Economics, Libertarianism

A Moral Case for a Basic Income

Over at Café Hayek, Don Boudreaux has a nice post on a universal basic income. He says that he does “not believe that as a practical matter a UBI would make society freer or more prosperous.” However, he also writes, “I oppose any universal basic income . . . principally because I oppose the confiscation of private property regardless of the purpose, the motive, or the identity of the confiscator(s).”

I think the sort of confiscation of private property involved in funding a UBI is morally justified. You don’t need to be a stone cold utilitarian to believe that rights may be overridden. Suppose you’re on a pier when a railing breaks. You fall into the water. You notice that another person on the pier has a couple of life preservers handy. You shout out, asking her to throw one down to you. She refuses. If you don’t get a life preserver soon, you’ll likely die or suffer hypothermia.

A passerby who confiscates one of her spare life preservers and tosses it your way would be morally justified in doing so. The confiscation comes at little cost to the owner and saves you from a serious harm. But the same rationale applies to taxation for the sake of a UBI. The tax comes at little cost to the rich and can save those in poverty from serious harm. If you share the judgment that the passerby is justified in confiscating the life preserver, then you shouldn’t object to a UBI simply on the grounds that it requires taking the property of some and redistributing it to others in greater need.

Published on:
Author: Christopher Freiman
  • I don’t see how you can draw a comparison between the temporary confiscation of a life preserver to save a life and the permanent confiscation of a substantial portion of a person’s annual income, every year, from now until forever, and a high likelihood of reduced economic growth rates, which would have helped the poor but now will not.

    Morally, those two things seem very different to me.

    Furthermore, simply insisting that UBIs come at “little cost to the rich” seems to contradict at least one analysis I’ve seen on the subject:
    http://www.independent.org/pdf/tir/tir_19_04_02_henderson.pdf

    • Chris Freiman

      I agree that the adverse effects on economic growth are something that merits serious consideration. However, my aim wasn’t to fully vindicate a UBI with this post but rather to suggest that we shouldn’t reject a UBI on the grounds that property confiscation is totally off the table, morally speaking.

    • Aeon Skoble

      What Ryan said. It’s fallacious to extrapolate from the particular emergency to a universal and ongoing policy.

      • Chris Freiman

        As I noted in my reply to Ryan above, my aim was only to challenge one particular objection to the UBI, namely that we ought to “oppose the confiscation of private property regardless of the purpose, the motive, or the identity of the confiscator(s).” If you share my judgment about the life preserver case, then you agree that it’s false that we should “oppose the confiscation of private property regardless of the purpose, the motive, or the identity of the confiscator(s).”

        • Bill Green

          Economic rent is not the result of human labor of the location owner – it is the labor expended by those in proximity!

          • Ron H.

            It’s hard to imagine what point you’re trying to make relevant to to topic at hand.

          • Bill Green

            Sense labor is not involved in the creation of economic rent, using it to fund a UBI can’t be considered theft…

          • Ron H.

            All value is subjective. You are assuming that unused “nature”, including land, has some value before someone “mixes labor” with it to transform it into something that satisfies human wants and needs. That assumption is false. It is the very act of “mixing” that creates the value.

            If the labor I expend enclosing a piece of land increases it’s value to others so that they are willing to pay for the use of it, I have created that value with my labor. Prior to my actions no one found it valuable or someone would have already made use of it.

            It is scarcity – the impossibility of satisfying everyone’s desires at the same time that creates the economic value of anything and everything.

          • Bill Green

            You by definition are not talking about “unimproved land value” you are talking about “improved land value”….

          • Ron H.

            By my definition I’m talking about unimproved land. What does it require in your world to improve land other than to acquire it and put it to some human use? Please provide your definitions of improved and unimproved land so I can know we are talking about the same things.

            Does my enclosing a piece of unused land improve it? If so, there’s the value I have added by my labor.

          • Bill Green

            You have also improved the locational value of those who have enclosed land in proximity to you – that is the unimproved locational value I am referring to…

          • Ron H.

            Then those proximate land owners owe me part of their increased rent, I guess.

            In any case, my action – my labor – has caused others to value the land more highly than they did previously, when they valued it at zero.

            The point is that *people* assign value to land, as they do with anything else, based on their estimate of its ability to satisfy human wants. there is no other reasonable means of assigning value. If my actions cause people to value something more, then I have created that value, and it is mine to use or dispose of as I wish.

            The Earth can’t be owned in common by everyone. That’s just not workable. Henry George (and you) missed the boat on this.

            You didn’t supply the meaningful definition I asked for, and you haven’t defined “locational value”. If you’re struggling to supply the words, maybe you could point me to an authoritative reference.

          • Bill Green

            Yes – they owe you & you owe them…a BIG!

            Yes – Improved land value by labor is called “capital”

            Unimproved land value is called “economic rent”…

            You are confusing collective & common owneship

          • Ron H.

            Yes – they owe you & you owe them…a BIG!

            Sheer nonsense.

            Yes – Improved land value by labor is called “capital”

            OK, that’s close enough.

