The most common criticisms of a universal basic income (UBI) are that it is unfeasible and too expensive. However, in a recent series on UBI in the Washington Post, some of the strongest attacks dealt with the possibility that it may undermine civil society in the United States.
Jonathan Coppage, associate editor of The American Conservative magazine, argues that a UBI provides the freedom to “no longer be needed” by the marketplace, where many societal bonds are formed. A UBI would remove these ties, Coppage said.
In India, a UBI trial demonstrated instead that a UBI has the potential to increase entrepreneurial and economic activity. Also, unlike the current entitlement system, UBI benefits do not diminish as income rises, so replacing current social services with a UBI can actually encourage individuals to enter the marketplace.
A cautionary tale does emerge from rentier states in the Middle East. Rentier states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, use oil revenue to provide their citizens with lavish social services in order to buy loyalty to the government. Some argue that this environment has contributed to the underdevelopment of rentier states’ civil societies, while others dispute this theory.
Nonetheless, the lessons from rentier states cannot properly be applied to implementing a UBI in the United States. There are far too many cultural and institutional differences (such as the repressive politics of many rentier states) to make these countries a useful case study.
In Alaska, the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) provides a more accurate illustration of how a UBI would affect civil society in America. The PFD provides an annual payment from the state’s oil revenues to each citizen of Alaska. It is arguably the closest program to a full UBI in the world.
One of the best measures of the strength of civil society is the level of volunteerism, as it indicates how invested individuals are in the betterment of their communities. Alaska is ranked as having the tenth highest volunteer participation as a percentage of the population in the United States. Additionally, from 1989 to 2006, Alaska’s volunteer rate increased by 10 percent.
Many have made the case that a UBI would increase support for civil society as it would allow individuals to shift some of their time to civic engagement. Although more in-depth statistical analysis would be needed to demonstrate that Alaska’s high volunteerism rate is a partial result of the PFD, it is easy to see why it may be the case; the financial freedom resulting from a UBI allows people to dedicate more time to activities that truly benefit them and their community.
At the very least, the experience in Alaska shows us that a universal basic income in the United States would not be the death of civil society. In fact, it could be the very stimulus civil society needs to thrive.