Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
Opportunists across the political spectrum have been emboldened by the current crisis to propose all manner of terrible ideas.
And among the worst is the universal basic income (UBI) — a payment to all citizens, unconditional on income or wealth, without any obligation to be in work or study.
Supporters have seized on the government’s pandemic JobKeeper scheme as evidence we’re finally ready to embrace a UBI.
Of course, fans see it as panacea in good and bad times alike.
In good times, it’s the supposed solution to virtually all economic, ecological, and social ills. And in the current crisis, they argue a UBI is uniquely suited to deal with the surge of unemployed, the strain on the welfare system, and the apparent fiscal willingness to spend.
But not only are they wrong to equate JobKeeper with a UBI, they’re also mistaken that the coronanomics support their case anyway.
The JobKeeper payment imposes an effective wage floor for those employed in businesses facing an immediate, massive fall in revenue. These extraordinary circumstances are expected to be temporary, and when the crisis eventually ends, so does the payment. The worker is expected to go back to work, or to seek work on Newstart.
That’s a far cry from the UBI, which is not only permanent, but also is designed to remove the obligation to seek work.
Moreover, UBI proponents fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the economic conditions and today’s world of work.
Rather than a permanent reduction in the demand for labour, the present shutdown is a temporary contraction in labour demand due to forced closures and social distancing (with related reductions in short run supply).
Moreover, if economic life under social distancing has taught us anything, it’s that work has been supported, not threatened, by technology (exactly the opposite of what UBI supporters have been claiming). Indeed, technological integration into work — and study for that matter — has been a lifeline, saving jobs and livelihoods for many.
The other claim is that the government’s unprecedented spending allegedly reflects a willingness for meeting a UBI’s exorbitant price tag. But the government’s big-spending economic rescue package has been forced by a temporary crisis; there is no evidence of a commitment to permanently bigger government.
Moreover, when the costs are being counted, there’ll surely be little left in the piggy bank to fund a UBI.
Good policy options in this crisis are hard to come by and there’s no shortage of terrible ones being prosecuted. Despite what the economic illiterates say, a UBI remains an unbelievably bad idea.
In the space of just a few weeks, the rule of law in Australia has both triumphed in the High Court’s judgement in Pell v The Queen and taken a battering from state governments’ social distancing rules under emergency powers invoked in the name of fighting Covid-19.
The rule of law does not mean imposing the iron fist of a police state, shades of which are to be found in the states’ restrictions. It means, among other things, transparency and lack of ambiguity in the law and the absence of arbitrary action in its application and enforcement.
Most of us accept the need for some social distancing rules to apply for a short period, but the current restrictions go to absurd lengths, lack clarity, leave too much leeway for arbitrary action by officials – and for all those reasons offend against the rule of law.
The relevant NSW ministerial order, for example, includes a list of acceptable reasons for people to leave their place of residence and puts all other reasons – a very large and unspecified residual – as in the unlawful category. This approach offends against the very idea of a free society in that it is a law defining what we CAN do, not what we CANNOT do. Free societies don’t need to be told what they can do.
The inconsistencies, ambiguities and potential for misinterpretation in the NSW order abound. Little wonder that people don’t know what they can and can’t legally do and police and bureaucrats are making up their own interpretations as they go.
The rule of law isn’t like a decoration to be taken down when it becomes inconvenient to the exercise of state power. It is there to protect our freedoms from abuses of state power. The Berejiklian government should immediately rescind this repugnant ministerial order and replace it with something that is less restrictive, unambiguous and defines what residents of NSW cannot do, not what they can do.
In the meantime, it would not be surprising if everyone in possession of one of those on-the-spot police fines exercises their right not to pay it and to have their case heard by a court.
This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published on Spectator as The Koronavirus Keystone Kops threaten our health and our liberty
When a learner driver is fined more than $1,650 for ‘non-essential travel’ by going for a driving lesson despite the general coronavirus lockdown, what lesson should we learn?
That the most important thing is not preventing the spread of coronavirus, it’s following the rules.
Eventually common sense prevailed, and the fine was dropped, but only after media pressure. After all, the driver was enclosed in a car with her mother: the chance of either contracting coronavirus or infecting others is indistinguishable from zero.
And the number of counter-common sense instances of police enforcement is growing.
The level of government intrusion into the lives of ordinary Australians that has occurred in the past three weeks would have been unbelievable just three weeks before that.
At a minimum, this situation should have required three things from government: serious and credible evidence that the limitations were necessary; extraordinary care in drafting legislation and police implementation to avoid overreach (ie not leaving it to individuals discretion); and clear and unambiguous signposts for when the restrictions will be lifted.
Arguably, not a single one of these things have been done. The second and third were clearly ignored in the rush to give power to police. The rate of new infections has now fallen below the level on 18 March, when the restrictions on large gatherings were announced — yet no end is in sight.
Obviously, this is a constantly evolving situation — and government may have more information than they are letting on — but how can we possibly accept a lack of transparency and detail in the face of such extreme measures?
The concern is that such measures are not actually justified at all medically, only politically. The fear, so potent a motivator at times like this, is not the enduring imposition of a police-state (as some seem to be claiming), but the permanent, partial, erosion of the expectation of individual liberty.
In the next crisis, which is unlikely to be a severe pandemic, people will be less resistant to the imposition of serious restrictions on their freedoms. History tells us such powers, once successfully asserted, will be used again.
This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published in the Canberra Times as Have we given up our individual freedoms too easily?