Battlefield Earth Economics

I wrote a little while back about the rise of “Star Trek economics”—the left’s view that distributing wealth is like ordering food from a “replicator” in the Star Trek science fiction franchise. You ask for it, and it just appears. To paraphrase one of Arthur C. Clarke’s rules about science fiction, any sufficiently advanced economy is indistinguishable from magic.

This “Star Trek economics” was the premise behind a push for a guaranteed minimum income in Switzerland. But the idea is too ridiculous to call “Star Trek economics,” because—well, because I like Star Trek (as do many Objectivists, for reasons I have explained elsewhere) and because many of the television series’ science fiction projections have actually become reality, from flip phones (which have already been and gone) to tablet computers. So let’s pick a science fiction source that is a bit more on the crackpot fringe. Maybe call it “Battlefield Earth economics.”

The problems with this idea are so many and so fundamental that it is hardly worth examining. One commenter on my original piece quoted the suggestion that a government-provided income could allow people to “pursue a lot of activities that are not particularly well paid but that have a lot of social use or personal satisfaction: art, creative work, volunteer work, working with people who have disabilities.” He replies: “Because that’s exactly what generational welfare recipients in America do today.” This names the fundamental problem: treating the economy as a magical “replicator” that produces wealth is only possible in a very advanced economy, built on the thrift and industry of a highly productive population—yet this is precisely what a guaranteed minimum income undermines by telling its recipients that work and productivity are unnecessary, so they might as well sit at home, watch TV, and drink malt liquor all day. This commenter goes on to point to what welfare payments do for “the incremental increase in income from working compared to not working”: “If I get $16/hour to not work, or can get $20/hour to work, I am effectively getting $4/hour to work.”

Yet it is a mistake to dismiss the guaranteed income as a fringe, crackpot idea that is too obviously ridiculous to make headway outside the fevered imaginings of a splinter party in a small country. The American left, including relatively mainstream publications, has begun pushing the idea for us, too.

An article in The Atlantic describes how giving every American an annual check for $3,000 is an “easy” way to “cut the poverty rate in half.”

In the United States, we are generally told that poverty is a deeply complicated problem whose solution requires dozens of reforms on issues as diverse as public schooling, job training, and marriage. But it’s not true. High rates of poverty can, as a policy matter, be solved with trivial ease. How? By simply giving the poor money.

Gee, how come nobody ever thought of that before?

An article in Slate (originally published, unbelievably, in the Business Insider—though apparently without consulting any actual business insiders) goes farther, describing a guaranteed minimum income as a way to end poverty altogether. How? By simply giving everyone checks equivalent to the exact amount of the poverty line, a little under $12,000 per year.

Strangely, this article acknowledges that “The US has been waging the War on Poverty for a generation now and still nearly 50 million Americans are below the line.” But undeterred by this vast record of failure, it goes on to confidently assert that giving more and bigger checks “would end that war with a decisive victory.”

Yet none of these proposals would actually end poverty. They would merely cover up its symptoms. The poor would not become more capable of providing for their own sustenance. In fact, to the extent that they chose to rely on a government-provided income instead of working, they would become less capable of doing so. So rather than reducing poverty, these are actually proposals for increasing dependency on the cult of government.

So maybe “Battlefield Earth economics” really is the best name. As with L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction epic, it is not just a preposterous fiction. It is an attempt to recruit followers for a cult based on the surrender of individual autonomy.

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