            Unimproved land value is called “economic rent”…

            Unimproved land has no value until someone creates a value by appropriating it and improving it.

            You are confusing collective & common owneship

            How about supplying your definitions of the two so we can understand why you believe there’s a difference.

          • Bill Green

            I already gave you an example of unimproved locational value – you improve your location via your labor (called “capital”) and those locations in proximity increase in value (called “economic rent”). There is zero labor inputs in the rise of economic rent…

            collective ownership requires all owners (or their delegated authority) to agree prior to any individual owner’s use.

            common ownership only requires that any individual use does not infringe on the equal individual access right of any other individual.

        • The example is more a one-time, short-term borrowing, rather than a long-term, on-going taking. The idea/comparison is non sequitur.

          • King Goat

            He’s not saying the two are comparable, he’s noting where the deontological point breaks down. The objection was essentially, ‘X is an example of Y, and Y is never justified!’ His example serves to show that the latter part is wrong.

          • Ron H.

            You’re right. There are not likely very many people who would say “always” or “never”, but there will be varying judgements as to where that property rights is overridden by something more important. The life preserver example may be closer to the “never” end of the scale, whereas the BIG may be much further down the scale – closer to the end where I’m justified in taking one of your cookies if you have more than I have.

          • Ron H.

            Doesn’t borrowing require consent? Or at least the presumption of consent if it’s not possible to ask at that exact moment?

  • Paul

    I agree that property confiscation can sometimes be justified as a lesser evil. However, in at least some cases of permissible rights infringements, the person who permissibly infringed the right owes compensation to the person whose right was infringed. Recall Feinberg’s case of the hiker who becomes lost in the woods and must break into someone’s cabin to survive (and destroy his property). Although the infringement of the cabin owner’s property rights is justified, it seems that the hiker owes compensation to the cabin owner for this infringement. It seems then (perhaps) that you or the passerby owes the owner of the preserver compensation. There’s obviously a lot more to say about both cases, but I’ll leave it there for now.

    • Paul

      I guess I’ll say one more thing. The principle that you extract from the life preserver case is something like: “it is sometimes justified to take the property of some and redistribute it to others in greater need.” But if you or the passerby owes compensation for the property confiscation, then the principle is “it is sometimes justified to take the property of some and redistribute it to others in greater need as long as you or someone else compensates the owner of the property.” It seems that this principle cannot undermine the argument against a UBI, since it is just not possible to compensate those whose property will be taken to fund a UBI.

      (I should state that I fully support a UBI and am not necessarily defending Beaudreaux’s argument. I’m just trying to show that the principle you appeal to isn’t sufficient for undermining the argument.)

      • Chris Freiman

        Fair point (and I think the compensation revision tracks commonsense judgment). However, I’d say that even in cases where compensation isn’t possible (e.g., you grab a preserver but, for whatever reason, know that you will not be able to track down the original owner to compensate them) or reasonable (e.g., the recipient of the preserver is extremely poor), confiscation can still be morally justified.

      • Simon

        I don’t think that is the principle to be extracted from Feinberg’s thought experiment tho. It might be that it is OK to borrow at a time of extreme need (severe moral catastrophe, maybe), provided that one intends to subsequently compensate. (It is, of course, possible that it might be impossible to provide the compensation, I grant you). This seems very different from a society wide scheme to provide a UBI, for which the donors will likely never see any compensation. An analogy is being made, but I perceive plenty of relevant differences. The best I can see it doing is providing a loan to provide bare minimal assistance, with efforts to ensure repayment where possible. This may be what you have in mind, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be the premise behind most UBI schemes I’ve seen.

      • natermer

        If you cause damage to another person’s property during the course of using that person’s property without their permission are you not liable to the damage caused to that property?

        The use of a life preserver vs a human life is a easy choice to make in the hypothetical you created. Change the hypothetical slightly, however, and it becomes much more complicated.

        Unknown to you the life preserver owner’s child was drowning. They refused to use it to save the stranger because they were looking for their own child in the chaos. You took it not knowing this and caused the death of the child.

        Are you not more in the wrong then? You stole property that directly lead to another person’s death.

        That is a much better analogy to the UBI situation.

        By violently forcing the confiscation of wealth to prevent the suffering of a group of people you increase the suffering of the other group.

        Whose suffering is more valuable? You are making people unemployed, you are preventing people from saving up to afford medical expenses later in life, you are denying people future income. You are preventing high quality education. You are preventing investment and growth in the economy.

        That is what you are doing by taking wealth from one group to give it to the other.

        Not only that you are sacrificing the future economic growth that would relieve the very suffering you are looking to prevent in the first place.

        • Bill Green

          “By violently forcing the confiscation of wealth to prevent the suffering of a group of people you increase the suffering of the other group.”

          Using economic rent from the enclosure of land to fund the UBI can’t be considered “wealth” (and it’s confiscation can’t be consideredvtheft) because there are no labor inputs to it’s creation…

  • Reasonable Extremist

    Chris,

    What do you make of Matt Zwolinski’s case for a minimum income on Georgist or “geolibertarian” grounds? It seems to me that a tax on the unimproved value of land resolves property rights based objections.

