It hardly came as a surprise when the National Review, a leading American conservative publication, rushed to assail the idea of universal basic income (UBI for short) with its usual vigor, from almost its very first mention. The men and women manning the fort at the Review—most of whom are superlative, highly intelligent writers—have remained steadfast in their defense of quasi-libertarian free-market economics against the rising tide of Donald Trump’s economic nationalism. It is of course within their rights to do so, and their principled persistence in an increasingly unpopular doctrine earns my commendation to some extent. But I feel they are mistaken.
But, first of all, what actually is UBI? There have been widely varying proposals, but the essential idea is to provide every citizen of a given jurisdiction with an unconditional sum of money at regular intervals. Its proponents typically insist that, if implemented, it will reduce poverty and income inequality, strengthen the economy by boosting consumer spending, and offer protection from the disruptive effects of workplace automation. The latter will become especially resonant in the coming years, as automation siphons off ever more jobs. But, as the National Review shows, it has been an uphill battle to convince many conservatives of the idea’s viability or even its desirability. There is a critical element to this debate, however, that has thus far been almost entirely overlooked. UBI has the power to not only preserve the traditional nuclear family, but to raise its vitality and prestige to levels not seen in many years. As such, it ought to spur conservatives to see beyond their stubborn economic doctrines and acquaint themselves with the conservative case for UBI.
UBI is in essence a radical form of social welfare. But conservatives take a gross misstep when they jump to the conclusion that UBI must therefore be an inherently left-wing idea. It is easy to see why this misconception has been allowed to spread. The very thought of showering individuals with unconditional money, regardless of their work situation, sets off alarm bells for fiscal conservatives, who find any initiative of this sort repellent. But the prime beneficiaries of UBI would be those permanently out of work thanks to automation. Conservatives have long professed sympathy with the “deserving” down-and-outs, and compassion, in any case, is not a monopoly of the left. Conservatives must reject being tethered to a callous and heartless individualism in a perverse race to the bottom to win the posthumous approval of Ayn Rand and her ilk. UBI is no more inherently left wing than salsa dancing is the domain of the right. Conservatives would be wise to step forward and discuss this very important and timely proposal. The image of the cold-hearted conservative need not reflect reality.
Nevertheless, conservative economic thought is stuck in neutral, owing in large part to conservatives’ unqualified support for laissez-faire capitalism. Little do they realize that capitalism has played a fundamental role in destabilizing the nuclear family—not only by leaving the poor, the struggling, and the destitute to fend for themselves without social assistance, but also by utterly alienating labor from the moral development of the worker. To better understand this, we must go far back in history and explore the changing nature of labor. I do not idealize the Middle Ages, but the undercurrent of religion that propped up so many areas of medieval life applied to labor too. The typical tradesman of, say, a Belgian town in around 1300 toiled under the understanding that his work was first and foremost a labor of love for God, and only secondarily a means, however necessary, of subsistence. This view was dealt a fatal blow by the Reformation, which shattered the socially cohesive power of the Catholic Church in precisely those areas of Northern Europe that soon began to embark on their mercantile ascendancy. When these regions industrialized in the nineteenth century, the uprooted workers, predictably, found no significant moral or political recourse to mitigate the horror of their plight.
The European nations in which the capitalist alienation of labor proceeded apace remained avowedly Christian. Paradoxically, it was the avowedly atheist Karl Marx who raised his voice more loudly than most against this outgrowth of unrestrained capitalism. Marx was quite explicitly an enemy of the traditional nuclear family. In The Communist Manifesto, he trumpeted wife-swapping and the abolition of the family, which he denigrated as a tool for the bourgeois domination of society. But he also observed that the ravages of mid-nineteenth-century capitalism were tearing families apart, through demoralizing overwork and abysmally low wages. In the Soviet Union under Lenin, abortion and divorce were legalized, with the predictable outcome of a declining birthrate. Lenin’s successor Stalin, genocidal thug though he was, saw the writing on the wall and undid much of his forebear’s radical work, notably by prohibiting abortion in most cases. There is more than a hint of the absurd at play when more can be said—at least nominally—for a mass-murdering communist dictator than for twenty-first century conservatives, who evince support for the nuclear family, but steadfastly refuse to take the necessary economic steps to protect it. The overwhelming hypocrisy of it all not only lets down struggling families but erodes their trust in the conservatives who are supposed to be helping them.
