David R. Henderson  

Zwolinski's Weak Case for a Guaranteed Minimum Income

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Philosophy professor Matt Zwolinski has written an article making the case for a guaranteed minimum income, guaranteed, that is, by the government. That, in itself, is not surprising. What makes it somewhat surprising is that Matt is a libertarian and that he claims that there is a libertarian case for this forced transfer from taxpayers in general to low-income people.

What is that case? You need to read the whole piece, but here's the gist:

One of libertarianism's most distinctive commitments is its belief in the near-inviolability of private property rights. But it does not follow from this commitment that the existing distribution of property rights ought to be regarded as inviolable, because the existing distribution is in many ways the product of past acts of uncompensated theft and violence. However attractive libertarianism might be in theory, "Libertarianism...Starting Now!" has the ring of special pleading, especially when it comes from the mouths of people who have by and large emerged at the top of the bloody and murderous mess that is our collective history.

I get the first part of that paragraph. I think, though, that the last sentence is not particularly accurate. When I think of people who have emerged "at the top," I think more of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and, unless I've missed it, they haven't been chanting "Libertarianism...Starting Now!" More's the pity.

Also the last sentence is distracting. What if Gates and Buffett were the ones chanting the libertarian slogan? Wouldn't you have to judge the argument independently of who is chanting it? Isn't that one of the standard principles that is taught in the kind of philosophy courses taught by, say, Matt Zwolinski?

My guess is that Matt has a wider view of those at the top, a view that would include, say, the top 20 percent of the wealth distribution. But if we really widen it, we realize that pretty much everyone alive in the United States is at or near the top, historically speaking. Someone in the bottom 20% in the United States today will typically have better housing, food, medical care, and travel options, for example, than Louis XVI had.

But let us continue. I think we can all agree that many people have what they have at least in part due to previous rights violations. It doesn't seem clear to me that they are on top in what I take to be Matt's narrower sense rather than my wider sense. I think, for example, of people who paid into Medicare and Social Security only a fraction, even in present value terms, of what they get back from taxes on the current young and middle-aged people. Sure, many of them are on top, but many are not. I don't see how a basic income guarantee redresses that rights violation.

How does Matt reach his conclusion? He writes:

In a world in which all property was acquired by peaceful processes of labor-mixing and voluntary trade, a tax-funded Basic Income Guarantee might plausibly be held to violate libertarian rights. But our world is not that world. And since we do not have the information that would be necessary to engage in a precise rectification of past injustices, and since simply ignoring those injustices seems unfair, perhaps something like a Basic Income Guarantee can be justified as an approximate rectification?

His question mark at the end is perplexing. Is Matt saying that it can be justified or is he asking whether it can be justified. In the context of the whole article, I think it's the former, but the question mark throws me off.

Again, though, go back to my Social Security and Medicare example above. Social Security and Medicare are huge systemic attacks on people's rights and I don't see a guaranteed minimum income as even an approximate rectification.

David Friedman has pointed out two other problem's with Zwolinski's libertarian case. David writes:

If I justly owe you forty cents, taking a dollar from me and giving it to you makes the resulting distribution less just, not more. Unless most inequalities are inherited from past rights violations, a claim I think few libertarians would support, the logic of the argument breaks down.

Moreover, writes David:
A further problem with Matt's argument is that, even if you believe that a guaranteed basic income reduces net injustice, it is hard to argue that it is the best rule of thumb for the purpose. Consider the case of Afro-Americans. Almost nobody whose ancestors immigrated to the U.S. after the Civil War is the heir of benefits created by violation of the rights of their ancestors by his ancestors. On the other hand, the ancestors of present-day Afro-Americans were enslaved by Africans to be sold to European slave traders. The present inhabitants of Africa, at least sizable parts of it, are more likely than the present inhabitants of North America to be descendants of people who owe, and did not pay, reparation to slaves and their descendants.

It follows that Matt's second argument implies that the (very poor) present inhabitants of Africa owe compensation to the (relatively rich) present American blacks. I do not think Matt would accept that argument, whether or not he could rebut it. If so, he does not really believe in his second argument.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Ross Levatter writes:

"Someone in the bottom 20% in the United States today will typically have better housing, food, medical care, and travel options, for example, than Louis XVI had." Or many places in the world today...

