Every democracy’s internal legitimacy is tied to how fair the residents of that country feel their society is or tries to be. The fairness of laws, the fairness of government generally, the mix of fairness and opportunity writ large across the entire economy, fairness in the workplace and fairness of the tax system—these all matter.
That’s why successful economically prosperous economies have a special duty to keep working at fairness and reducing the pathologies that poverty imposes in ways that deny opportunity, expands the bureaucratic state and widens the gaps between haves and have nots. And we’re seeing just how important this duty is: Recent electoral outcomes in the U.S. and Europe underline that, while perceived economic fairness is not an exclusive determinant of political temperament, it certainly does count. When unfairness is broadly perceived to be pervasive, extreme and simplistic solutions and political voices championing them usually gain strength.
But when it comes to discussing the idea of a basic universal income, we run aground. The usual arguments from the far right (“we cannot afford this,” they say, or “if you pay people for not working, people won’t work”) join with those on the far left (“this is just a way to reduce pressures on the minimum wage or cut back all the other programmes that are vital”) are mutually reinforcing, even though they’re largely inaccurate. Over 60 per cent of those living below the poverty line in Canada have jobs—some more than one—and yet are still beneath the poverty line. Present welfare plans across Canada not only pay less than the poverty line—sometimes 20 to 40 per cent less—but also discourage work by clawing back benefits if more than $100 or so are earned.
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