One of the most visible libertarian advocates of the basic income is Dr. Matt Zwolinski. Zwolinski is a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and has written extensively on the libertarian case for the basic income.
In my interview with Zwolinski, he said a basic income “can help protect the freedom of certain vulnerable people,” although he recognizes there is a trade-off due to the coercive nature of taxes.
Zwolinski also dismissed some of the common libertarian objections to the basic income, saying it is a hard moral sell to claim taxation to help the poor is indistinguishable from a mugger stealing for himself.
“I think there’s a moral case, based on freedom and a correct theory of property rights, that justifies some form of economic redistribution,” he said.
For those libertarians that think basic income disqualifies them from the libertarian label, Zwolisnki said this does not make much sense since many libertarian thinkers throughout history have advocated for the basic income approach.
“Libertarianism is and should remain a pretty big tent,” Zwolinski said.
As a libertarian, what is the best reason to support UBI?
I don’t think that there’s a single best reason. I’m a pluralist in my moral philosophy, and so I think that a lot of different kinds of reasons are usually appropriate in assessing the case for or against a particular piece of public policy.
But, basically, I think there are two strong libertarian arguments in support of a basic income, one broadly deontological in nature and the other broadly consequentialist. The deontological argument has to do with the limits to the libertarian case for private property. For reasons that I think were very well laid out by Herbert Spencer in 1851, I don’t think the standard Lockean story about self-ownership and labor mixing gets us very far in justifying private property in land and other natural resources. For starters, that account simply doesn’t match the historical reality in which most private property originated in force and theft rather than peaceful homesteading. But, more fundamentally, I just don’t see how mixing your labor in a natural object gets you a property right in the whole economic value of that object, as opposed to a right to that portion of the value created by your labor. Basically, I think Henry George was right. And so I think that there’s a strong case to be made for a basic income funded by a “Single Tax” on “land rent” – the economic value of unimproved natural resources such as land.
The more consequentialist case has to do with protecting individual freedom. I call it a consequentialist case rather than a utilitarian one deliberately. The idea is that a basic income can help protect the freedom of certain vulnerable people. But I recognize that a basic income that’s large and broad enough to do that might have to be funded by taxes that violate the freedom of others. So we’re trading off freedom for freedom. That might sound scary to some libertarians, but I think that unless you’re an anarchist you’re already willing to accept something like this. Tax-funded police services, after all, protect individual freedom but are funded by coercive taxation.
I think the seeds for a freedom-based defense of a basic income are present in the writings of Friedrich Hayek, especially in his Constitution of Liberty. Hayek himself defended a kind of basic income, but was never entirely clear about what he saw the justification for it to be. I’ve tried to work out what a plausible Hayekian justification might be, at least in terms of broad outlines. Basically, I see Hayek as embracing a kind of republican account of liberty, where freedom means not just not being subject to the initiation of force but, more generally, not being subject to the arbitrary will of any other person. Once you take that account of freedom on board, I think you can justify a basic income as a way of protecting the economically vulnerable. The idea is that people who might otherwise have to accept any offer an employer makes or else starve aren’t really free. A basic income gives them the ability to say “no,” and thus protects them from being bossed around by the economically powerful.
One interesting thing to note about these two arguments is that they’re not just different in terms of where they start – the moral premises on which they’re based. I think they’re also different in terms of where they end up – in the kind of basic income they justify. If the Georgist argument works, I think that justifies a truly universal basic income. The earth belongs to all of us, and so all of us have an equal claim to the economic value of unimproved natural resources. Now, depending on how much of present wealth you think is due to labor, rather than raw natural resources, the value of this kind of basic income might not be very large. So, on this argument, what you might end up with is a very broad but relatively small basic income. Everybody gets something, but nobody gets much.
The freedom-based argument, on the other hand, doesn’t give us any reason to write a check to Bill Gates. His freedom is already protected by his economic power, so there’s no real point in giving him any more money. And the same will be true of a lot of other people, not just the rich but probably most of the middle class as well. So if the case for a basic income is based on the protection of individual freedom, I think what that gets you is something less than a universal basic income. Not everybody gets something, but what those who need it get will be large enough to effectively protect them against economic domination by others.
What would your ideal UBI look like?
