Is a Basic Income Permissible?

The central point for which Matt Zwolinski’s lead essay argues is that a basic income guarantee would be less bad than the status quo. Having been recruited for a critical comment, I hope my role is not to dispute this thesis, because I can’t think of how one could defend the status quo from any philosophical standpoint.

I therefore hope I may be excused for focusing on something that Zwolinski did not argue in this essay but that he has argued elsewhere: Is a government-provided basic income guarantee ethically permissible? The answer to this is non-obvious, but I think it is probably no. (Note that this is compatible with the fact that the status quo is even worse.) I will summarize my main reason for this, then address Zwolinski’s arguments from other postings.


I. The Basic Argument Against a Basic Income

My basic argument is this:

1.    A basic income guarantee is permissible only if the state has political authority.

2.    No one has political authority.

3.    Therefore, a basic income guarantee is impermissible.

What is meant by “political authority” here? Roughly, political authority involves a kind of exemption from the usual norms of non-aggression in interpersonal ethics – an exemption that entitles the agent who has authority to coercively impose rules of conduct on the rest of society, in conditions or for reasons that would not justify coercion on the part of ordinary private agents. (For a better explanation, see my The Problem of Political Authority, chapter 1).

Why is premise (1) true? Suppose I decided to provide a basic income for my neighborhood. I don’t have enough justly acquired money to do this, so I extract the needed funds from my neighbors by threatening them with kidnaping and long-term imprisonment if they fail to hand over the funds I require. Sometimes a neighbor evades my efforts, usually by lying to me about his income. I kidnap these neighbors and hold them prisoner in small cells for years at a time. This part is crucial – carrying out the coercive threats on recalcitrant citizens is practically necessary to maintaining a tax system in any realistic society.

This behavior seems impermissible, to put it mildly. Even registered Democrats would agree with this. Now, that does not yet establish that a government-guaranteed basic income is impermissible. Perhaps the government is different from me and other private agents in some ethically relevant way, which exempts them from the moral constraint that enjoins me from behaving in this way. What the example shows is that basic-income advocates need some account of how the government is thus exempt. That is, they need a theory of political authority.

I hold, however, that no agent has ever possessed political authority. I can’t give you the argument for that here. The argument consists in reviewing the most plausible and influential accounts of the basis of the state’s authority – for example, theories based on the social contract, the democratic process, fairness, or utilitarian considerations – and showing, in each case, how the theories fail. If you want to know more about that, I’m afraid you have to read my book (sorry!).


II. The Rectification Argument for a Basic Income 

History is full of injustice, much of it affecting the distribution of property. Following a suggestion of Robert Nozick’s, Zwolinski elsewhere suggests that, since the chain of causation is difficult to trace in individual cases, and since those who are doing especially badly now are disproportionately likely to have been harmed by that injustice, the state might be justified in redistributing wealth to the poor in general, as a kind of approximation to the rectification of injustice.

Here are a few brief problems with this line of thought:

A.    We should expect that the effects of injustices tend to wash out over time. Personal choices and innate abilities probably have much more to do with a person’s present-day income level than events occurring a century or more in the past. This is one reason for adopting a sort of statute of limitations on reparations for past injustices. 

B.    A basic income would redistribute money from the rich and the middle class to the poor. But those from whom the money is taken are not guilty of any crimes for which they owe compensation. For example, no living person is responsible for slavery; it would therefore be unjust to force anyone to pay compensation for it.

C.    Zwolinski suggests that despite point (B), the state might owe compensation for past injustices, because the same state continues to exist despite changes in personnel. Analogously, corporations retain debts and other obligations even when the members who incurred those obligations are no longer in the corporation, or even are no longer alive. Shouldn’t a similar principle therefore hold for governments?

Very briefly, I think this continuity of obligations is possible for private corporations because new members of a corporation, in voluntarily joining the organization, thereby undertake whatever obligations go along with their accepted role in the corporation. These may include, for example, seeing to the payment of debts incurred by past managers. The same does not hold for the state, because new taxpayers do not voluntarily undertake the obligations of the government; rather, they have the government’s debts forcibly imposed on them.

