With contributions by Jerry Bowyer.
Amid all the momentous events that have defined the coronavirus pandemic, the decision by both the Trump administration and, in near-unanimous votes, both houses of Congress to institute a “stimulus” program — an element of which amounts to a de facto universal basic income (UBI) — is perhaps the least appreciated.
Paying individuals a flat check of $1,200, is, effectively, a one-time UBI. Legislators are already considering a second round.
The long-term import of this is significant. At a time when the two parties can agree on almost nothing, they came together to support a policy that up until recently was restricted largely (but certainly not exclusively) to the Silicon Valley Left.
Watching this go through brought to mind Rudyard Kipling’s 1919 poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” Kipling contrasts the Gods of the Marketplace, meaning the socially acceptable wishful thinking, with the Gods of the Copybook Headings, who remind us of the eternal truths we routinely abandon for a more fashionable pantheon. He concludes with these lines:
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
Sound familiar? In a few short months, we went from UBI (the idea of giving almost every adult citizen a check) being an idea favored only at the margins to its being the official policy of a Republican administration backed by a Republican-controlled Senate.
The counterargument is clear. These are extreme times. This is not UBI but merely a temporary support measure for working families in exceptional circumstances. It is an argument that might have more force had not conservative political parties in the Western world found it so difficult to rein in an expanding welfare state that can no longer be afforded, something that became all too obvious in the battles over “austerity” after the European debt crisis.
Since America’s current “UBI” was promoted as an essential element in a stimulus program, it seems reasonable to assume that, whatever is being said to the contrary, it will be more difficult to end it until the economy gets strong enough to no longer need stimulus. The list of temporary spending programs instituted during a crisis but later discontinued is distressingly short.
Fearing the electoral consequences of challenging this regime, many conservative parties of the Western world seem to have given up on the task of decreasing the size of government. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has made protecting the U.K.’s public health-care system one of the cornerstones of his government.
The Trump administration has signed relief plans totaling over $2 trillion, in an environment where were already spending $4.45 trillion a year. The small-government that once defined conservative politics appears to have fallen out of fashion.