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Stuck in the middle without UBI

This article was originally published in the Brown Political Review. It was written in the Fall, and touches on all sorts of things I've been writing about since then: Duverger's Law, the Fed./Prov. power dynamic, etc. This wonderful illustration was done by Jinghong Chen at the BPR.


Canadian politics have been weird lately. Always overshadowed by the circus to the south, Canadian politics tend to be tame, even boring. But 2020 had other plans for Canada, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suspending Parliament for more than five weeks amidst both an ethics investigation and a global pandemic. During that chaos, pandemic relief efforts have made many hopeful for many progressive policies such as a universal basic income (UBI). Some have even lauded the Canada Economic Recovery Benefit (CERB) as the world’s first national UBI program.

A UBI is a guaranteed income for all adults, provided without a means test or work requirement. It is most succinctly—albeit simplistically—described as “free money for all.” Now, when more and more people are self-employed, working in the gig economy, or considered unemployable due to automation and a rapidly evolving labor market, proponents of a UBI argue that current welfare measures, which do not include workers like these, are insufficient. The idea of a UBI is broadly popular in Canada, drawing support from nearly 75 percent of Canadians, compared to only 43 percent of Americans.

The federal government passed the CERB to help those who lost their jobs due to Covid-19. The CERB was recently replaced by the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) with a unanimous vote, which provides for similar provisions into 2021. Though many have called it a UBI, the CRB is not “free money for all,” and it is meant to complement rather than replace existing welfare provisions. Still, it is a step towards a working UBI, as it both tests the necessary infrastructure and normalizes the idea.

But, before anyone gets too excited about a lasting UBI in a post-pandemic world, a few words of caution are due: Canada’s political system is not built for bold change. The obstacles that proponents of a UBI will face are indicative of the root causes of the nation’s fundamental centrism: the federal-provincial power dynamic, the first-past-the-post voting system, and the “Americanization” of the Canadian Constitution.

In comparison to the federal government, Canadian provinces have extensive powers over healthcare, education, and commerce. Thus, bold policies implemented at the national level often face provincial reversals. In a 2018 example of this phenomenon, Conservative Premier Doug Ford removed Ontario from the federal government’s carbon pricing plan, meaning that within three years of its passage, a significant step forward for Canada on climate policy was overturned by its largest province.

This tension between provincial and federal governments, as well as Premier Ford’s conservative track record, does not bode well for a UBI. Within a year of taking office, Premier Ford canceled a UBI experiment in Ontario, claiming it was too expensive. If he frets over the cost of giving a few Ontarians money to see what it would do to their productivity, he must shiver at the thought of “free money for all.” While Ford is particularly contrarian, and particularly conservative, this animosity between federal and provincial governments is not a new barrier to government productivity. Of the 30 years since 1990, only six have seen an Ontario premier and a Canadian prime minister from the same party.

Canada’s electoral system, which privileges centrism, also complicates a UBI’s chances of passing. Duverger’s Law is a theory that suggests that all first-past-the-post democracies, including both Canada and the US, tend towards two parties: one on the left and one on the right, and both very close to the center. This happens as citizens vote strategically for the political party that they deem viable, which people generally see as closer to the center.

While Duverger’s Law is contentious among political scientists, the effects of strategic voting on Canadian politics are clear. It has brought political parties on both sides of the spectrum closer to the center and has homogenized the left. For instance, even the federal parties that included a UBI in their 2019 platforms, such as the Green Party and the New Democratic Party, have been increasingly focused on avoiding fiscal risks in a bid for viability. This restricts the possibility of proposing legislation which truly breaks boundaries, forcing political parties away from bold policies such as a UBI and closer to their centrist analogues.

Plurality voting is not the only impediment to progressive change that Canada shares with the United States. Constitutional Scholar Michael Mandel also argues that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982 has been “Americanized,” or influenced by the American Constitution in ways that do not reflect Canadian values. In particular, the Charter lacks a focus on “positive” rights. A positive right is the right to have something, such as the explicit rights to education or healthcare provided in many European countries. Instead, the Charter focuses more on “negative” rights, or the right to not have certain liberties taken away, such as freedom of assembly.

While Canadians do have many of these unwritten rights in practice, inscribing social rights into the Charter would set a legal precedent for new progressive policies, such as free college or a UBI, and guarantee that they would be enforced once passed. Spain is modeling this scenario already: While the country has already implemented a proto-UBI as a form of Covid-19 relief, the policy may well become permanent given that Spain’s Constitution asserts a right to social welfare provisions. By adding a provision to its Charter, Canada might find itself in a similar situation.

It’s not impossible for Canada to overcome its unique obstacles to create a political environment where it would be possible to adopt progressive policies, including popular ones such as a UBI. The Charter can be amended, and fewer than half of Canadian citizens say they completely support the current first-past-the-post electoral system. While the power of the provinces is unlikely to change, progressive policies such as universal healthcare have had success when implemented from the bottom up. Perhaps a similar future awaits a UBI.

The implementation of a UBI is still possible without major constitutional or electoral changes. But despite the broad popularity of a universal basic income, Canadians may have to wait significantly longer than those in countries, such as Spain, which lack Canada’s structural impediments to bold change. Rather than being the “first in the world” to implement a UBI, Canada may end up with the title it has often taken instead: “first in North America.”

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