It’s no secret that tech bros love universal basic income. Sam Altman of Y Combinator is funding a UBI pilot program in Oakland, California, in part because he was inspired by Star Trek. Tesla’s Elon Musk supports the policy because he realizes that the aggressive automation caused by the tech industry will make UBI “necessary.” This week, as part of his “I’m-not-running-for-president” tour around the country, Mark Zuckerberg visited Homer, Alaska, which resulted in him writing a Facebook post lauding the merits of the state’s Permanent Fund as a model for a national form of basic income.
UBI, a concept that dates back centuries, is the idea that every person should receive some amount of money so that no one dips beneath a basic standard of living. For those on the left, it’s seen as an alternative to our country’s woefully limited cash welfare system. For libertarians, a basic income is lauded as a slimmer, less intrusive way to deliver government benefits. It is the rare utopian idea that people of different political stripes can agree on—Zuckerberg himself made sure to note the “bipartisan” appeal of the policy in his post.
But Zuckerberg reveals exactly why the left should be alarmed that Silicon Valley is taking the lead on this issue.
First, the idea that UBI has bipartisan appeal is disingenuous. The left would have a policy that redistributes wealth by funding UBI through a more progressive tax scheme or the diverting of capital income. But libertarians like Charles Murray argue for a UBI that completely scraps our existing welfare state, including programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and housing subsidies. This would be extremely regressive, since money currently directed towards the poor would instead be spread out for a basic income for all. And certain benefits like health insurance can’t effectively be replaced with cash.
Second, Zuckerberg asserts that Alaska’s Permanent Fund—which uses the state’s oil resources to pay a dividend to each Alaskan and is seen as one of the few examples of an actual UBI-like policy—is advantageous because it “comes from conservative principles of smaller government, rather than progressive principles of a larger safety net.” But a UBI policy can only reflect small government principles if one envisions it eating into the country’s existing welfare state, rather than coming on top of it. In this respect, Zuckerberg’s advocacy of UBI “bipartisanship” starts to look more like a veiled libertarian agenda.
This attitude echoes other pro-UBI tech lords like Altman, who sees basic income as providing a “floor” but not a ceiling. In his ideal scheme, no one will be very poor, but people like Altman will still be free to get “as rich as they fucking want.” The tech vision of the world is one where it can wash its hands of the rising joblessness it will generate through automation, but where those at the top can still wallow in extreme wealth. As Altman told Business Insider, “We need to be ready for a world with trillionaires in it, and that’s always going to feel deeply unfair. It feels unfair to me. But to drive society forward, you’ve got to let that happen.”
This is deeply telling of the tech UBI mentality: driving society forward doesn’t mean reducing inequality, but rather fostering more entrepreneurship. The former is viewed as unnecessary and the latter as an inherent good.
Zuckerberg also compares Alaska’s Permanent Fund to running a business—a very specific one:
Seeing how Alaska put this dividend in place reminded me of a lesson I learned early at Facebook: organizations think profoundly differently when they’re profitable than when they’re in debt. When you’re losing money, your mentality is largely about survival. But when you’re profitable, you’re confident about your future and you look for opportunities to invest and grow further. Alaska’s economy has historically created this winning mentality, which has led to this basic income. That may be a lesson for the rest of the country as well.
The idea that a “winning mentality” is what is going to lead to a basic income in the United States reveals how little Zuckerberg understands about politics. This is a pervasive ideology among tech leaders, who believe the lessons that they have gleaned from their own industry are applicable to all of the country’s problems. But remember the last time a disrupter said he was going to step into the political arena and run our country like a business?
For moguls like Zuckerberg, there is never any deep consideration of, say, the fact that racism, sexism, and classism are deeply intertwined with our country’s policies and are some of the biggest obstacles to implementing a highly redistributive policy like a UBI. Nor is there any attempt to consult with lifelong organizers and activists on the issue.
At the end of his post, Zuckerberg states that the “most effective safety net programs create an incentive or need to work rather than just giving a handout.” This echoes the “personal responsibility” rhetoric that drove workfare policies in the 1990s, which ended up kicking millions of people off of welfare rolls, leaving them in extreme poverty. The line also directly undermines the push for a UBI, which is quite literally a handout that can help liberate people from the “need to work.”
It would appear that Silicon Valley’s support for a basic income comes from self-interest. As Jathan Sadowski writes in the Guardian, “the trouble comes when UBI is used as a way of merely making techno-capitalism more tolerable for people, when it is administered like a painkiller that numbs the pain and masks the symptoms of economic injustice without addressing the root causes of exploitation and inequality.”
Tech moguls may seem like tempting allies for UBI advocates, but their vision of an ideal social safety net does not look anything like the left’s. If it did, they wouldn’t be pushing just for a basic income, but also for things like universal health care, free public education (not just for engineers!), and strong labor unions. For Silicon Valley, UBI is a sleek technological means to a very different end.