Last week, I had a co-authored piece in The Atlantic about using a universal basic income to cut the official poverty rate in half. The short of it is—as I pointed out last month here at Policy Shop—providing an annual $2,920 cash grant to every American would cut official poverty in half overnight. Although completely viable as a real-life policy that you could implement successfully, such a plan is generally dismissed as out of the question in our current political climate.
While this is more or less true, I have considerable hope of the long-term viability of such a program if we can ever manage to get it going. Even though we are a much more conservative nation than our global counterparts, it is not as if those conservative tendencies and principles are consistently applied. Instead, when a left-wing program gets immensely popular, conservatives drop their opposition to it and dream up conservative-sounding rhetoric to justify it.
The best example of this comes to us from Alaska, a conservative state that already has a kind of basic income program in place. Called the Alaska Permanent Fund (APF), it is the most socialist government program in the country. I do not mean socialist in the Fox News sense of the word. The APF literally involves the state government in Alaska buying up productive capital assets—or as Marx termed it, “the means of production”—and then distributing out the investment income generated by those assets via an annual check sent to every Alaskan (or what the market socialists call a “social dividend“).
How do conservatives rationalize this program? Gar Alperovitz has explained the conservative rhetorical justifications for it in a number of his books, but conservative Twitter super-troll Frank Rojas explains it as well as Alperovitz does: “The fund was started to prevent politicos from spending the new revenues on programs.” So you see, constructing a big socialist wealth fund and using it to send out free money to everyone each year is a conservative move because it takes the money out of the government’s hands!
Of course, this is transparently ridiculous. If you wanted to keep the money out of the government’s hands, why was it collected as tax revenue in the first place? If you have the kinds of revenue surpluses that allow you to build out a big sovereign wealth fund, the conservative move is to cut taxes and not collect the revenue. Even now that we are past that point, why hold on to the wealth in the fund perpetually instead of liquidating it entirely and sending out a big one-time check to everyone? That is obviously the more conservative, small-government move than having the government permanently hold on to a big chunk of the means of production. The reason the APF persists is not mysterious. People like the free socialist money. To reconcile that with their dedication to their conservative identity, they just rebrand the whole thing in new conservative terms.
The APF is hardly the only example in this genre of conservative backsliding. Social Security and Medicare, for instance, are massive welfare handout programs. We levy a sizable tax on those people currently in the workforce each year and, with that money, send out money and healthcare to the currently retired. It turns out people really love that stuff, and so conservatives have taken to pretending these are like savings programs where you “pay in” money and then get it out. But that’s a total nonsense joke. When you are working, the elderly “take” from you. And when you are elderly, you “take” from those coming up behind you. It’s a transfer program.
On the Medicare front, we can all remember the famous Tea Party town hall where a gentleman declared that the government should keep their hands off his Medicare. This was reasonably mocked as ignorant, but it’s also hope-inspiring. The guy clearly liked his free government health care, and I doubt seriously that sitting him down and explaining how it works would make him want to get rid of it. Finally, as the New York Times revealed last month, there are die hard Tea Party supporters who are pro-shutdown and all the rest of it that, when you ask them what kind of health care system they’d like, accidentally and unknowingly describe a single-payer healthcare system. A single-payer system is, as most readers probably know, a much more left-wing health care system than Obamacare, which the Tea Partiers decry as socialist.
The point here is that conservative blustering is not as ideologically serious as it might seem. Conservative folks certainly have conservative identities that they hold dear, but that doesn’t mean they will endlessly oppose leftist programs. It just means they will endlessly oppose “leftist” programs. If people really like a particular program (and who doesn’t like checks in the mail?), they’ll just rhetorically rationalize the program as being something more palatable to their nominally conservative political identities.