Beware Libertarians Offering Basic Income Guarantees

Matt ZwolinskiRegular readers know that I believe in a guaranteed basic income. Not only would it solve a lot of problems, it is what we should do ethically. We simply are too rich to allow people to be desperately poor. Two hundred and twenty years ago, Thomas Paine laid out the basic logic: every human is born with an equal right to the resources of the planet. We have created a system that allows some people to do far better than this natural state would dictate through the use of laws and history. At the same time, poor people do worse than they would in the natural state where they could just farm and hunt as they wanted. Therefore, some amount of redistribution is called for to make up for the fact that our economy is rigged. (See: Inequality: the Monopoly Analogy.)

But I wasn’t happy to hear that libertarians like Matt Zwolinski were writing things like, The Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income Guarantee. The reason is that Zwolinski isn’t interested in the question at hand. This is just a provocative way of saying, “Look: the government doesn’t work!” At this point, I’m to the breaking point of dealing with disingenuous libertarian “arguments.”

If you spend any time arguing with libertarians, you will run into the “local is better” argument. This is the idea that local governments are better because they are more responsive to the needs of their people. There are many problems with this. For example, when the United States was formed, its population was less than four million people. This is roughly one-tenth the population of California today. Is it really true that the federal government was less responsive to the needs of its people than the state government is today? Also, what we’ve seen is that state and local governments are generally too responsive to the “needs” of certain people leading to discrimination. Over the last half century, the worst government abuses toward individual rights have been at the state and local level.

Of course, the whole idea of pushing “local is better” is to allow libertarians to do in a circuitous way what they can’t do in a direct way: destroy the government. We see this with the general conservative obsession with block grants. The idea is that the federal government just gives money to the states to use as they will. Of course, what will happen over time is that federal support for these grants will decrease. Why should federal politicians support giving money for programs when they have no control. When we decide we have to balance the federal budget, the block grants would be the first things cut.

Mike KonczalSo when the John Galt crowd starts arguing in favor of a guaranteed basic income, you know it is not because they care about the poor or that they’ve been reading Thomas Paine. It is just a ruse to push more of their anti-government and “makers vs takers” ideology. Luckily, Mike Konczal is on the job in an article yesterday, The Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income Doesn’t Add Up. He takes the argument far more seriously than I do. He goes through the numbers and shows that we couldn’t replace all the welfare programs with a minimum income without costing more in taxes—something that no conservative would agree to.

But to give you an idea of just how disingenuous Zwolinski is, one of the programs that would be cut would be Medicaid. Poor people don’t need no stinking medical care! Of course, he never even mentions Medicaid. It is central to his argument, but it isn’t stated because even the most gullible of readers would notice that a basic income of $10,000 per year would not allow someone in our country with its broken healthcare system to get the care they need.

It doesn’t matter though. All the calculations and bright ideas are meaningless. Zwolinski doesn’t care about fixing anything. He is only interested in making the argument that the government doesn’t provide welfare efficiently. It is yet another “government is the problem” argument. But as Konczal shows in the following graph, the government is actually very efficient in providing welfare:

Welfare Program Administrative Costs

None of this reflects on the basic idea of a guaranteed basic income. I’ve never thought that such a program would eliminate the need for other welfare programs. For example, it seems to me that poor families with children would have extra needs. And it is certainly true that universal healthcare would be necessary. What Zwolinski is offering is an actual smart man’s version of Paul Ryan’s poverty plan. This is the same old thing with conservatives: they have a certain bag of tricks that they apply to every problem, because they aren’t interested in solving the problem. They are interested in using the problem as an excuse to push their existing agenda.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

3 thoughts on “Beware Libertarians Offering Basic Income Guarantees

  1. Essentially this is ivory-tower intellectualism. If you can afford the best health-care plans, the best Internet setup techs, the best landlords or home repairmen, the best car mechanics, the best financial planners, the best schools and household servants, of course everything runs better than underfunded publicly-provided equivalents, or having to wade through these things on your own.

    A bit of irony here; rich libertarians (I only know poor ones, not the same thing) define "freedom" as the ability to pay others to make their lives quite comfortable; poor people, far more independent, have to figure out how not to get robbed in a zillion different ways over everything. And no matter how clever we are, we spend most of our money being robbed.

    Lord Vetinari would arch an eyebrow at the likes of Zwolinski and mutter, "indeed?" Then, after Zwolinski’s subsequent ranting, arch the eyebrow again and mutter, "indeed?"

  2. @JMF – Wow! I’m reading [i]Raising Steam[/i] right now.

    Do you really know poor libertarians? The only "poor" libertarians I’ve ever known have been young ones who are clearly headed toward at least an upper middle class life.

  3. I don’t know if I’ve ever come across the same sort of libertarians you have. I haven’t really known any rich people since my high school/first college years; and, back then, in the 80’s/90’s, the rich Republicans were more like Democrats today.

    I could easily (and in fact did) write a sermon about this. I need to rein in my propensity for spewing on the keyboard somewhat!

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