Pictured: Tommy Douglas is besieged by autograph seekers at a 1963 Maple Gardens rally. Photo via Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The debate over universal basic income (UBI) in its several forms has hung over democratic governments for centuries. Elaine Power and Jamie Swift’s defence of the idea and John Richards’s rebuttal effectively sum up the pros and cons. Unlike them, I am agnostic when it comes to UBI. I do know what I need to help me make up my mind. Evidence.

What I want as a policymaker, when making decisions, is evidence. Ideally, compelling evidence, from comparable jurisdictions, in place for many years, showing why a policy direction is obviously the right path to take. Not surprisingly, for a developed democracy like Canada and its component provinces and territories, there are not many policies like that left lying on the policy table.

This reflects a huge change, and it links directly to the debate about UBI. In the 19th century, and spiralling back hundreds of years, governments took care of defence, enforced laws and collected taxes to pay for defence and law enforcement. That was about it. The democratic revolution of the last two centuries has completely upended the millennia-old relationship between the government and the governed, something we often forget when we talk about programs that seem eternal.

The great political battles of the 19th and 20th centuries were fought over the role of the state in society and in the economy. Despite the empty shouting that still takes up too much political time over those subjects, those arguments have been largely settled – on the basis of a steady accumulation of evidence.

Universal voting rights, equality before the law, property rights, workplace standards and labour rights, pension plans, universal education, health care subsidized or provided by the state, some form of support for the disabled, the unemployed and unemployable – these are the common features of all successful democracies. Not some, not most, but all. Assuring the health, the safety and to some degree the security of everyone is a new idea, but it’s now central to modern democracy. Political fights have revolved around how to expand or limit those programs, but there is no real argument about whether those programs should exist.

A largely unintended consequence of the growth in government programs has been the simultaneous, and predictable, growth in government itself. Civil services were once tiny operations – Thomas Jefferson’s U.S. State Department had a staff of six just after the revolution. That grew to 1,200 in 1900, to 2,000 in 1940 and to 16,000 in 2000. In many cases, the public service is one of the largest employers – or even the largest – in a given jurisdiction.

Alongside this rapid growth, private-sector unions that emerged to protect the health and safety of workers made the leap to the public sector. As government programs grew, staff levels grew. Protected by collective agreements they are hard to shrink, no matter how badly a program fails or an employee underperforms.

I say all this because a UBI represents an enormous risk, which is why no government has yet been brave, or perhaps foolish, enough to put one into practice. Small-scale and usually short-term pilots as seen in Manitoba, Ontario and Finland are not enough, and neither are the positive results seen from Old Age Security or the Child Tax Credit, which offer a guaranteed income to a segment of society. The society-shaking impacts of a full UBI program have been too great for any government to embrace.

A UBI that replaces existing programs isn’t a program: it’s a revolutionary change at the heart of an entirely new way of approaching government. That doesn’t make it a bad idea, and it could be the revolution we need to address the challenges of demographic change, artificial intelligence and new technology devouring old jobs. An end to all social programs, and the bureaucracies that support them, except for health care and education. Huge numbers of people freed from often unsatisfying and unproductive work to pursue their passions in life – exactly the same liberation of human potential that North America offered to enchained Europeans and that powered the democratic revolutions which are now sputtering under the pressures of bureaucratization from within and mindless populism from without.

The previous revolution in democratic government took place after the Second World War. The sort of disruption that a UBI would cause is hard to imagine outside a crisis of that level. Will COVID-19 be that crisis? I doubt it. Where World War II drove a generation to build a vastly better and more equal world, global elites at (hopefully) the tail end of the pandemic seem exhausted, confused and directionless.

If a government does embrace a UBI it will need incredible resolve. It will upset people on both sides of today’s ossified political divide. Traditional conservatives will talk about a culture of idleness while traditional leftists will condemn cuts to programs and civil servants. There will be heightened tensions over immigration – just as Western welfare states have been magnets for immigration, ones that adopt a UBI will be even more appealing. The costs in jobs lost, programs curtailed, money spent and tensions increased – these will all be seen immediately. The benefits won’t be seen for years and, given that this is an idea that’s never been tried, it is possible that a UBI will fail for reasons either expected or unexpected.

For all these reasons we need to stop talking about a UBI as a program and reframe it as a project as radical as Tommy Douglas’s or Margaret Thatcher’s. That work has to include a conversation about the role of the individual in society, rights and responsibilities, and democracy more broadly. Let’s see if there is a movement ready to embrace this fearsome opportunity.

While you’re here, why not check out the rest of our section on Basic Income in Is Basic Income an Idea Whose Time Has Come?