Lately I’ve been thinking about my reasons for endorsing a UBI, especially given that I also share Michael Huemer’s skepticism about political authority. Consider this case:
- (1) Anne runs a business called PropertySystem, which manufacturers and maintains a private currency that can be traded for goods and services. The currency exists in users’ private accounts and Anne’s company provides security services for users. If someone tries to hack into the accounts she prevents them from doing so. The company also punishes users who violate the rules of PropertySystem. So if someone steals or tries to steal the currency from users, that person may have some of their currency taken away or they may even be held in one of PropertySystem’s jails. These services are financed through a yearly service fee.
This sounds fine. If everyone consented to join PropertySystem then they can’t really complain that Anne charges a fee for the services. There will be some questions about those who are not PropertySystem members, and how Anne’s company should treat them. But for the membership, consent seems to render what Anne is doing permissible. Next,
- (2) Anne thinks that it would be morally better if she gave money to poor people. She changes the user agreement for her currency holders to increase her maintenance fee and she gives some of the money to poor people. Or, Anne decides to just print more money and mail it to people so that she doesn’t have to raise fees, even though this could decrease the value of the holdings of her richest clients.
By changing the user agreement or distribution system in this way, Anne doesn’t seem to violate anyone’s rights. And PropertySystem does some good through its currency and protection services by using the company to benefit people who are badly off. Now imagine,
- (3) Anne decides that she doesn’t like PropertySystem competing with other providers so she compels everyone in a certain territory to use PropertySystem’s currency and protection services and to pay service fees, which she now calls taxes.
As Michael Huemer rightly points out, (3) is a significant injustice. If Anne acted like this, using threats of kidnapping and imprisonment to get people to sign up with her company, Anne would be doing something seriously wrong. This is the problem of political authority. Public officials, like Anne, are not entitled to coerce everyone to join and pay for a property system and citizens are not liable to be threatened or forced into joining.
This is Huemer’s objection to a guaranteed basic income. On his account, a basic income requires a tax system and “carrying out the coercive threats on recalcitrant citizens is practically necessary to maintaining a tax system in any realistic society.” Since a tax system that engages in wealth redistribution, like any tax system, is unjust, a basic income is unjust.
But this objection to a basic income isn’t an objection to wealth redistribution per se but rather with the coercive imposition of any property system. Once we acknowledge the initial injustice of forcing everyone to join a property system and pay taxes, it remains an open question how that system should be structured.
Consider an analogy. Bill takes Clive hostage. Taking Clive as a hostage is wrong. But given that Bill has taken Clive as his hostage, Bill could make Clive’s accommodations better or worse. Bill might say, “Not only have I made you my hostage, Clive, but I am also going to make it so you are hungry and so that my other hostages have enormous power over you!” Or, Bill could say, “You had no choice but to be my hostage, but I am going to try to minimize the harm of what I have done. Help yourself to the food in my well-stocked kitchen, and I’ll try not to bother you.” Similarly, if you are going to forcibly impose a property system on everyone, you should set up that property system in a way that tries to compensates people for the harm you have done while taking care to make it minimally burdensome to those you have wronged.
Once we concede that the imposition of a property system on all people is unjust, we should still ask the further question of how that unjust property system should be structured to not commit further injustices. It shouldn’t further violate peoples’ natural rights, it shouldn’t benefit some people enormously while leaving others to suffer from deprivation and domination, and it should refrain from additionally disrupting people’s ability to plan their lives as they choose.
Moreover, there are moral reasons in favor of Anne’s policy changes from (1) to (2). She changed the property conventions in ways that did not violate anyone’s pre-political ownership rights while still benefiting the badly off. If Anne implemented policy (2) after she started forcing everyone to join her company (3) it would still be morally better than policy (1) despite the fact that (3) is unjust.
This is the reason I favor a basic income. Such a policy balances the reasonable complaints that people may have about the effects of a property system that they never consented to join. Though redistribution cannot justify forcing everyone to join a property system, it can at least compensate people who are very badly off partly because they were forced to join that property system. Some people will do very well under a property system that nevertheless violates their rights. But it is not a further rights violation if a property system doesn’t benefit the rich as much as it possibly could.