On Safety Nets, Political Authority, and Henry George: A Reply to Huemer

I like Mike Huemer’s book a lot. I think it’s one of the best books of libertarian political philosophy to have been written in the last twenty years. And I like Mike’s response to my essay here too. I especially like the part where he concedes the central thesis of my essay: that a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) would be better, on libertarian grounds, than the current welfare state.

In a sense, everything after that concession in Mike’s essay is somewhat beside the point. Mike spends most of his essay talking about what a political system ought to look like from the perspective of first-best principles of justice, and argues that such an ideal system would leave no room for a BIG. But the point of my essay was not to argue about what an ideal system would look like. It was to argue about what a better system would look like.

Still, I did open the door to Mike’s line of argument when I suggested in my original essay, without any supporting argument, that a BIG might properly be part of an ideal libertarian system. So let me take this opportunity to say just a little bit more about why I think that is true, and why Mike’s criticisms are not sufficient to convince me otherwise. In this essay, I’ll focus on his first and most fundamental argument – that states lack the legitimacy to impose a BIG. I probably won’t say much more about the reparations argument, since I’ve written about that at length elsewhere. But I hope to say more about the Hayekian freedom-based argument in a future post.

Political Authority and Property Rights

Mike argues that a BIG is morally impermissible because states lack political authority. Enacting a BIG would require taking money by force from some people and giving it to others. And that is something that you and I, as individuals, are generally[1] not morally permitted to do. Since we as individuals are not permitted to engage in coercive redistribution ourselves, neither are states unless there is something special about states that exempt them from the ordinary rules of interpersonal morality. Mike refers to this special something as “political authority,” and the first part of his book is devoted to explaining why he thinks that it doesn’t exist.

I think this is a neat argument, and I find Huemer’s arguments against social contract and consequentialist justifications of political authority very convincing. Notice, though, that Huemer’s argument against the BIG only works if we presuppose the existence and legitimacy of property rights. The reason states need special authority to impose a BIG, on Huemer’s view, is that funding it through coercive taxation would violate the property rights of taxpayers. But nowhere in his book or in his contribution to this debate does Huemer tell us why or how he thinks those property rights are justified.

No philosopher should be expected to argue for everything, especially in as short a piece as he was asked to write for this forum. But property rights are of fundamental importance to this debate because, as other critics have noted, they share a lot of features in common with the kind of political authority Huemer wants to reject. Political authority needs justification because its exercise involves the coercive limitation of individual freedom. But so does the exercise of ordinary rights of property. Political authority imposes unconsented-to moral duties on other persons; so do property rights. When I claim a property right in a piece of land, I claim the right to make the exclusive determination how that land is used, and by whom; I claim that you have a moral duty to act in accordance with this determination; and I claim the right to enforce my determination by the use and threat of physical force.

Justifying the Authority of Property

None of this would be a problem if we could give an argument for why property rights are obviously justified, but political authority isn’t. But this turns out to be surprisingly difficult to do. The standard Lockean accounts of property to which libertarians so often appeal face a serious challenge – a challenge that found its most influential expression in the writings of Henry George and which libertarians still have yet to answer satisfactorily: why should the fact that individuals own their bodies and their labor give them permanent, bequeathable property rights in external resources that their labor did not create? Why should the mere fact that you exerted labor on a pre-existing object give you the right to coercively prevent others from using it, and why should it give them a duty to refrain from using it without your consent?

Of course, not even Locke held that labor-mixing was sufficient to justify property. In order for an act of labor mixing to generate a legitimate property right, it also had to satisfy the so-called “Lockean Proviso” of leaving “enough and as good for others.” What exactly that means is a matter of some dispute. But one popular way of understanding it is that an act (or system) of appropriation must not make others worse off in order to be legitimate.

And this opens up the door for a very powerful argument on behalf of property rights. Since property rights help us to avoid the tragedy of the commons, and since they facilitate the production and trade that makes economic growth and prosperity possible, perhaps the Lockean Proviso really does get satisfied after all. Perhaps X’s original appropriation of a plot of land not only doesn’t make Y worse off; perhaps it makes Y positively better off.

Those of us born in the last hundred years are Y’s. By the time we arrived on the scene, most of the surface of the earth had already been appropriated by earlier X’s. But how many of us would really want to trade places with an X from 17th century America if we had the chance? Is it really plausible to maintain that we are the ones who got the raw end of the deal?

For most X’s, and most Y’s, I think this is a pretty plausible story. Most of us are far, far better off than the original appropriators who preceded us, in terms of welfare and even in terms of liberty. More importantly, we are better off because of those prior appropriations.

From Lockean Proviso to Social Safety Net

But while this is probably true for most Y’s, it is not obviously true for all. Rights of private property generate increased welfare and freedom for most. But might there not be some who slip through the cracks? The Lockean proviso is an individualistic principle, not a collectivist or utilitarian one. Simply arguing that it benefits most people is not enough. If there are some people for whom the proviso is not satisfied, then those persons have a moral claim against the rest of us. And it is a claim of justice, not of charity.

Here, then, is the sketch of one possible justification for social safety net, which could take the form of a BIG. A safety net is necessary in order to ensure that the Lockean proviso is satisfied for all persons, and hence to ensure that the property rights we take for granted are truly justified. The aim of such a safety net would be modest. It would not be to establish some sort of equality of condition. Indeed, it would not be aimed at any kind of equality at all. Rather, the goal would be to provide individuals with a sufficient level of opportunity – to ensure that they have at least as good a chance to live a free and flourishing life as they would have had if the rest of us had not coercively imposed a system of property rights on them.

This account is merely a sketch. Fleshing it out would require a more detailed account of the Lockean proviso, the precise nature of the counterfactuals involved in assessing questions of “better” and “worse” off, and the exact kind and extent of safety net that could be justified by an argument of this sort. Though I do not agree with everything in them, these papers by Daniel Layman and Peter Vallentyne provide a good start at working out those details.

I’ll close by noting that this sort of argument also points in the direction of a natural answer to the question of how a BIG should be funded. If the point of a BIG is to ensure the satisfaction of the Lockean proviso, and if the Lockean proviso is, after all, a proviso on the appropriation of natural resources, then perhaps a tax on the unimproved value of natural resources is the most morally defensible (not to mention economically efficient) method of raising revenue for a BIG.

In the end, perhaps Henry George had it right.


[1] Mike does concede, in a fascinating discussion in chapter 7 of his book, that individuals are sometimes permitted to engage in coercive redistribution to relieve imminent, dire distress. But he doubts that this concession provides much in the way of justification for the welfare state.

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.