Ross Levatter writes:

"However attractive libertarianism might be in theory, "Libertarianism...Starting Now!" has the ring of special pleading, especially when it comes from the mouths of people who have by and large emerged at the top of the bloody and murderous mess that is our collective history."

I think the group Matt Z has in mind here are the many many people who have benefitted from government largesse writ large over the years: those who earn income in areas restricted by licensure or similar means. Those whose incomes are above a competitive market price because of university subsidies and privileges. All crony capitalists, no matter how large. All Walmart employees?? It IS, granted, a large group.

But doesn't Coase's theorem suggest that if the barriers to entry were removed, these unjust inequalities would correct without the need for further interventions like the GMI. I see no huge transactions costs once legal barriers are removed.

libertarian jerry writes:

Mr. Zwolinski talks about forced redistribution of people's property. The basis of all rights are property rights. Without the right to 100% of the fruits of one's labor places the American citizen into the category of a tax serf. This is why the founders wrote into the original Constitution the "no direct taxation" clause. Two Planks to the Communist Manifesto calls for direct graduated income taxes plus taxes on inheritance. Once these taxes were incorporated into American Law the Republic was destroyed and replaced by a mobacracy democracy. This mobocracy will destroy the economic fabric of America and once that is accomplished America will morph into a police state. It is occurring today as we speak. Once this happens,America will follow the path of Rome,and all other empires in history,and travel down the road to self immolation. Mr. Zwolinski's thesis is a large step in that direction and should be refuted at all costs.

Pajser writes:

Criminal history isn't the most important source of injustice in capitalism, but still, it is some source. If libertarian agree that stealing 100 from starving man constitutes greater injustice than stealing half of a million from millionaire, he might expect that some egalitarian redistribution "just in case" fixes more injustice than it causes.

Matt Zwolinski writes:

Hi David,

For what it's worth, my article was meant to present and partially assess the libertarian case for a basic income. I present three broadly libertarian arguments in favor of it (of which you discuss only one), and present a several objections to the proposal at the end. I think there's something persuasive about each of the arguments I present (both pro- and con-). But I stop short of fully endorsing any of them. So, in the end, my overall evaluation of the basic income proposal is somewhat ambivalent.

And the argument you critique here, as I tried to make clear in the article, isn't originally mine. It's Robert Nozick's. But of course I don't think it's an awful argument, otherwise I wouldn't have presented it. The argument concedes that a basic income or any other feasible welfare scheme will be an imperfect mechanism for compensating for past injustice. But ignoring past injustice - which is what most libertarians seem to favor - is pretty far from perfect too. And since we lack any perfect mechanism for addressing it, our choice would seem to be among a variety of imperfect options.

Rob writes:
I think we can all agree that many people have what they have at least in part due to previous rights violations.

That is far too weak, actually.

Every person in existence owes everything he or she owns(*) to every rights violation that happened prior to their conception.

The reason is that the biological process creating one particular person is so highly contingent on initial conditions that even small changes in the timeline before conception would almost certainly erase them from the timeline.

Thus, this entire category of arguments seems ill-suited to make a case for or against libertarian policies.


(*) Of course, the same is true for every suffering they are forced to go through without consent.

roversaurus writes:

Actually as far as compensation to African Americans for slavery is concerned - The category of people who are most likely to be decedents of slave owners are, in fact, African Americans.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Matt Zwolinski,
Like David Friedman, I found only one of your three arguments an actual libertarian argument for the guaranteed income. That’s why i singled it out.

RRRoark writes:

Libertine drug user does not a libertarian make, libertarian comes from liberty which includes the liberty to fail, to ASK for charity and many other things. But it does not include the liberty of using force to deprive ANYONE else of their property. So go out and adopt someone and furnish them a "living" wage and encourage others to do so, but don't propose forcing anyone to participate by the force of arms held by the mobocracy in any such experiment.