The precise channels by which economic strain lends itself to family breakdown are varied and manifold, but the basic principle deserves some elucidation. Most people reading this can relate to the stress produced by the threat of economic hardship, perhaps even of insolvency and poverty. I emphasize threat, because the very fear of it often suffices to send whole families into free-fall, as surely as the mere whisper of financial catastrophe can throw Wall Street into an eight-hour terror. The modern mind prizes security above almost all else, but, paradoxically, capitalism in its current incarnation refuses most stubbornly to offer any meaningful measure of it to vast swaths of the population. The zeitgeist of the early twenty-first century demands that we ensure a certain level of material security, before we can even begin to discuss preserving the nuclear family. UBI will not, in itself, restore the idealistic medieval conception of labor, but—by alleviating millions of families’ gnawing fears of poverty—it will make that conversation possible.
Conservatives, to their credit, have little problem detecting the deplorable social outcomes of the family breakdown that they abhor. It is almost a truism among conservatives that children who emerge from broken and dysfunctional homes are at considerable risk of future delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, and low educational achievement. They represent vast sums of sunk costs for the state, which most commonly takes the form of the inevitable welfare, disability, and unemployment payments that proportionately far too many of them will eventually draw upon. This is only one part of the story. The other includes medical costs stemming from substance abuse and its concomitant health problems— above all in countries that have socialized medicine, such as my native Canada—and the cost of law enforcement and detention, should they spend time in juvenile facilities or, later on, in prison. All this money could have obviously been better spent elsewhere were it not so tragically necessary here. What, then, do we have to lose from an ambitious UBI scheme, laser focused on keeping families together and economically secure? We cannot know for sure at this early stage, but it seems likely that the cost of most mainstream UBI proposals will fall well short of the expense of mopping up the mess attributable to broken families.
Some have already hinted at the material basis needed to keep families happy and secure. According to an apocryphal account, St. Thomas Aquinas believed that a pious soul suddenly plunged into the throes of spiritual sorrow ought to seek out a warm bath, a sleep, and a glass of wine. Authentic or otherwise, this attests to the necessity of possessing some degree of material security before you can even begin to think about the moral realm. One may take issue with scholasticism’s habit of compounding virtually everything into a system of hierarchies, but the practice is eminently valid here. There exists a definite hierarchy of needs in asymmetrical relation to one another. At its base are man’s material imperatives, and above these are his moral needs. One may be getting along quite well in the material sense while remaining morally dead, but the inverse is not equally true. This is much like saying that a tower without a foundation is doomed to collapse under its own weight, or that a pizza without toppings is still a pizza, but toppings without dough are not. To continue the culinary metaphor, conservatives never tire of insisting on the centrality of the masculine “breadwinner” figure. They ought to consider whether a family whose breadwinner is out of a job, and staring poverty in the face, can realistically tend to his and his family’s moral growth. UBI, if implemented with commensurately pious intentions, can restore the foundation to the collapsing tower and become a force not only for newfound material abundance, but for moral excellence as well.
In a similar vein, there is more than a germ of truth to the old adage, “a family that prays together stays together.” Try as they might to deny the relevance of the moral realm, hardened atheists and agnostics would do well to take note of the objective benefits attached to personal spirituality, at both the individual and domestic levels. As the Institute for Family Studies observes, “Family prayer time is quality time together, time not spent in front of the television or a smartphone, but rather, time spent communicating on a deeply personal level.” Individual prayer, too, is linked to “reduced stress, increased self-awareness, better communication, and a more empathetic and forgiving attitude towards others.” It does not require a systematic and theological belief in God to appreciate the positive effects of prayer or of cultivating one’s spiritual and moral development more broadly. This is scarcely possible in an atmosphere of squalor and perpetual economic insecurity. If conservatives wish to back up their appeals for more widespread religious commitment, there are few better ways to do so than by providing material peace of mind to those who desperately need it.
UBI is something that we are probably going to hear a lot more about in the near future. The growing impact of automation will ensure that. But, just as economic libertarians are bound to put up a spirited fight against it, conservatives must be ready to vigorously defend it. There is a compelling conservative case to be made in its favor. I sense that a paradigm shift is coming in the age-old spat between liberals and conservatives, one in which conservatives will leave behind the doctrines of economic inaction inherited from a bygone age. The debate surrounding UBI offers an ideal stage on which to prove conservatives’ commitment not only to the humanitarian values of social welfare and compassion, but also to the preservation, strengthening, and promotion of the traditional nuclear family. For far too long, conservatives have tolerated an appalling gap between their words and their deeds. If the conservative movement wishes to prove its enduring fealty to its rhetoric, that gap must now close.