The Basic Political Bargain
At Arc Digital, I wrote a piece on welfare systems and The Expanse. You don’t need to be familiar with the series to read that post or this one, and there will not be any substantive spoilers in the post. I ask that you use the spoiler tag liberally in the comments. The series is about space haulers, interplanetary geopolitics, and a strange blue goo. My Arc Digital piece is more about the economics and politics. Earth in The Expanse has a very strong welfare net, called Basic Assistance, with roughly half of the world’s population permanently on it. I spend much of my post writing about housing before turning to some of the political repercussions:
There are reasons that the government might not want to pay for [infrastructure in non-urban development], and might even prohibit its construction. There would probably be a lot of new laws and regulations directly aimed at those living on UBI. With Basic, nearly everything becomes a political question. If they’re choosing your menu for you, what kind of menu are they choosing? If they’re picking your entertainment options, what sort of content do they approve or disapprove of?
It’s a technocrat’s dream. The indifference or contempt shown to the recipients of Basic by the characters of The Expanse?—?not to mention the lessons we have learned here on Earth whenever technocrats get the opportunity to plan the lives of the ordinary?—?strongly suggests there would be a lot moralizing involved.
An advantage of UBI, taken by itself, is that it manages to avoid almost all of this. The political liability of UBI is that it undercuts the ability of the government, and by extension other citizens, to do any of this. Consider the degree of resentment that lead to Mitt Romney’s misleading 47 percent comment, or the popular maps showing which states benefit the national treasury and which states don’t. Consider how strongly arguments for regulation of consumer goods are leaning on how much healthcare money is being spent treating related illnesses, and imagine the same thing happening with the decision to have children.
If government services incur obligation on the part of the citizenry, imagine what happens when the government subsidizes an entire lifestyle, year after year, and generation after generation, for a substantial portion of the population. And imagine a nation or world drawn into two parallel societies, possibly separated by geography in tens or hundreds of miles, where one has food and shelter at the pleasure of the other. These issues would get worse, not better.
The politics of such a world really are fascinating. The planet is administered by the United Nations, and I almost wonder if democracy itself couldn’t handle this. How democratic the UN is or isn’t is uncertain. The Secretary General is an elected position, though who elects them is uncertain, as is how votes are counted. No political parties are ever mentioned for Earth. It’s also not clear how the planet is subdivided, though it appears the United States proper doesn’t exist anymore and also that there are autonomous zones suggesting a degree of versatility and flexibility.
In any event, from what I recall roughly half of the population lives on Basic Assistance. If the planet is democratic, that creates some really interesting political dynamics. If you have a political party or perpetual coalition representing (mostly) those on Basic and another representing mostly those who work, if there are elections who wins them is almost entirely a function of how exact that “half” number is, or how the votes are calculated and if they’re calculated in such a way that benefit one side or the other. Given the lack of autonomy those on Basic are given (the government literally decides where they live, and they can be moved and if they don’t go they’re off Basic) it suggests that whatever political system they have it favors those who work, or the 50% is closer to 40%.
Given our response to the Trump Boxes, it seems unlikely that such a political arrangement would work any other way. Which is to say, if those on basic are so restrained, it must be because they lack democratic influence. Perhaps it changes over time, but the response to Trump Boxes demonstrate it’s actually a pretty tough sell. The resentments I talk about in the Arc Digital piece suggest to me that it wouldn’t be straight UBI, but it also seems unlikely it would be this controlling, either. And in addition to such a controlling system being the outcome of a lack of democratic influence, it also suggests that if anything I understate the degree of resentment from the ants to the crickets. They’re downright punitive.
Which, in the context of the universe, actually sort of makes sense. Some of the punitiveness we have in the present day is because of the sense that they could be working but choose not to (or choose not to put themselves in a position where they could work). While that’s not true in this case where there are literally not enough jobs to go around, there is probably a sense that they could go to Mars. And probably some desire that they do.
Apart from my natural interest in housing formations and issues (costs, city vs rural, etc), this is one of the big reasons I focused so much on housing in my piece. There may be a way that everything doesn’t end up strictly segregated by work status, but I have not been able to figure out any apart from a policy of social engineering to make it so. That wouldn’t exist on a planet where the unworking are treated as they are in The Expanse. It’s unlikely to exist even in one where they are more generous with a UBI. In fact, keeping them away may be a part of the grand bargain that makes UBI feasible to begin with.
In any event, feel free to comment on the Arc Digital piece here, in addition to this one of course. Please use the spoiler tag.
Feature Image from The Expanse TV Show.