I support a Universal Basic Income (UBI), and I think that other libertarians ought to as well. Earlier, Jason sketched the difference between ‘hard libertarians’ and BHL, but didn’t give a specific definition and argument for social justice, as David Friedman then pointed out. Friedman also said that BHL’s don’t say what social justice means, that we don’t have any arguments for social justice, and that we just use the term to pander to our leftist friends. (As an aside, if anyone here wants to pander to leftists, I’d advise against adopting the label ‘libertarian!’)
When I say ‘social justice,’ I mean UBI. Below are several arguments for a basic income. I don’t endorse them all, but I’m including them all to show that there are many libertarian paths to this kind of ‘social justice’ conclusion.
First, I think that a UBI is morally required, given the wrong of a state-enforced property system. In my heart, I’m an anarchist, meaning that I don’t think states have the moral authority to rule and I don’t think I have any duty to obey. Anarchy would be the morally best system, but that doesn’t mean we should overthrow all the existing states, or even try to approximate anarchy. That would probably be a disaster. So, given that we have states that coerce and force and push people around, they should refrain from enforcing a system of property that makes some people so badly off that they cannot lead a minimally decent life.
But wait, aren’t taxes like slavery? Well, because I’m against states enforcing property regimes in the first place, I don’t think that morality says too much about which tax code or monetary policy is intrinsically best. This is to say contra ‘hard libertarians,’ I think it’s pretty implausible that your rights to your property (or your body, for that matter) are these absolute magical moral trumps. So while I hate taxes as much as the next girl, it’s mostly because of the stupid, pointless, and cruel policies that states fund with tax revenue. Enforced private property rules can limit our freedom to move, use, and live independently in the same ways that enforced taxes can limit our freedom.
So any state-run property system is impermissible, but moral reasons still weigh in favor of certain property systems over others. In particular, the balance of moral reasons tells against adopting a system of property rules that causes innocent people to starve (a totally ‘free market’ system) and also against a system that requires constant interference in everyone’s lives and leveling down (an egalitarian system). A UBI balances our claims that states not prevent us from 1) meeting our basic needs and 2) pursuing important projects, including economic projects, without excessive interference.
This position is not absolutist- I just mean that to the extent that states coercively prevent either 1) or 2) the property system is morally worse. This view also doesn’t hinge on the idea of positive duties, about which I remain ambivalent. Rather it is just to say that people have claims against coercive interference, and that a UBI will mitigate the wrong of a coercive system of property better than a totally free-market or egalitarian system. That’s not a full argument, but it’s a sketch of my view.
Second, the UBI is relatively market friendly. As Hayek (also a fan of the UBI) argued, states provide services in ways that distort markets and crush private competitors that would better reflect the diversity of our values. Worse, some social welfare programs penalize families for earning more money. In contrast, a UBI (or the negative income tax that Milton Friedman proposed) enables even the worst off to participate in the marketplace while minimizing adverse incentives and keeping government small. For similar reasons, we ought to support things like childcare and education vouchers, or a UBI for kids. Such a system would help citizens access the services they need without forcing them to sign up with a crappy state program.
Third, consider libertarian types like John Tomasi, Loren Lomasky, and Gerald Gaus, who argue that a UBI makes state power justifiable. Tomasi thinks that impartial institutional designers would first choose to protect important liberties (including economic liberties like contract and ownership) but then they would endorse redistributive policies to benefit society’s worst off within the limits of said liberties. Lomasky argues that a coercive system of property is only justifiable to everyone if it gives everyone enough to pursue their projects and have meaningful lives, and this may require a UBI. Gaus thinks any reasonable citizen must accept that some modest redistribution is permissible. I also suspect that this is what Jason was getting at earlier, but I’m not sure. In any case, I’m not convinced by all this Rawlsian public justification and moral powers talk, but if you are, these are reasons for the UBI.
Fourth, a UBI can be compatible in principle with ‘hard libertarian’ property rights. Even if you were entitled to your property holdings, you are not entitled to coercive public enforcement of those holdings. Just because we have negative rights doesn’t mean that those rights merit full public accommodation. Once libertarians start demanding that their property is protected and their rights are publicly enforced, we can think of taxes as the public fee for that enforcement. If the public is the guardian of your wealth, who are you to tell your security guard how to spend his paycheck? This isn’t how states work, but it does point to a possible justification for redistribution.
Alternatively, some libertarians believe that a UBI is good because it will promote overall well being. Or, say you think that freedom requires the ability to leave a “coercive workplace,” without terrible consequences. A UBI will ensure that a no one is so badly off that they cannot make ‘voluntary choices’, according to this thicker conception of ‘voluntary’. The UBI also doesn’t take a stand on how people spend their money, and in this way it avoids paternalism, unlike other social programs. Additionally, a UBI would reduce some of the stigma associated with accepting assistance, and while the government certainly isn’t required to discourage people from saying awful things about their poorer neighbors, it would be nice. Finally, maybe positive duties to help the poor actually do exist, even in the absence of any antecedent state interference. If so, a UBI could help on that front.
These arguments for the UBI also explain why libertarianism at its best is aligned with the political left. The world is really unjust in part because states coercively enforce laws that make people really badly off. On this we agree. Sufficiency is on the path to priority or equality, so for a while, BHL’s and leftists can walk the path from here to social justice together.
PS: Matt Zwolinski wrote a great essay on the topic of Classical Liberalism and The Basic Income (see SSRN for a PDF)