Case Against the Universal Basic Income

Le Dong Hai Nguyen | June 25, 2019

SB Ekhad’s The Flamboyant Partridge had been on the bestselling list last year. Eager to meet the writer at the Oxford Literary Festival, his fans were shocked to discover that their revered author was merely “a stack of computer hardware fronted by a screen that flickered on to reveal a human-like avatar face” (Sautoy, 2019). SB Ekhad was, in fact, 3B1, an AI machine created by the University of Oxford’s Mathematical Institute. This incident embodies the automation that threatens to replace human jobs. With the cost of implementation shrinking and the robot-to-workers ratio skyrocketing, the effects of automation on our economy and society are more palpable than ever. According to Frey and Osborne
(2017), 47% of jobs could be fully executed by machines “over the next decade or two.” Across the globe, the risk posed by automation to the workforce is of great concern, with more severe impacts on manufacturing-focused developing countries like China, where 77% of jobs are forecasted to be replaced by automation (Frey et al., 2016).

In response to the threat of mass displacement of labor due to automation, economists, politicians, and even the business community have come to see Universal Basic Income (UBI) as the panacea. UBI “experiments” have been implemented in Finland, Canada, California and even become official political platforms for most left-wing politicians from the UK’s Green Party to US Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang, who argue that UBI would encourage unemployed people to find work, create savings, and boost economic growth. With the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been renewed interest in implementing UBI, even on the right side of the political spectrum. It is also endorsed by many tech giants, notably Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson, who hope UBI would “encourage creativity and innovation.” However, the failure of similar programs—from the 1960s US Negative Tax Program to the Finnish Basic Income Experiment—raises serious concerns about UBI not as a pragmatic but rather a harmful response to the situation. The goal of this paper is to assess the shortcomings of UBI vis-à-vis existing means-tested welfare programs and determine whether UBI is an effective policy in response to technological unemployment.