Against “The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income”

Against “The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income”
Profile photo of Ash Navabi

zwolinskiMatt Zwolinski, of Bleeding Heart Libertarians fame, has a new post on in which he attempts to defend a so-called “Basic Income Guarantee”, whereby the government pays everyone (or a very large portion of people) a minimum amount of money regardless of employment or any other status, using libertarian principles.

I believe he failed in his endeavour.

Zwolinski’s first defence: A Basic Income Guarantee would be much better than the current welfare state.

This has a simple response: Why should the federal government be taking money by force from anyone, for any reason at all? There are many economic costs associated whenever the government purloins the public, of course; but there are also moral issues involved with theft. Just because a BIG may be less paternalistic and condescending to the poor than the current welfare paradigm, as Zwolinski suggests, does not mean that it just and ethical to do in the first place. Zwolinski provides no defense of why the state has either the right or the obligation to take from some to give to others.

Zwolinski’s second defence: A Basic Income Guarantee might be required on libertarian grounds as reparation for past injustice.

Zwolinski suggests that some people in the United States deserve reparations. But he admits that it may impossible to determine precisely who deserves these reparations, and thus concludes that the best way to remedy this situation would be for the state to take from the rich and give to the poor. He calls this an “approximate rectification”. There are are several problems with this line of reasoning. First, state reparations entail collective punishment, which is at odds with the individualism of libertarianism. Not everyone in the US is guilty of some past crime. For example, why should rich or upper middle class immigrants from eastern Europe or central Africa, or southeast Asia be paying reparations to any American? Beyond the US, what past injustice are the rich and middle class of Switzerland paying for?

There is no ground for calling the BIG “approximate rectification”. Zwolinski admits that there is not much historical information to go by to determining who really is a victim today of injustice in the past and who is a beneficiary. He then suggests that the poor today are most likely to have been victims, and so deserve to be remunerated by the rich. But there is absolutely no reason to assume this. There is just as much likelihood that a rich person today is the descendant of a victim of some grave injustice in centuries past as a poor person is the descendant of a robber baron or a British baron.   Stealing from some innocents today to repay the descendants of those who potentially may have been robbed in centuries past and have been on net innocent of all other crimes is not approximate justice. It is precisely baloney.

Onto Zwolinski’s final defense: A Basic Income Guarantee might be required to meet the basic needs of the poor.

In his second point, Zwolinski said because it’s impossible to have the knowledge to determine precise rectifications, it’s just to take from some innocent to give to others who may not deserve anything. But here, he’s promoting Friedman’s argument that because it’s impossible to have the knowledge of whether there will be an optimal level of voluntary charity under a free market, then therefore it’s just to take from some innocent to give to others who may not deserve anything. It seems that to Matt Zwolinski, the knowledge problem can only have a state solution.

And even though Hayek’s language is stronger than Friedman’s, Hayek’s argument falls to pieces if it is true (as many libertarians hold) that the state itself is an unjust institution, therefore making any and all state action unjust.

Some brief comments on the potential objections he anticipates libertarians to make against his arguments:

1) Disincentives 

It’s true that under today’s regime, many don’t work at all in order to keep collecting their (meager) welfare checks. But under his proposed regime of giving $20,000 to every poor person in America, he is suggesting that giving people the equivalent of working full-time for $10 an hour (almost 50% above the current federal minimum wage) will have no more, and perhaps an even negative, effect on willingness to seek employment. Colour me unconvinced.

2) Effects on Migration

Zwolinski does not attempt to refute this objection. He also does not consider my objection above, of forcing new immigrants (some of whom could not even be citizens yet) to paying taxes to support citizens, either native born or naturalized.

3) Effects on Economic Growth

Asking how much poorer the country would be if some centuries old policy limited economic growth is an impossible question to answer. The counterfactuals are literally unimaginable. We have no idea what radical innovations may have been deemed to expensive to develop, and which would have enormous effects today. But his question of how much poorer the *poorest* Americans would be is slightly easier to answer: not much, if we take “poorest” in the literal sense, meaning someone who is homeless and barely has any clothes. However, even their already limited access to charity would be even more limited, and because of this reason there may in fact be many more people who classify as among the poorest in the country.

As well, we have to remember that America’s riches had vast “network effects” around the whole world: advances in health care, entertainment, information technology, and manufacturing that started in the US have enriched many millions, if not billions, around the world today.

BONUS (not included in Zwolinski’s list of objections):

4) The Non-Aggression Principle

Zwolinski didn’t offer this as an objection himself, but I found it shocking that he did not include it in an article that appeared on a website called namely, the non-aggression principal. I know that Zwolinski has elsewhere criticized the NAP, and that he himself is a consequentialist (the defining feature of all Bleeding Heart Libertarians), but why not include the NAP-based objection in his list of objections? Surely a significant portion of the libertarian community reject his claims here on the basis that they violate the NAP. Does Zwolinski not think of these libertarians as significant? Or as not worth engaging? Either way, a troubling sign.

In conclusion, Matt Zwolinksi decidedly did not provide a comprehensible libertarian defence of the Basic Income Guarantee, nor did he satisfactorily anticipate libertarian objections to his claims.

