But if you have one big, high-profile redistribution program, you can get enough popular support to overcome the concentrated opposition of the rich people footing the bill. As an example, look at the minimum wage, which gets big popular support. The Democrats can go back to the minimum wage again and again as a populist issue.
But that’s not true for the whole array of redistribution programs we currently have. If the Democrats want to increase the strength of the safety net as a whole, they have to mount a populist campaign for each one of its components. That’s hard to do. So a lot of the components of the safety net get left behind, or killed by Republicans when no one is looking.
Such a fate would never befall a Basic Income. It would be in the spotlight all the time.
In fact, by endorsing Basic Income, libertarians are walking right into a trap. Anti-redistributionists’ great fear has always been that the masses will use the power of majority rule to simply vote themselves more money. As things stand, the fragmentation of our redistribution programs makes it easier for the anti-redistributionists to punch holes in the safety net. If the fragmented system were replaced with one universal, high-profile program, the result would be a huge political gift to redistributionists.
My view is not the same. I say we have so many small, distributed anti-poverty initiatives because no one of them was ever so popular, for better or worse. That is also why we don’t have a Basic Income.
But let’s say a historical accident swept Basic Income proponents into power for a term and they passed that legislation. Over time those income transfers would prove larger, more visible, and they would at least appear superficially more anti-work than the public stomach for them. I predict they would be restricted along a number of possible dimensions, starting with (partial) work requirements for the able-bodied.
Under most plausible assumptions about the Basic Income level, most people would not be recipients, nor would they expect to be potential net gainers from the program. And in general voters put much more importance on common sense notions of “desert” than do economists. So I think the “why send money to people who aren’t working?” intuition will crowd out the “I want to think of myself as someone who helps other people” feeling.
So, unlike Noah, I don’t think the political future of a Basic Income would be especially strong.