The political left is in a mad dash to redefine certain longstanding policy terms—in some cases to gain wide-spread acceptance, in other cases to avoid wide-spread rejection. And the latest redefined term: universal.
There has been a great deal of public discussion about broadening the definition of such words as “racism” and “infrastructure” to include things no one used to associate with those terms.
Now “universal,” as in “universal basic income,” is being redefined—but narrowed.
The original idea behind UBI is that everyone gets a check from the government. That’s everyone, from the poorest to the richest. That’s why it’s called universal.
As Vox reporter Dylan Matthews (no relation) wrote about universal basic income five years ago:
The governments of Finland, Ontario, and Utrecht are all launching tests of the policy proposal, under which everyone in a given country would get a set amount of money every year, no strings attached. …
“Basic income” is shorthand for a range of proposals that share the idea of giving everyone in a given polity a certain amount of money on a regular basis. …. Everyone gets the same amount by virtue of being a human with material needs that money can help address.
But such a proposal always raises at least two questions:
- Why should the government send a monthly check to the mega-wealthy such as Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or Jeff Bezos?
- How would the country pay for it?
Most of the UBI proposals suggest $10,000 to $12,000 a year. If the government were to hand out $10,000 to the 300+ million people living in the United States, that’s more than $3 trillion a year, which used to be considered real money.
And while Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders may not mind spending $3 trillion the country doesn’t have, they want to take that money from the rich, not give them more.
Most of the current UBI proposals limit the handouts by income and, in at least one proposal, by race. But a government handout based on income has a longstanding name: welfare. And handouts based on race are, these days, called reparations. However, those terms have a certain negative stigma that UBI proponents want to avoid.
And so the proponents have simply co-opted a policy proposal—i.e., universal basic income—that most people are unfamiliar with and that has some support from both the right and left, and are redefining it.
But vastly expanded means-tested—or even race-tested—welfare is still welfare, regardless of the name.