Craig J. Bolton writes:

I think that this is all a very interesting academic exercise. But somehow both sides seem to be loosing the original point of the original Friedman proposal. The original point was that this proposal completely pulls the rug out from under all the varieties of welfare state people and market interventionists: You want farm subsidies and food stamps? You want free education via public schools? You want controlled or no cost medical care?

Well, why don't we instead just give the least well off enough money to buy those things in free markets without all these ad hoc controls, programs and interventions?

What is that you say, the least well off are stupid and need to be taken care off. They could never be trusted to spend their money in the "rational" way you approve of? Well, I guess we now understand where you're really coming from. You don't want to make people better off. You want to control them.

THAT was the original point.

Matt Zwolinski writes:

Sorry, David, but how is argument #1, about dramatically reducing the size, cost, and intrusiveness of the welfare state, not a libertarian argument?

[broken url fixed. (It had http twice)--Econlib Ed.]

David R. Henderson writes:

@Matt Zwolinski,
Sorry, David, but how is argument #1, about dramatically reducing the size, cost, and intrusiveness of the welfare state, not a libertarian argument?
You’re right, Matt. I shouldn’t have said it’s not a libertarian argument. I notice, though, that you never stated the amount per person. So whether it’s a libertarian argument depends, in part, on how big the check is per person.
Beyond that, I don’t think it’s realistic. When Milton Friedman advocated a negative income tax, he did so as a substitute for the whole welfare state, not as an add-on. But the actual policy that came out of that was the Earned Income Tax Credit, which was just added to the existing welfare state.

RPLong writes:
The argument concedes that a basic income or any other feasible welfare scheme will be an imperfect mechanism for compensating for past injustice. But ignoring past injustice - which is what most libertarians seem to favor - is pretty far from perfect too. And since we lack any perfect mechanism for addressing it, our choice would seem to be among a variety of imperfect options.

So we agree that they are all imperfect. This is what I understand to be one of the foundations of libertarianism: that government cannot provide economic solutions that are more efficient than what the market provides.

The problem with your arguments is that they are only compelling if we suspend disbelief in part of what libertarianism is. Redistributing wealth comes at the cost of not treating all people equal under the law. Not treating all people equal under the law comes at the cost of distorting present-day markets. Distorting present-day markets means creating situations that will require redress in the future.

Sure, if we ignore any one of these consequences, we might very well convince ourselves that "there is a libertarian case for welfare redistribution." But only if we ignore the consequences. Most libertarians do not wish to do so.

Matt Zwolinski writes:

I wasn't defending any particular proposal in the piece, so I didn't have a specific dollar value in mind. But Charles Murray works out the idea in considerably more detail in his book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State. He sets the dollar value at $10,000 per person over the age of 21, and argues that it would generate considerable savings over the current welfare state, along with the added benefit of eliminating a number of intrusive and politically manipulated bureaucracies.

I agree with you that there are problems of implementation, and that merely adding a basic income on top of the existing welfare state would be a disaster. But the realism of the proposal is a function of people desire for it, not any law of nature. And if it were implemented via a constitutional amendment, many of the public choice considerations could be reduced, I think, to an acceptable level.

Jeff writes:

Stipulating that the present distribution of property is indeed a function to some extent of past rights violations, I'm not sure how a guaranteed income makes sense to rectify that situation. Wouldn't some sort of lump sum payment as compensation for these violations be more appropriate? If this is about justice, the compensation needs to be commensurate with the harm inflicted, and given the particulars of the situation, it is easy to see the Davids' (Henderson and Friedman) point that, depending on the size of the monthly payments, this could just as easily increase injustice rather than amend it. Making this a lifetime program only increases the uncertainty in that regard because we don't know what future incomes or demographics will look like. Funding guaranteed incomes might look affordable today, but I'm sure people said precisely the same thing when Medicare was created in the 1960's, and look how its costs have grown. Or look at how it's expected to continue to grow.

When you factor in the potential disincentive effects as well as the corrosive idea that people are entitled to a lifetime's worth of cash payments solely on the basis that they were born in the United States and their hearts continue to pump oxygen to their brains, well...you get the idea.

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