Via Pete Boettke, I see that Don Boudreaux has posted a criticism of the enthusiasm among some libertarians (including some of the BHL co-bloggers) for a basic income:
That policy might well be better than what we currently have, but I fear that the chances are high that we would soon hear – not long after its implementation – cries such as “You are hypocritical to object to government policy X because government is the root source of your income. Because government guarantees each of us an annual income of at least $10,000, our prosperity and well-being and civil peace spring from this policy. As such none of us has any right, or strong grounds on which to stand, to engage in civil disobedience or even to oppose government regulation.”
Such arguments are, of course, heard now. (“Government pays a large chunk of our medical bills, so it has a right to regulate our diets!”) My fear is that an explicit government guaranteed minimum income – especially one given to all Americans – would make such arguments seem to be even more plausible and to apply more widely. If so, that could be tragic.
This isn’t quite the same point, not in the way he means it, but it helps me see the following:
The basic income theorists are explicitly theorists of an unconditional basic income. (UBI is the usual acronym for the policy they support.) But I wonder whether unconditionality is politically sustainable, whether it’s robustly self-reinforcing (in the way that, say, Social Security in the United States has proven to be robustly self-reinforcing). I have my doubts. Think about the politics of disenfranchisement in the United States. It’s proven to be politically easy to slip down the slope from disenfranchising those serving prison sentences to permanent disenfranchisement of those who’ve ever been convicted of a felony, to say nothing of various de facto types of disenfranchisement. There’s political support for that kind of thing, most though not quite all of it deriving from a history of institutional racism. For that matter, think about the already-existing politics of welfare provision, in which there’s always political support to be found for conditionality even when it wouldn’t save any money.
If tomorrow the U.S. were to enact (but not constitutionalize) a $10,000 per year per person UBI, how long would it take for the first proposals for conditionality to be introduced in Congress? Not for felons in prison; not for felons after their terms are over; not for those who fail drug tests; not for the third or higher child of unemployed parents; not for high school drop-outs…
If the whole population has opinions transformed all at once to come to see a UBI as a right demanded by social justice, of course, this couldn’t arise. But in the political world we inhabit, the magnitude of a BI would only increase the political attractiveness of conditionality; there will always be the chance to win an election by arguing that hard-working taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to support some small-enough undeserving population. I wonder whether the eventual political equilibrium point would be both more expensive and more regressive than the status quo.