Admittedly, my view here will appeal more to anarchists than to anyone else, since the inability to collect funds to pay its debts would create serious practical problems for running a government.


III. The Freedom Argument

In another posting, Zwolinski suggested that a basic income might be justified on the grounds that it protects individuals’ freedom, because having a basic income insulates one from certain kinds of coercion by one’s employer. Zwolinski characterizes this as a libertarian argument for a basic income.

I think this illustrates the problem with characterizing libertarianism merely as a pro-freedom philosophy. As I understand it, the (typical) minimal-state libertarian’s view is not that the job of the state is to act so as to maximize freedom. Rather, the state is charged with protecting the rights of individuals, while avoiding violating rights itself. Typically one is not justified in violating another person’s rights solely to prevent something slightly worse from happening – not even if the slightly worse thing would involve a diminution of someone’s freedom. For example, it is not ethically permissible to murder an innocent person, even if doing so somehow prevents two other innocent people from being murdered. Or so I believe, and so says the usual deontological conception of rights. I thus find the “freedom” argument unpersuasive. Though a basic income might increase people’s freedom, it would require the state to violate the rights of taxpayers. To justify this, one would have to argue, not merely that the rights violation is required to secure a modest net increase in “freedom,” but that the rights violation is required to prevent something many times worse from happening. Such, I take it, is the logic of rights.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Matt Zwolinski argues that a basic income guarantee (BIG) could very easily do better than our current welfare state by many different criteria. It would be far more efficient. It would be less subject to rent-seeking. It would be easily accessible by the poor, and its benefits would flow to them rather than to the middle class. Although there are many libertarian objections to a BIG, Zwolinski nonetheless argues that when faced with a choice between a BIG and the status quo, libertarians should be open to making the change.

Response Essays

  • Michael Huemer argues that while a basic income guarantee might be better than the status quo, this amounts to some rather faint praise. A basic income guarantee would necessarily violate some people’s rights, while a fully legitimate government must never violate anyone’s rights. The problem of political authority will likely remain a barrier to all similar proposals, even if we may happen to find this problem’s full implications troubling.

  • Jim Manzi doubts that a basic income guarantee would emerge from our political process while still bearing its purportedly beneficial features. Compromises would proliferate, as would paternalistic controls. The interests of the bureaucracy would assert themselves, and the temptation to make exceptions would prove overwhelming to the electorate. Moreover, when a basic income guarantee has been tried in practice, the result has consistently been a withdrawal of participants’ labor. Scaled to an entire society, the result of such a withdrawal may be dire.

  • Robert H. Frank agrees with Matt Zwolinski that a basic income guarantee would achieve the welfare state’s goals more effectively than our current patchwork of programs. But he argues that a basic income guarantee sufficient to end poverty would spawn massive taxpayer resentment. Incentives to work would be undermined both for recipients and for those whose tax dollars funded them. Frank recommends a combination program that would include a significantly smaller cash grant and a standing offer of public employment for any who desired it. Frank defends taxation against libertarian objections and offers several additional taxes that he believes should be implemented. He argues that these should help pay for the expensive programs here being considered.

Letters to the Editor

  • The Cato Institute’s Michael D. Tanner examines the Basic Income Guarantee and finds that its simplicity wouldn’t survive the political process. Difficulties abound, arising both from practical politics and from the realities of our current welfare expenditures. Tanner recommends consolidating our welfare system and simplifying it, but he does not endorse a Basic Income Guarantee.

  • Economist Ed Dolan shares some of his findings on the Basic Income Guarantee. He finds that work disincentives will indeed exist under a BIG, and yet these may be smaller than the work disincentives we already experience owing to the welfare state as it now exists. Libertarians should not be tempted by the so-called “gospel of work,” he says; libertarianism, rather, is about the gospel of freedom of choice.