May, 2021

Permanent Crisis Management, the Rule of Law, and Universal Basic Income

A Polycentric Approach
  • Otto Letho

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As a response to the COVID-19 crisis, governments have turned to various discretionary measures such as cash transfers to consumers and businesses with mixed results. Universal Basic Income (UBI) is back on the agenda as well. One of the main advantages of UBI, as scholars like F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James M. Buchanan have argued, is that it does not depend upon competent and benevolent government discretion—which is often in short supply—but upon pre-established rules. This paper argues that the UBI scheme holds tentative promise from the point of view of improving the institutional crisis preparedness of a complex socioeconomic order. The pre-established rules of UBI buttress the rule of law framework that improves the ability of economic agents to spontaneously coordinate their actions in times of crisis characterized by radical uncertainty, disequilibrium shocks, and institutional instability. Furthermore, UBI combines the distribution of fungible resources with the delegation of independent decision-making power to millions of crisis-struck individuals and communities. Compared to discretionary tax-and-transfer schemes, the rules of UBI therefore appear more compatible with the polycentric discovery of novel solutions from the bottom-up. In times of crisis, UBI may be relied upon as one cornerstone of what I shall call the permanent crisis management framework. Having such a permanent scheme may minimize - although it does not altogether eliminate - the need for discretionary transfers, targeted intervention, and technocratic management in times of crisis. However, this theoretical model of UBI as a facilitator of polycentric crisis preparedness faces several practica