Voices on the basic income (I): Libertarianism and the basic income

The New York Public Library @nypl

Is philosophical libertarianism compatible with the idea of a basic income? At first glance, the answer might seem to be no, for libertarians typically believe that individuals possess robust (though not necessarily absolute) property rights with which the state cannot interference without the consent of the affected. Yet this is exactly what a basic income seems to imply: a strong intervention of the state in the economic lives of its citizens.

However, things are not so easy. Though it may not be too far-fetched to say that most libertarians reject the proposal, which they think would lead to a dangerous slippery-slope with fatal consequences, this view is not unanimous. In this article we will survey the debate over the basic income that has taken place within one particular intellectual tradition that might be thought to be, on a first approximation, hostile to the idea. And we will do so by hearing the participants in these debates, who have kindly answered our questions.

First of all, let us introduce the bleeding heart libertarians, a group of prestigious authors (mainly philosophers and economists), who write in the website with the same name[i]. According to them, the most attractive version of libertarianism cannot ignore the demands of social justice: free markets and social justice, they claim, are actually closer than it is usually thought. Many of these authors (though not necessarily all of them) are sympathetic to the idea of a basic income – or, at least, believe it cannot be dismissed too hastily. This view has been advanced, for instance, by the philosopher Matt Zwolinski, from the University of California in San Diego:

«I believe that there are good reasons for conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals to take the idea of a universal basic income seriously. On a moral level, I think there are several strong lines of support for the idea, including the Georgist[iii] idea of a “single tax” on the raw value of natural resources, and the Hayekian[iv] idea of freedom as independence from the arbitrary will of others. And on a practical level, I think some form of basic income would be a much more effective way of providing a social safety net than most of the other approaches we have tried. My own inclination is to favor some sort of Negative Income Tax scheme as originally proposed by Milton Friedman [v]. People don’t always think of the Negative Income Tax as a kind of basic income, but essentially it’s the same thing [vi]. And to my mind, the Negative Income Tax does the best job of providing a basic level of income security while at the same time not doing too much to disincentivize work, and not being prohibitively expensive.»

Thus, according to Zwolinski, libertarians have at their disposal many different ways to support a basic income. On the one hand, they can focus on the very foundations of libertarianism (a theory of property and a theory of individual freedom), and there they will find various compelling reasons. On the other hand, they can also focus on practical considerations. An additional possibility would involve appealing to non-ideal considerations: since states are not going away anytime soon, let’s choose the redistribution scheme that guarantees the maximum possible freedom – or at least one that minimizes the rigidity of state intervention. As Jessica Flaningan [vii], from the University of Richmond, puts it:

«I think that libertarians should endorse a basic income for non-ideal reasons. That is, given that we have states, and given that states tax people and enforce property rules and uphold a bunch of conventions hat effectively violate people’s natural rights against interference, a basic income would enable people to live more freely in this context. As a matter of ideal theory, I think libertarians will disagree about the justice of a basic income, depending on whether the foundations of their libertarianism is based more on their belief that it will produce better consequences or their belief that it is required as a way of respecting rights.»

In Flanigan’s view, the best way to justify the basic income requires that we see it as a «compensation for the coercive enforcement of arbitrary property rules».

Another author who has emphasized the coercion-minimizing potential of a basic income is the economist Michael Munger [viii], from Duke University, who holds that if a basic income «is a substitute for all existing policies, it is an improvement at the margin over what we have now«, for it would involve «more freedom, and more responsibility, with little or no added cost«. Nevertheless, Munger also thinks that, strictly speaking, individuals do not have a right to a basic income, since this «entail[s] an obligation for someone, usually taxpayers, to pay for the UBI, which would justify unconsented coercion«. Though he considers the possibility that «as a matter of politics and practical considerations of efficiency, voters might prefer UBI over the current system«, he insists that the implementation of such a proposal requires «actual consent, not hypothetical consent«, and advocates «for persuading people to choose UBI«, even if it cannot be «imposed by force because it is not a right«. Munger’s view might thus be summed up by appealing to the title of one of his articles on the subject: «basic income is not an obligation, but it might be a legitimate choice» [ix].

