Sam Harris and Charles Murray discuss Universal Basic Income on “The Waking Up Podcast” episode #73

Sam Harris and Charles Murray discuss Universal Basic Income on “The Waking Up Podcast” episode #73

On episode #73 of “The Waking Up Podcast”, host Sam Harris discusses the potential merits of Universal Basic Income with political science researcher and author Charles Murray.

The conversation begins at 1:52:22.

Harris opens by describing Universal Basic Income (UBI) as “a possible remedy for the increasing role automation is playing in this economy”.

Murray, who wrote a book called “In Our Hands: A Plan To Replace The Welfare State” in 2006, is no stranger to the topic and shared his ideas with Harris in great detail.

“The idea is that you replace the current system with a UBI, and that you leave people alone to make their own decisions about how to use it,” Murray said.

He insisted that the money be deposited every month, electronically, into a known bank account and that this type of income stream gives people moral agency.

Murray went on to say, “I think replacing the Welfare state with UBI is going to be the rare case where you have side effects – not unintended side effects that are terrible – but unintended side effects that have the potential for rejuvenating America’s civic culture.”

Both Harris and Murray agreed that A.I. has the potential to radically transform the job market, unrecognizably, within 20 or 30 years.

Harris, who has expressed his concerns about UBI with previous guests on the podcast, asked, “Are you worried at all about the incentives just not being aligned if you give out UBI? Is there any tweaking of it that makes it more likely to produce the good changes you’re picturing?”

Murray responded by describing his plan.

“There are a couple of really, really important things. One of them is that indeed you do get rid of the other Welfare state services, and that you have a very high point at which the guaranteed income is subject to a surtax. I want to lure people into working so they get to a point where they can’t afford to quit. In my plan, I say it’s $30k of earned income, so until you get $30k of earned income on your own, you keep all of the…let’s say, $12k, and then after that you start to pay a small surtax back. Anything you go out and earn, you keep. So you’ve gotten into the habit of working and if you’ve gotten up to $30k, you are not going to trade a $42k per year lifestyle for a $12k per year lifestyle. But if you have the payback point quicker, I think you increase the likelihood that you have disincentives to work. It needs to be deposited electronically into a known bank account. It needs to be universal because one of the key things about this is that everybody knows that everybody else is getting the money. Once you have that universal knowledge, then a whole variety of interactions can be set in motion that wouldn’t be set in motion without that knowledge.”

Murray also discussed the potential for work disincentives, which is a common criticism of UBI.

“You can fairly easily design it so it’s quite likely to produce good effects. I am not denying it will have work disincentives. There will be work disincentives. But we are already at a point where something more than 20% of working-age males with high school diplomas – and no more – are out of the labor force. We’ve got a problem already and I see a lot of ways in which the moral agency of an income could make the problem less.”

UNITED STATES: Basic Income opponents “win” in televised debate

UNITED STATES: Basic Income opponents “win” in televised debate

On March 22, 2017, the popular debate program Intelligence Squared U.S. (IQ2US), hosted and moderated by ABC News correspondent John Donvan, held a debate on the question “Is the universal basic income the safety net of the future?” Specifically, the panelists debated the proposal of a $12,000 per year UBI for Americans.

On the “yes” side, Andrew Stern, former President of the Service Employees International Union and author of Raising the Floor, partnered with libertarian author and scholar Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. Their opponents were two leading economists of the Obama administration: Jason Furman (Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors to President Barack Obama) and Jared Bernstein (Chief Economist to Vice President Joe Biden).  

Prior to the debate, members of the live audience were asked whether they were “for the motion”, “against the motion”, or undecided.

During the first round of the debate, each debater was given time to make opening speeches delineating their positions. Initiating the round, Stern argued that current welfare programs are insufficient, leaving millions of Americans in poverty, and that impending job disruption due to automation will make the economic situation even more dire. Opening for the “against” side, Furman maintained that the threat from automation has been overblown, that UBI is not financially viable–at least without removing benefits from those who need them–and that there are better policy options, such as programs designed to help individuals obtain jobs.

