Article originally appeared on the Libertarian Republic by Brett Linley
At the FreedomFest convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, Gary Johnson took a stance puzzling to many libertarians. Per the Basic Income Earth Network, Johnson conveyed that he would be “open” to the idea of Universal Basic Income.
To many fiscal conservatives, UBI seems like a blanket handout to engorge the welfare state. However, Governor Johnson claims a libertarian justification for the system. “Like many libertarians, Johnson said he liked the idea of the UBI because of its potential to save money in bureaucratic costs, freeing up more money to give people directly.”
In fact, Johnson is not the lone free market defender of UBI. Other prominent libertarian voices have spoken up to defend the idea in the past.
Milton Friedman advocated for the Negative Income Tax, acknowledged as a close cousin to UBI. Libertarianism.org published a piece by Matt Zwolinski in 2013 about the concept’s libertarian merits.
Some will automatically deride Universal Basic Income as socialism, and dismiss it immediately. However, when structured correctly, UBI could actually become a positive force for liberty. All libertarians should give an honest look at the policy before passing judgment.
How Universal Basic Income Promotes Liberty
Most libertarians can agree that the welfare state, as it stands, is a mess. With that in mind, the issue becomes what we can do to make it less convoluted. UBI provides a unique opportunity to tackle this issue.
The only way that such a system would be workable, or even desirable, is if we scrap all existing welfare programs. The government would have to phase out programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and food stamps with everything else. In their place, we’d receive a streamlined process that would provide new, efficient economic incentives.
It is also no small consideration that the federal bureaucracy would substantially recede. All of the complex agencies tasked with administering various programs would become one. It is certainly easier to imagine monitoring potential waste and abuse in one program than a dozen.
At first glance, it may be hard to believe that handing out checks provides efficient incentives. The important economic question to keep in mind, however, is “compared to what?”
As much as libertarians would like to see all welfare programs abolished and replaced with nothing, politicians and voters will never support leaving so many objectively worse off. While current welfare programs actively encourage people not to work, UBI would remove these disincentives.
How Universal Basic Income Gets People to Work
Under our current welfare system, people can be booted off welfare once they reach a certain income level. Upon losing their welfare checks, people can actually end up as net losers. The system in place incentivizes people to stay unemployed so they can maintain their current standard of living.
Under UBI, people would be able to pursue employment without fear of becoming worse off. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray advocated in the Wall Street Journal, the benefits would decrease slowly as income rises in an ideal system. However, a certain immovable standard would be necessary in face of Social Security’s abolition. People still will need that source of retirement income.
Certainly, some people will abuse UBI and use it to live off the fat of the government. What’s important to recognize is that people already do this under the current system. Many people value their welfare wages plus their free time over the wages made from working. In the latter case, as aforementioned, working can make them net losers who no longer have any free time.
When it comes to considering whether UBI will make this problem worse, it appears unlikely. While some may dropout of the workforce, others may join. This can be an opportunity to help the most economically disadvantaged and bring about a respectable society.
Johnson’s Advocacy of Universal Basic Income is Good for America
People often deride libertarians for failing to take interest in the less fortunate. While the market truly is the tide that lifts all ships, some boats have holes through no fault of their own. Given the governmental structure we find ourselves in, instead of the one we wish we had, few options are available.
No monarchs exist to lay down libertarian law, and certain political realities must be accepted to fix the broken welfare state. Johnson realizes that even if he becomes president, he will not be able to throw millions of welfare recipients into the economy Obama has created without a life raft.
What Johnson can do is propose a system that can attract bipartisan support while making America more free. Not many such proposals exist, but UBI is one of them.
Maintaining and strengthening the protections for America’s most vulnerable satisfies Democrats. Cutting down bureaucracy and getting people to work can draw Republicans. Johnson understands that when applied correctly, UBI can improve lives. With the proper consideration, that’s something libertarians should support.
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