What would you call a national leader who knows a simple policy that could be implemented at no additional cost that would end poverty, but who refuses to advocate for or even to support that policy? Willfully ignorant? Ideologically blind? A sociopath?

In a campaign speech in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 24, Paul Ryan, the Republican Party Nominee for Vice-President of the United States of America, criticized the Obama administration’s ideological approach to dealing with poverty, placing it within a half-century of liberal attempts to alleviate poverty, stretching back to at least Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Ryan stated that the war on poverty had been won by poverty. As specific proof of the failure of government intervention against poverty, Ryan stated, “Just last year, total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came in at more than one trillion dollars. How much is that in practical terms? For that amount of money, you could give every poor American a check for $22,000.”

The Republican ticket believes they can reduce taxes by 5 trillion dollars, increase military spending by 2 trillion dollars, keep Social Security and MediCare spending at current rates, and reduce the national debt all by closing tax loopholes and eliminating deductions. So their math should not be automatically assumed to be correct. But to be charitable, I will do so anyway.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the poverty rate for a single individual in the 48 contiguous states is $11,170 for 2012, and $23,050 for a family of four. And if sending every poor person a check for $22,000 were administered through the Internal Revenue Service in people’s federal income tax returns, it would be a lot simpler and cheaper than the IRS’s administration of the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of the many means-tested programs that would presumably be eliminated to pay for the $22,000 payment. Even if the extreme work disincentive of an all-or-nothing grant were nearly eliminated by reducing it to a mere $12,000 and making it universal but with a 50% take-back rate, it would still be much simpler than the EITC. So Paul Ryan just explained how the United States could literally end poverty by fiat without spending any more money than it already is and with a massive savings in bureaucratic spending. So is this what the Romney-Ryan ticket proposes to do for America?

No. This explanation for how to end poverty was used only to show the ineffectiveness of the current government approaches to poverty. But Ryan did not actually propose ending poverty via this method in his speech. Neither he nor Romney have ever proposed anything like the plan he described to end poverty. In fact, in this speech, the closest thing to an alternative vision Ryan offered for dealing with poverty was to suggest school vouchers. He claimed the way for people to escape poverty is through education, and noted that he and Romney supported educational “choice”. Data from the famous SIME-DIME basic income studies suggest that Ryan has the causal relationship between escaping poverty and improving educational achievement backwards. A basic income was shown to be a highly cost-effective means of increasing grades for children in the families studied.

Is Ryan really so sociopathic? A more charitable, and more likely, explanation is ideological blindness. Ryan may actually be bothered by poverty, but he likely views “income redistribution” as simply wrong. In this, his thinking would be similar to that of Thomas Jefferson, who understood intellectually that slavery was morally wrong, but who also believed it to be morally wrong for the state to take a person’s property. The mutual mistake made by Jefferson and Ryan is the belief that “property” exists as a moral imperative created prior to either mutual agreement or imposition by threat of force.

The convention of property is a very good idea that most often enhances both economic incentives and personal freedom.  But a convention is all that it is, and when certain forms of property interfere with economic incentives or personal freedoms, those forms of property need to be eliminated or reformed. The nation of England has traditionally treated titles of nobility as forms of personal property, but when the United States was founded, we eliminated such forms of property from our existence. Nine decades later, we eliminated the form of property known as slavery from our existence. Current forms of government created property such as land titles, patents, and shares in government chartered corporations are probably still on balance good ideas and do not need to be eliminated entirely. But they still benefit the few who utilize them at the expense of the public who created them. Demanding that such forms of property be reformed to require full compensation to those who are displaced is not asking for handouts from the makers. It is asking for payment from the takers. It is demanding justice.

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist has written 983 articles.

Karl Widerquist is a Professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University-Qatar, specializing in distributive justice—the ethics of who has what. Much of his work involves Universal Basic Income (UBI). He is a co-founder of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG). He served as co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) for 7 years, and a member of the BIEN EC for 14 years. He was the Editor of the USBIG NewsFlash for 15 years and of the BIEN NewsFlash for 4 years. He is a cofounder of BIEN’s news website, Basic Income News. He is a cofounder and editor of the journal "Basic Income Studies," the only academic journal devoted to research on UBI. Widerquist has published several books and many articles on UBI both in academic journals and in the popular media. He has appeared on or been quoted by many major media outlets, such as NPR’s On Point, NPR’s Marketplace, PRI’s the World, CNBC, Al-Jazeera, 538, Vice, Dissent, the New York Times, Forbes, the Financial Times, and the Atlantic Monthly, which called him “a leader of the worldwide basic income movement.” Widerquist holds two doctorates—one in Political Theory form Oxford University (2006) and one in Economics from the City University of New York (1996). He has published seven books, including "the Prehistory of Private Property (Edinburgh University Press 2020, coauthored by Grant S. McCall) , "A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments" (Palgrave Macmillan 2018), "Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy" (Edinburgh University Press 2017, coauthored by Grant S. McCall) and "Freedom as the Power to Say No" (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He has published more than a twenty scholarly articles and book chapters. Most Karl Widerquist’s writing is available on his “Selected Works” website (works.bepress.com/widerquist/). More information about him is available on his BIEN profile (https://basicincome.org/news/2016/12/bien-profiles-karl-widerquist-co-chair/). He writes the blog "the Indepentarian" for "Basic Income News."