Of course, not all libertarians agree with the suggestion that a basic income might be implemented «with little or no added cost». For instance, the economist Bryan Caplan[x] believes that «[g]iving money to everyone is extremely wasteful compared to targeting money to people in need«. In his view, «[e]xisting welfare states are deeply dysfunctional, but at least they make some effort to direct tax money to people – especially children and the handicapped – who are needy through no fault of their own«. For Caplan, the most pressing challenge for a basic income is that «[a]ny benefit formula sufficient to have popular appeal would be exhorbitantly expensive. Picture, for example, a $10k per person basic income, with a marginal benefit reduction rate of 25%. Under this formula, a family of four would have to have an income over $160k before it paid ANY taxes. Madness«.

Indeed, even if they may not necessarily share Caplan’s conclusion, this pessimism (or at least, the feeling that the road ahead might be much harder than one may originally think) is quite widespread among libertarians. To illustrate, here’s what Zwolinski – who, as we have seen, is sympathetic to the idea of basic income – says about its risks:

«The biggest obstacle to realizing a Universal Basic Income guarantee is, without a doubt, politics. And I don’t just mean that politics make it unlikely that a UBI will be passed. That’s true, but that’s not the biggest worry I have. The biggest worry I have is that the political process we would have to go through in order to implement a UBI will turn a potentially great idea into a terrible one. I think there are some forms of UBI that would create a great benefit for society at a reasonable costs. But of course there are other versions of the proposal that would be disastrous. If I was a philosopher-king, I could simply implement the ideal policy and command everyone to implement it flawlessly. But in the real world we have to deal not only with dramatically different visions of what a Universal Basic Income ought to look like – my view, for instance, is very different from the view held by most UBI supporters on the left, such as Philippe van Parijs [xi]. We also have to worry about the way in which any ideal proposal will be corrupted by rent-seeking and special-interest politics, with this provision added on to satisfy that group, and that provision deleted to appease this one. That’s what happened with Friedman’s original proposal for a Negative Income Tax in the United States. And it’s largely those same kind of political problems that largely derailed the Finnish experiment with a UBI last year

Let us go back to our initial question: Is philosophical libertarianism compatible with the idea of a basic income? The most plausible answer seems to be that it is an open question. Some believe they are perfectly compatible. Others beg to differ. Interestingly, what this shows is that the idea has managed to generate fruitful discussion in unlikely places. What are its precise implications is something the reader should judge by herself.

[i] https://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/.

[ii] http://sites.sandiego.edu/mzwolinski/. Zwolinski has defended some form of basic income in various places. For instance, here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2584433, and here: https://www.cato-unbound.org/2014/08/04/matt-zwolinski/pragmatic-libertarian-case-basic-income-guarantee.

[iii] https://www.learnliberty.org/blog/a-tax-even-libertarians-could-love/.

[iv] https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/why-did-hayek-support-basic-income.

[v] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtpgkX588nM.

[vi] https://niskanencenter.org/blog/universal-basic-income-is-just-a-negative-income-tax-with-a-leaky-bucket/.

[vii] https://sites.google.com/site/jessicamflanigan/. Flanigan has discussed the basic income and its relationship with libertarianism (http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/04/bhls-ubis/) and its relationship with feminism: https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/01/the-feminist-case-for-universal-basic-income.html.

[viii] http://www.michaelmunger.com/. https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/bis.2011.6.issue-2/1932-0183.1222/1932-0183.1222.xml

[x] http://www.bcaplan.com/. Caplan, who is not a bleeding heart libertarian, has written about the basic income at Econlib. For instance: https://www.econlib.org/archives/2017/05/another_ubi_deb.html and https://www.econlib.org/archives/2017/02/why_libertarian_2.html.

[xi] http://bostonreview.net/archives/BR25.5/vanparijs.html.

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