Designing a policy like a universal basic income is obviously a complicated task. And I think it’s a task that should be highly sensitive not only to the kinds of moral considerations with which I spend most of my time as a philosopher, but to empirical considerations of the kinds studied by economists, sociologists, and the like. So I don’t want to claim that I’ve got anything close to the final word on this. I have some ideas, but this is definitely not a one-person project.
That said, I think that given the two distinct moral considerations that justify a basic income, there’s a case to be made for having two distinct basic income type policies that respond to those considerations. One would be a small, truly universal cash grant based on the economic value of unimproved natural resources. Think of this as something like the Alaskan Permanent Fund writ large. The other would be a less universal but more generous grant directed toward those individuals who fall below a certain specified threshold of economic sufficiency. I think the best way of implementing this second program is probably something like Milton Friedman’s Negative Income Tax, though I also like the proposal set forth by Charles Murray in his book, In Our Hands. In both cases, people earning less than a certain amount of money get a cash grant from the government, with which they can do whatever they wish; while people earning more than that amount get nothing. That conditionality makes the program less than truly universal. But I think you’ve got to do something like that in order to make a basic income economically feasible. Many basic income enthusiasts want a grant that is (1) universal, (2) large enough to provide people with an adequate level of income, and (3) economically affordable. But you can’t satisfy all three of those conditions at once. A Negative Income Tax satisfies conditions (2) and (3), which to my mind are the most important conditions, morally speaking. Condition (1) might be politically important in terms of generating and sustaining support for the program. I’m not sure. But it seems to me that something has to give, and I think there’s a strong case to be made for keeping (2) and (3) and relegating (1) to the land-tax component of the joint program.
Many libertarians say removing all welfare would be superior to replacing welfare with the UBI. Do you agree with this sentiment?
No, I don’t think so. But before I explain why, let’s be clear about two different conversations we could have about this question. One is a conversation about ideals – what is the best kind of society we could imagine as libertarians, regardless of how different that society might look from our own? The other conversation is about pragmatics – what should libertarians advocate here and now, given all the injustices, imperfections and disagreements with which any practical political proposal has to deal?
Now, as it happens, I don’t think either of those conversations gets you to the conclusion that all state-based welfare ought to be eliminated. That’s certainly not something that has any practical chance of being implemented in a world where, after all, most people aren’t libertarians. But I don’t think it’s very attractive as an ideal, either. I think there’s a moral case, based on freedom and a correct theory of property rights, that justifies some form of economic redistribution. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of bad redistribution in our society. We’ve have redistribution to the poor that’s made their lives worse, rather than better. And we’ve had a lot of straightforwardly regressive redistribution that actually takes money and opportunities away from the poor and channels it toward the better off. And libertarians have rightly criticized those programs. But the idea that anytime the state takes money from the well-off and gives it to the poor, that’s morally indistinguishable from a mugger on the street taking your wallet at gunpoint, well, that’s a hard sell. And not, I think, simply because non-libertarians are being thick-headed.
In my experience, many libertarians have called me a statist and denied me the label of libertarian for supporting the UBI. Have you had similar experiences and what is your reaction?
Sure, I get that all the time. Some people seem to think a desire to eliminate the welfare state is just part of what it means to be a libertarian. But what’s their basis for that? That Murray Rothbard thought so? Or Ayn Rand? But why should we take them as the final say on what libertarianism is or isn’t?
As I’ve written about before, there are a number of people who fall pretty squarely in the libertarian intellectual tradition – Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, Friedrich Hayek, and Herbert Spencer, to name a few – who don’t hold that view. Why should their views count any less toward defining what libertarianism is than Murray Rothbard’s?
I’m finishing up a book on the history of libertarian thought with John Tomasi. And one of the themes of that book is that the libertarian intellectual tradition is incredibly pluralistic. Some libertarians are consequentialists, some are deontologists, and some are ethical egoists. Some are anarchists, some are minimal-statists, and some are classical liberals. Of course, not all of those views can be right, and libertarians should (and do!) argue amongst themselves about which view is the best libertarian view. But I think it’s silly – and more than a little ironic! – for libertarians to try to write people with whom they disagree out of libertarianism altogether on the basis of some putative ideological authority. Libertarianism is and should remain a pretty big tent.