  • C James Townsend

    no mention of the inflationary effects? Or giving the welfare state omnipotent power. No true libertarian can uphold this idea based on welfarenomics

  • thenaturalcommonwealth

    A main part of what I am advocating is an annual fee based on the value of land. (also known as a land value tax, but this is deceptive, as taxes are usually thought of as a coercive means of extracting money from private activity, while land is naturally part of the commons)

    “Both ground-rents and the ordinary rent of land are a species of revenue which the owner, in many cases, enjoys without any care or attention of his own. Though a part of this revenue should be taken from him in order to defray the expenses of the state, no discouragement will thereby be given to any sort of industry. The annual produce of the land and labour of the society, the real wealth and revenue of the great body of the people, might be the same after such a tax as before. Ground-rents and the ordinary rent of land are, therefore, perhaps, the species of revenue which can best bear to have a peculiar tax imposed upon them.” — Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Bk.V, Ch.2, Pt.I, Art.I.

  • Jerry

    Seems you're describing a communist system, with slight variations. Certainly not libertarian. I thought communism was fully discredited with the collapse of the Soviet system but obviously there are still some subscribers. I think you're thoroughly confused claiming there is no coercion in sentence and then readily admitting there would be a need for coercion in a later sentence.

    • thenaturalcommonwealth

      There is no communism. Where do you think the communism is? Where did I admit the need for coercion?
      Since government is needed in order to enforce private property, a free market economy only uses private property where appropriate – for the products of labor and capital, which constitute the majority of the economy.
      I repeat, all funds for the basic income may come from voluntary exchanges for natural resources. This source of revenue also allows the removal of all coercive forms of taxation (eg. income, sales, corporate, capital gains).
      What funding sources for a body that enforces private property (ie. government) would you propose?

      • Jerry

        Because you claim the land is a communal property. Further you state the need to extract a tax on "property" which will require coercion. Why do we need government to enforce property rights? Read Rothbard..

        • Redmond

          Hey Jerry

          This guy is a "Georgist"

          From Wiki:

          Georgism (also called Geoism[1] or Geonomics[2]) is an economic philosophy and ideology which holds that people own what they create, but that things found in nature, most importantly land, belong equally to all.[3] The economic philosophy of geoism dates back to early proponents such as John Locke[4] and Baruch Spinoza,[5] but the concept was widely popularized by the economist and social reformer Henry George (1839–1897). "Georgism", a term later coined by followers of George's philosophy, is usually associated with the idea of a single tax on the value of land and nature.

    • thenaturalcommonwealth

      "And having in mind that the income which the community ought to obtain from the land to which the growth of the community gives value is in reality not a tax but the proceeds of a just rent, an English Democrat (William Saunders, M. P.) puts in this phrase the aim of true free trade: "No taxes at all, and a pension to everybody."" – Henry George, Protection or Free Trade, Chapter XXVIII

  • Jerry

    "A BIG doesn't need any coercive redistribution………"
    If that argument were true, then it must come about voluntarily. All coercian must be removed to fit libertarianism. Your statement " if you fund it from unearned incomes" points to the truth of your argument. Coercian is still there unfortunately.

    • thenaturalcommonwealth

      There is no coercion. All of the revenue comes, not through taxation, but through voluntary exchange, just like any other exchanges occurring in a free market. Money is given to the government in return for scarce natural resources, such as land.
      Only, and all, products created through human labor can be considered private property. It is justly the property of the person or people whose labor made it, as that exertion came from their body, and everyone has a right to their own body.
      Scarce forms of nature, such as the land, the seas and oceans, the air etc., should be common property, as they are not created through human labor.
      Nature is the common property of everyone on this earth, as all come from nature, and nature exists to provide for their needs. However, a government, trust or other organisation may manage this common property on everyone's behalf, charging for the use of the goods and services of nature, and distributing everyone;s share of the proceeds through basic income.
      As nature is not created through labor, the value of it flows to no particular person, and as a result, when in privatized form, this is 'unearned income – income not earned through labor.
      If you do not wish to trade money for natural resources you do not have to. If you live in a remote area, where land has no value (as nobody competes for it), water is abundant, and pollution affects nobody, then you may live without paying a cent for a basic income. But you would still receive the basic income to meet basic needs, as a birthright (whether there would be any means to use this money could be another story though, depending on how far you are from civilization). Otherwise you would be coerced into work, and denied your natural rights. You would only work if you wanted more goods and services than you could get with your basic income and from nature.

  • thenaturalcommonwealth

    A BIG doesn't need any coercive redistribution if you fund it from unearned incomes, which occur when a few owners are allowed to monopolize natural resources.
    In this case, a BIG is compatible with Libertarianism, and promotes the free market, as it supports entrepreneurialism. It helps people save money to start a business, supplements income during the early stages of a business when revenues are small, and softens risks by providing a form of income for the owner of a failed business. They may start a new, more successful business, having learned from their mistakes.
    As a result, job creation will increase dramatically, and incentives will be provided to work, balancing out any disincentives to work.

  • Mike

    Great post. I was shocked at how many "libertarians" either agreed with Zwolinski's proposal (which seems to me to be obviously incompatible with even the most expansive definition of "libertarian") or disagreed with him but only by way of utilitarian arguments – again ignoring what it means to be a libertarian. And although Zwolinski himself has no use for the NAP, if he wants to claim something is "libertarian," he better be prepared to argue that it is compatible with NAP – bc most every other libertarian subscribes to some form of the non-aggression principle. For him to simply ignore it is ridiculous.

  • Matt

    It seems me like all libertarians agree that libertarian utopia > BIG > status quo.

  • David Howden

    Great post. Principles don't change, and wavering on them muddies the message. We wouldn't rejoice if all of a sudden a state which randomly executed 10 citizens a year cut the number down to nine. Imagine if this were to happen and libertarians had supported it. The new policy of nine executions may well become the new engrained status quo once achieved, making it difficult to change.

    Better to stay the course and hold fast to true principles.

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Ash Navabi is an MA Economics student at George Mason University. Send him mail.

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