Next, Murray argued that a basic income would open more options to individuals, remove the need for the poor to supplicate themselves to government bureaucrats to receive benefits, and restore more responsibility to family and friends in supporting one another’s needs. Finally, Bernstein laid out a case that basic income would waste resources on those who don’t need them, eliminating funds from programs that could do much more to help poor and middle-class Americans, ultimately to the detriment of those who need help the most.

The opening statements were followed by an interactive debate moderated by Donvan. This second round began with the question of the extent to which technological unemployment is a real threat. While Furman emphasized that earlier fears of mass job loss to automation turned out to be unfounded, Stern and Murray contended that the threat is indeed significantly greater now. Meanwhile, Bernstein stressed that there is still plenty of work that needs to be done today.

Redirecting discussion from the impasse over the magnitude of the automation threat, Bernstein stressed that the most important point of the “against” side is not that automation is not a major concern, but that UBI wastes money on those who don’t need it, rather than investing that money in programs targeted at the most vulnerable. In response to assertions by Stern that the poor are obviously better off under a UBI, given that they have an additional $12,000 per year, Furman challenged the arithmetic of the “for” side–challenging Stern and Murray to explain how their UBI can be financed.

Near the end of the round, the debate shifted to the more “ephemeral” parts of the pro-UBI argument, focusing on the potential impact of UBI on civil society.

After the second round of the debate, members of the studio audience were invited to ask brief questions, and, finally, each of the four panelists summarized their key points in two-minute closing statements.

At the end of the debate, the audience members were against asked to vote “for”, “against”, or “undecided” on the motion that UBI is the safety net of the future.

In the end, the “against” side clearly dominated the contest. While only 20% of attendees were opposed the motion prior to the debate (with 45% undecided), fully 61% were afterwards. Meanwhile, the proportion in favor dropped from 35% to 31%.

The “against” side also won in a poll of the online viewing audience, although less starkly. At the beginning of the debate, 49% of online viewers expressed support for the motion–rising to 53% by the end. The percentage against, in contrast, started (and ended) smaller, but saw a much larger increase–from 19% to 42%.

It is important to keep in mind that these results reflect the views only of a small self-selected group of individuals, and thus neither the “before” or “after” votes should not be taken as representative of Americans’ views on UBI.


Watch the Debate



The Universal Basic Income is the Safety Net of the Future” at Intelligence Squared Debates.  

Reviewed by Cameron McLeod.  

US: Radio program “Intelligence Squared” hosts Basic Income debate

US: Radio program “Intelligence Squared” hosts Basic Income debate

Intelligence Squared U.S. (IQ2US), a debate program moderated by ABC News correspondent John Donvan and broadcast on more than 200 public stations, will air an episode on basic income on Wednesday, March 22.

Four guests will debate the question “Is the universal basic income the safety net of the future?”


“For the Motion”

  • Charles Murray (W. H. Brady Scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute). Murray supports a basic income of $10,000 per year to all Americans over age 21, which would replace all current welfare programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (as laid out in his recently reissued book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State). Murray’s right-wing approach to basic income has made him a controversial figure within the movement, with many progressive UBI supporters disavowing his proposals.


“Against the Motion”

  • Jared Bernstein (Senior Fellow of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; formerly Chief Economist to Vice President Joe Biden). In a previous debate with Murray, Bernstein maintained that replacing the social safety net with a universal basic income would undercut advances in fighting poverty and ultimately leave many of the poor worse off.
  • Jason Furman (Senior Fellow at the nonpartisan think tank Peterson Institute; formerly Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors to President Barack Obama). Furman voiced his opposition to basic income in a speech at a White House workshop in July 2016, viewing the policy as giving up on the possibility of job creation and full employment.  


The event will be staged live at the Kaufman Center in New York, NY, including an hour long reception before the debate (see details on the live event here). The debate will also be streamed live on the web.

For more information and to listen to the live stream on March 22, 6:45 pm Eastern Time, visit “The Universal Basic Income Is The Safety Net Of The Future.”

Reviewed by Danny Pearlberg

Photo of Kaufman Center (event venue), CC BY-SA 3.0 Kaufman Center

Zwolinski: Basic income helps ‘protect freedom’

Zwolinski: Basic income helps ‘protect freedom’

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.