And even if free money were proven to make people lazy, the productivity of a few might outweigh the inactivity of everyone else. That’s the belief of Sam Altman, the president of the incubator Y Combinator, which is now funding research on universal basic incomes. “Maybe 90 percent of people will go smoke pot and play video games,” Altman said on a recent episode of the podcast Freakonomics Radio. “But if 10 percent of the people go create new products and services and new wealth, that’s still a huge net win.”
Another common argument against instating a universal basic income is that, as Bregman explained in an interview with the news site Dutchnews.nl, “poor people can’t handle money … After all, if they knew how to manage money, how could they be poor in the first place? We assume they must spend it on fast food and soda instead of on fresh fruit and books.” But as Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir argue in their 2013 book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, it’s the very condition of not having enough money that can cause people to make poor financial decisions. If everyone received a basic income, Groot argues, they’d have a better chance of learning to manage their money more wisely.
A more compelling argument against instating a minimum income, though, has to do with how much it’d cost to run such a program. $10,000 a year is a standard figure tossed out for what a guaranteed income might look like in America, but this would, as an economist at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, cost over $3 trillion a year—which is almost as much as is collected every year in federal taxes. It’s not clear where exactly all this money would come from.
Such calculations have done little to sway proponents of the idea. Senator Bernie Sanders has said that he is “absolutely sympathetic” to rolling out a basic income, and Finland is contemplating introducing it for 10,000 residents sometime next year. But the idea has not been restricted to the socialist-minded. In 1969, President Richard Nixon proposed the Family Assistance Plan. Although he refused to call it a guaranteed annual income, it essentially was: Under the plan, a family of four without any income would receive $1,600 (about $10,500 in today’s dollars) a year, but a household with some income would receive a gradually reduced amount until its income reached $3,920 (roughly $25,500 today). The bill passed in the House but died in the Senate.
Now, the idea is back. Earlier this month, Switzerland was the first country to hold a public referendum on a basic income proposal. The Swiss proposal would have granted a monthly income of 2,500 Swiss francs (about $2,600) to each adult in the country, and 625 francs to each child under 18. It failed by a large margin, with 77 percent of voters against it, but for proponents of Weten Wat Werkt—and of numerous similar experiments around the world—the idea of a universal basic income is far from dead.