“Libertarian” Support for a Basic Income?

On June 18, 2014, in Analysis, Opinion, Sound Off, by Matthew Hockley

Oh boy…

Head in Hands

Matt Zwolinski, founder of “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” (google it if you’d like – I can’t bring myself to benefit them with a link), recently wrote an article posted to libertarianism.org presenting “the libertarian case for a basic income”.  This idea is so absurdly un-libertarian that at first I wasn’t sure it even warranted the time necessary to expose what should be obvious.  I decided that it was worth the time because as someone who identifies as libertarian, I’m none too pleased to see the word used in association with this ridiculous concept.

For those unfamiliar, the idea of a guaranteed basic income goes like this: each month the government writes a check to all citizens.  This check is the same amount regardless of other income, wealth, or any other conditions.  It is issued without regard to any requirements or stipulations – it is unconditional.

Zwolinski argues that this is a justifiable program for libertarians to support because he claims it would, 1. be better than the current welfare system, 2. serve as approximate reparations for past injustices, and 3. it would meet the basic needs of the poor.  If you’ve read anything about the “thick vs. thin” libertarian argument, this idea is about as “thick” as they come.

I don’t see how this could possibly be better than the current welfare system.  I can’t see how it would offer a savings over the current system as Zwolinski claims it would.  A basic income is paid to everyone, not just the “poor”.  The current system is only paying those enrolled, which is about half of the population (all forms of welfare considered).  He claims that this basic income would not be subject to taxation, but that income beyond it would be “subject to taxation at progressive rates”.  In the article the only example he gives of such an income is a Swiss proposal that would have married couples receiving a total of $67,200 per year in “basic income”.  I don’t know about you, but it I could make that much money a year, tax free, without actually working, there would be very little to motivate me to be a productive individual.  Why work an honest job at that salary only to have the government take a huge chunk when I could do nothing and receive the same salary, sans taxation?

Zwolinski claims that this program would cause less disincentives to employment than the current system because benefits aren’t withdrawn as a result of employment.  This is sheer madness for the reasons I pointed out above!  Why would anyone work just so that they’d have the honor of paying taxes?

Let’s take on the second point in support of this scheme: reparation for past injustice.  Zwolinski admits that there is no way to calculate such alleged injustice, so his best proposal is that reparations be approximated.  Since he states that the injustice would generally be the people better-off (wealthy) taking advantage of the poor (but sometimes the poor doing it to each other), and since the basic income is the same amount – regardless of all other factors – who exactly is being repaid for injustice if both wealthy and poor are being paid alike?  This point is based on the assumption that the wealthy would have other means of income which could be heavily taxed.  This is nothing more than a wealth redistribution scheme justified on the grounds of the defunct liberal idea of “social justice”.

Finally, the third claim that such a program would “meet the needs of the poor”, is murky at best.  Who is to determine what exactly the “poor” “need”?  Aside from the gross disservice done to the “poor” by generalizing them into a collective, this point implies that some central planner is capable of identifying the needs of these individuals, and putting a total cost on those needs, which is to be universal.  Some needs could be argued as universal needs, such as food, shelter, etc… However the cost of those needs varies significantly based on market conditions and locale.  It is not possible to fix a universal price!  Some members of the “poor” group would have their “needs” more than met, while others would be left wanting.  This doesn’t even take into account special needs that apply to only certain individuals.

All of this aside, the concept of a guaranteed basic income fails to pass the single most important test in the libertarian philosophy – the non-aggression principle.  This whole scheme relies upon a coercive state extorting property from individuals in order to redistribute it to others.  It relies on government central economic and social planning to determine “needs” and their price universally, which is not in keeping with reality.  It disincentivizes production and creates moral hazard for the benefactors who will lose sight of value since they do not have to earn it.  Inevitably such as system, as we see with current welfare programs would become corrupt, and collapse under its own weight after a long run of artificial measures (most likely inflation) to keep it solvent.

This is an idea wholly incompatible with libertarianism which bases all things on the principle of non-aggression.  Attempting to justify such a mongrel idea under the banner of libertarianism is a gross insult to all actual libertarians, of which Matthew Zwolinski is most certainly not!


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  • Steve

    Thick “libertarians” make me want to pull my hair out. Lew Rockwell destroyed the notion that there can be thick libertarians. whatever this clown is, He is no libertarian.

    • http://www.considerliberty.com/ Matthew Hockley

      Agreed. I still need to do more reading on the whole thick/thin thing as it relates to Jeff Tucker. I’ve heard him come under fire from Chris Cantwell, and Tom Woods, but I need to find out more. All I’ve read so far from Tucker was his piece on libertarian “brutalism”, which to me did not seem at all like a departure from the NAP. I can see why it got on Cantwell’s nerves, but that doesn’t really concern me much as I can only stand Cantwell in moderation. I do very much admire Tom Woods though, which makes me think I’m missing something based on his comments.

  • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

    Matt, I’ll be writing more on this topic later this summer, and will be addressing the criticisms that you and others have raised in that piece. However, on the issue of affordability, I’d recommend taking a look at Charles Murray’s book, In Our Hands, which sets out a much more detailed proposal than I was able to do in my essay. I’d also recommend looking at the series of blog posts by Ed Dolan, starting with this one: http://www.economonitor.com/dolanecon/2014/01/03/the-economic-case-for-a-universal-basic-income/

    As for whether it’s a libertarian proposal or not, it depends on how narrowly you want to define “real” libertarianism. If you define in so restrictive a way as to exclude Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and James Buchanan, then yeah, I guess this isn’t really libertarian. But it’s not at all clear to me what practical or philosophical utility such a restrictive definition is, nor is it clear that it is an accurate reflection of the libertarian intellectual tradition.

    • http://www.considerliberty.com/ Matthew Hockley

      Matt, thank you for your comment. I’ll look forward to reading your future piece and I will check out those additional resources you noted.

      I come from the view that for anything to be considered “libertarian” it has to pass muster when put up against the non-aggression principle. I would very much like to read your thoughts on this as it relates to a basic income.

      • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

        I think there are serious problems with regarding the NAP as the philosophical core of libertarianism. I wrote a short piece on that subject a while back, and there was quite a bit of discussion pro- and con- in its wake. You can find most of the pieces linked here: http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2013/04/nap-roundup/
        There’s still a lot more to say, of course. I’ll be writing more on this topic later this year too.

    • Steve

      Matt Z, I think this article by Lew Rockwell is a decent explanation of what a libertarian is. And for the record, at least Milton Friedman and James Buchanan were not libertarians, and Hayek, though an important Austrian Economist, was not libertarian in all of his ideologies.

      http://mises.org/daily/6740/The-Future-of-Libertarianism



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