The essay has been taken by some people to be an unequivocal defense of the basic income on libertarian grounds. But I’m actually a little ambivalent about the issue. I’m probably not quite as enthusiastic about the idea as Jessica is, but perhaps mores than some of my other BHL bloggers.
In the essay, I set out several arguments that libertarians could or have endorsed for a basic income, the strongest of which (I think) is this:
Current federal social welfare programs in the United States are an expensive, complicated mess. According to Michael Tanner, the federal government spent more than $668 billion on over one hundred and twenty-six anti-poverty programs in 2012. When you add in the $284 billion spent by state and local governments, that amounts to $20,610 for every poor person in America.
Wouldn’t it be better just to write the poor a check?
Each one of those anti-poverty programs comes with its own bureaucracy and its own Byzantine set of rules. If you want to shrink the size and scope of government, eliminating those departments and replacing them with a program so simple it could virtually be administered by a computer seems like a good place to start. Eliminating bloated bureaucracies means more money in the hands of the poor and lower costs to the taxpayer. Win/Win.
But I also set out several objections to the policy, all of which seem to me quite powerful. Here’s a taste.
Effects on Migration – When most people think about helping the poor, they forget about two groups that are largely invisible – poor people in other countries, and poor people who haven’t been born yet (see this paper by Tyler Cowen for more). With respect to the first of those groups, I think (and have argued before) that there is a real worry that a Basic Income Guarantee in the United States would create pressures to restrict immigration even more than it already is. After all, when every new immigrant is one more person collecting a check from your tax dollars, it’s not entirely unreasonable to view those immigrants as a threat, and to be more willing to use the coercive power of the state to keep them out. That worries me, because I think the last thing anybody with a bleeding heart ought to want to do is to block the poorest of the poor from access to what has been one of the most effective anti-poverty programs ever devised – namely, a policy of relatively open immigration into the relatively free economy of the United States. Especially when one’s justification for doing so is merely to provide a bit of extra cash to people who are already citizens of one of the wealthiest countries on the face of the planet.