Do Middle-Class College Kids Already Have a UBI?
By Bryan Caplan
In our Universal Basic Income debate, Will Wilkinson had one fun argument I didn’t have time to answer. His claim: Middle-class college kids (like stereotypical Students for Liberty attendees) already get a UBI from their parents. Thanks to this UBI, Will argued, middle-class kids have the buffer they need to explore their interests and hone their skills – and the disincentive effects are barely noticeable. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone enjoyed the same privilege at taxpayer expense?
My reply: While middle-class parents do commonly provide ample financial support for their children, it’s nothing like a UBI. Instead, it’s heavily means-tested: We’ll keep supporting you as long as you pursue a responsible path. “Either stay in school and get passing grades, or get a job and pay rent” is perhaps the typical deal. Many parents add further micromanagement: To receive support, you need high grades, a realistic major, sobriety, and a suitable boyfriend. Only a minority agree to let their children live as they please at their parents’ expense. When they do, the results seem pretty bleak. I know of no systematic data on never-employed single 30-year-olds living in their parents’ basements, but the anecdotal evidence is chilling. Even parents who provide “unconditional” support ultimately tend to lose patience and angrily switch to old-school “sink-or-swim.” And who could blame them?
Will might decry this as “paternalism,” but a subtler analysis is in order. For starters, the heart of paternalism is treating adults like children. But parents’ obvious reply is, “We’re treating our kids like children because they’re acting like children.” Until you are self-supporting, demanding full autonomy is just chutzpah. In any case, pure self-interest also urges us to impose conditions on our dependents’ behavior. “If you want to sleep on my couch, you’d better get to your job interview on time” need not be motivated by my desire to give you a “happy life full of hard work.” Maybe I just want my couch back.
To circle back to my broader theme, if people who love you have good reason to impose conditions on their voluntary assistance, people who’ve never even met you have overwhelming reason to impose conditions on their involuntary assistance. And involuntary assistance is the heart of the welfare state.