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How I failed to change the narrative about Basic Income in Canada

The concession speech

For the past 3 years, my primary goal has been to get the Liberal Party of Canada to include Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) on its electoral platform. (Support for this policy is already in the official Party program.) The election was held on Monday October 21st and UBI was never mentioned. My ultimate goal Is to see UBI implemented in my lifetime.

I ended up fighting on two fronts and losing on both.

The first front consisted in my lobbying efforts within the Liberal Party. I was hoping I could convince them to include a promise to implement UBI as a commitment to the electorate should they win re-election. When I got cold feet and neglected to contact the guy who was writing the platform, my project was probably doomed. Plus, several weeks into the 6-week election campaign I changed strategies! On September 19th an independent report by UBIWorks was published. It presented the case that the Canada Child Benefit was a UBI. I stopped presenting Basic Income as an experimental policy to be tested and, instead, argued that it was a fait accompli in Canada, hiding in plain sight. My efforts to get the press to ask questions and to stimulate debate among the Liberal candidates came to nothing.

Despite high level contacts within the Party, I had the impression that my message was not getting through to the right people. In hindsight, it is equally possible that my suggestion was being heard loud and clear in the right quarters and that appealing to their electoral self-interest rather than their consciences was spot on the best approach. After all, while I was emphasizing the economic impact of the Child Benefit for GDP growth, job creation, corporate profits, and tax revenue, the platform kept droning on about poverty reduction, a subject that people would rather not think about because they find it depressing and it makes them feel guilty. Perhaps Liberal strategists, who were staking their reputations on their message, simply rejected my proposal as not being something that would, at this point in the campaign, help them win reelection. Was this a mistake that partially explains why the Liberals lost their majority in the House of Commons? It would be pretentious of me to suggest this.

However, today's flop may yet bear fruit in the next electoral cycle in 4 years. This is what cooler heads than mine thought from the outset.

While all this was going on, a second front was opening with my allies in the Basic Income community. To bolster my position that UBI already existed in Canada under another name, I tried to convince famous people in the movement to lend their credibility to this argument. I was flabbergasted by the strong and nearly universal resistance I encountered: no, the Canada Child Benefit could not be called a Basic Income, full stop.

While two or three people got on board immediately, most of the cognoscenti insisted that what I was advancing was inconsistent with the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) definition of UBI for a variety of reasons. Theoreticians and experimentalists alike, as well as activists, flatly refused to go along with my plan to leverage this unique opportunity to change the narrative about UBI. I thought: "I'm caught in a paradigm shift, as it happens!"

Some argued that the Child Benefit was not universal because it was only earmarked for kids. Yang's Freedom Dividend which excludes minors still qualifies as a UBI, though. Others claimed it violated Individuality because it was given to families, as though it makes any sense to hand $500 to a toddler. However, most objected on the grounds that the Child Benefit is means-tested. This was the breaking point where everything I was trying to do simply collapsed. I never saw it coming.

The Canada Child Benefit is not means-tested, it is income-tested. People outside Canada are colour-blind to the distinction. Income-testing is just not part of their paradigm. Means-testing is an evil policy tool that allows bureaucrats to arbitrarily deprive vulnerable people of funds and services that they need and have a right to receive. It grinds them into the ground and makes an example of them to terrorize everybody else. Income-testing is a horse of another colour.

In Canada, we have a progressive tax system just like the one Adam Smith himself proposed: "It is not unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion." That is why no one questions the practice of taxing back from the rich funds equivalent to the Child Benefit from which they derive no important advantage and thereby recover some of the cost of a program, which is immensely useful for everybody else. Conscientious objectors to means-testing will insist that even when this claw-back is done specifically for the purpose of recouping UBI, it does not infringe on the principle of universality because it is done in separate operations, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. In Canada, we tend to view this as an elaborate and unnecessary fiction. Covering up the mechanism does little to hide the process which serves no other purpose than to claw back UBI from the rich.

In The FAQ on the BIEN definition of Basic Income we read under the caption Is Basic Income paid irrespective of income?

"Taxable “means” may need to be taxed at a higher average rate in order to fund the basic income. But the tax-and-benefit system no longer rests on a dichotomy between two notions of “means”: a broad one for the poor, by reference to which benefits are cut, and a narrow one for the better off, by reference to which income tax is levied."

The second notion is used universally to assess the Canada Child Benefit, which is why we use the term income-tested and not means-tested. My argument failed to convince. How it is possible, on the one hand, to clearly distinguish the two notions and, on the other hand, still insist on using the same term to describe them?

I think we are confronted with two incommensurable competing paradigms in both the political sphere and the academic domain. The old paradigms have accumulated a thick crust of unresolved problems such that business-as-usual can no longer operate smoothly. In politics, poverty reduction continues to dominate social policy discussions even though it no longer provides useful solutions. In the UBI academic community, a rigid definition stifles progress towards implementation by ensuring that the ideal program remains unattainable. I will be fleshing out this argument at a later date.

I haven't lost hope that the politicians will eventually learn to frame UBI as a powerful economic stimulant and an entitlement for all Canadians, especially the middle class. The academics too, will at some point loosen their church-like grip on orthodoxy and accept a leading role in promoting social justice, down in the trenches.

However, I would hate to end up like Moses, who never did reach the promised land, and spent 40 years not getting there. I don’t have that kind of time. I will be quickly making new friends in the party that holds the balance of power and leveraging these connections to achieve my goal of seeing Unconditional Basic Income implemented for all, in my lifetime.

[This article is also published on the BIEN website]

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