A thoughtful discussion of overhauling the welfare state would be a welcome break from the horse-race politics which inevitably dominates the news. After months of hearing pundits score the latest exchange of insults and ruminate on how current events might affect mercurial voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, it would be nice to dig down into the weeds of a meaningful economic-policy argument.  

Judith Shulevitz almost offered such a respite in the New York Times on Sunday. The second half of her article does a reasonable job reviewing the merits of a “universal basic income,” which would have the government provide all citizens with a payment to cover basic living expenses. Such a sweeping universal entitlement program initially sounds like something only a true leftist could love, but versions of the concept have been advanced by notable conservatives and libertarians. Charles Murray and Milton Friedman, among others, have argued that a straightforward, guaranteed minimum income could replace the complicated, intrusive welfare state and distort economic incentives less.

It’s an interesting topic. Too bad Shulevitz wastes so much of the article, entitled “It’s Payback Time for Women,” rehashing the tired, feminist trope that it’s a capitalist conspiracy that women don’t receive a paid wage for caring for their own families. She writes:

The feminist argument for a U.B.I. is that it’s a way to reimburse mothers and other caregivers for the heavy lifting they now do free of charge. . . . Society [is] getting a free ride on women’s unrewarded contributions to the perpetuation of the human race. As Marx might have said had he deemed women’s work worth including in his labor theory of value (he didn’t), “reproductive labor” (as feminists call the creation and upkeep of families and homes) is the basis of the accumulation of human capital. I say it’s time for something like reparations.

Certainly society often fails to fully appreciate the value of work performed by women who dedicate themselves to caring for children and the elderly, and to building up our neighborhoods and civil society. Ironically, feminists are often among the biggest offenders in belittling women outside of the workforce, and insist that success is measured only in how much money and power one obtains. 

Yet Shulevitz’s claim that women therefore need “reparations” for unpaid work overlooks how families are structured to compensate caregivers — and not just with intangible rewards of respect and love, which apparently don’t count for much. Families exist so that resources can be pooled and shared. Caregivers may not be earning a paycheck, but they should have equal access to the money and resources brought home by others in the family, who in turn benefit from the caregivers’ work at home. Feminists presume this is a raw deal for women, and that the stay-at-home parent is doing the less glamorous and less personally fulfilling job. But that isn’t always the case. Men aren’t all sitting in board rooms smoking cigars and being showered with fat paychecks; rather, men often work in unpleasant work conditions — on fishing boats, in mines, in prisons, on hot construction sites, or through the night driving trucks — in order to earn more money. Many do so, and then share their incomes with their wives who stay home with their children. 

Shulevitz at least recognizes that stay-at-home moms aren’t the only ones doing unpaid work. She argues that a universal basic income — which by definition is available to everyone — is “a necessary condition for a just society,” because we all contribute to the social infrastructure in ways we aren’t necessarily compensated for. That may sound nice, but it whitewashes profound differences between levels of engagement and contributions to the greater good, as well as the rather significant detail of how this payment will materialize. Eventually, she mentions the costs of a universal basic income, explaining that it could be funded by new taxes and by savings gained from replacing other social programs; she admits that it amounts to massive income redistribution. Yet by focusing on the claim that this redistribution would be more just, she ignores that such a regime may very well exact more taxes from people who do plenty of unpaid work and give it to others who do far less.

In other words, if the goal is to create a system that compensates caregivers and those who contribute to our social infrastructure without payment, than this system may not improve on the status quo.   

The idea of a universal basic income may be superior to a social safety net: It would allow us to replace overlapping social programs (such as food stamps, unemployment insurance, welfare, Medicaid, even Social Security and Medicare) which often lead to waste and fraud and create great economic distortion. It’s an interesting theory, and I’d really like to read more. But Shulevitz should abandon the argument that a universal basic income is necessary to pay stay-at-home moms and others contributing without pay to our families and neighborhoods — it simply doesn’t make much sense.