    • Chris Freiman

      That’s interesting–I’d certainly be open to it (although I think its appeal lies in efficiency, rather than rights-based, considerations).

      • Reasonable Extremist

        Given your utilitarianism, this is not particularly surprising 🙂 Let me ask you this: your post framed the case for a UBI in terms of reducing poverty and guarding against desperation. This strikes me as something even a Nozickean could sign onto. Mark Friedman can certainly speak to this question with greater authority than I can but I could certainly see a state funded UBI, narrowly designed to ensure no one would fell into poverty, as being defensible on the grounds of avoiding “catastrophic moral horror.” But does this not argue in favor a quite small UBI? I guess it depends on how we define poverty. In any event, your case seems quite different than the “real freedom” rationale advanced by Van Parijs, although it seems to me that on utilitarian grounds one might sympathetic to that sort of proposal.

        • Chris Freiman

          I do think a Nozickean could get on board with something like this, although they might not accept that even extreme poverty counts as a catastrophic moral horror. I also think a Huemer-style intuitionist approach could support a UBI in light of the life preserver and other similar cases (although Huemer himself doesn’t support one–see here: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2014/08/06/michael-huemer/basic-income-permissible).

          The idea would be that rights to private property can be infringed given sufficiently weighty reasons on the other side of the moral scales. But you’re right, a UBI defended on these sorts of grounds will probably be pretty small. (My hunch is that it would be smaller than the UBI I’d prefer.)

          • Reasonable Extremist

            Thanks for the response and the very interesting post.

            From what I understand, Huemer would not object to even coercively funded assistance in cases of poverty brought on by unchosen circumstances but might object to the fact that the UBI would go to those who weren’t in poverty or perhaps were but through a series of deliberate and poor choices on their part.

  • Whose pier is it, what are you doing there, what is the passerby doing there, is the owner of the life preserver able to get restitution from the violator?

    Just like the traditional trolley problem, the problem tends to be framed as a choice between two options and ignores a third answer, which is that it depends.

    In some cases like a military submarine operation, the mission may come first. In other cases, no one is left behind. Some kidney exchanges may have rules that prioritize kids, other that prioritize the first arrived.
    There may not be a single universal rule to such ethical dilemmas, but rather local rules that people opt into.

  • Fritz

    How god-like of you to revel in your moral omniscience.

  • Kevin Currie-Knight

    Christopher,

    I agree that rights can be overridden. But the case, I think, is less whether they can be overridden (or in what situations) and more with who gets to decide when a person’s rights are overridden by another person’s rights.

    So, one reason I am a classical liberal is that while I think there is a morally compelling case for certain welfare functions of the state, as a practical matter, I am not sure there is a good justification to give any group the right to decide for others when their rights are overridden by more “compelling” rights. (I put “compelling” in scare quotes because we would do best to realize that “compelling” is a subjective judgment call and reasonable people may disagree on what right is sufficiently compelling to outweigh a competing right.)

    • Libertymike

      No person or group should have de jure power to decide when rights should be overridden because of some alleged compelling circumstances. From a utilitarian perspective, there is all of human history to remind us that the costs of allocating such power to such persons or groups have been catastrophic and humanity has not received the benefit of the bargain.
      We know that those to whom we entrust such power will abuse it and that millions and millions of people will continue to be expatriated, frisked, incarcerated for malum prohibitum “crimes”, killed, monitored, murdered, plundered, raped, silenced, stopped, spied upon, terrorized, and watched in connection therewith.
      That is why I argue that there is nothing inherently immoral with opposition to the proposition that rights can never be overridden. We should not assume that the overriding of rights is reflective of some greater insight or constitutes a moral superiority.
      In emergency situations, as a practical matter, there will be people who will temporarily override the rights of the life preserver owners in order to save the life of another. However, both the intervenor and the recipient should be jointly and severally liable to the owner for whatever loss the latter incurs.

      • King Goat

        “In emergency situations, as a practical matter, there will be people who will temporarily override the rights of the life preserver owners in order to save the life of another.”

        Jeez, you act like this is just some necessary evil to be put up with because of silly human nature, but surely human life is more valuable than the rules of ownership of life preservers.

        • Libertymike

          Human life is more valuable than creating power structures that require systematic confiscation of property and surrender of liberty.

  • Ben Kennedy

    ” I oppose the confiscation of private property”

    The best way to argue for a UBI is the Zwolinski argument, which is to challenge the ground that they owned it in the first place. What they label “private property” isn’t really legitimately owned at all, thus “confiscation” is the wrong term

    This is fact the common-sense approach to allocation from nature (the Lockean Proviso). It’s fine to take as much as you want from nature, but you have to leave some for the rest. This is Basic Fairness as understood by a child – everybody has to get “firsts” before you can rightfully claim “seconds”.

    • Ron H.

      Who gets to decide whether Basic Fairness has been satisfied?

  • Pajser

    Property by itself is violent reduction of freedom of non-owners. It requires justification. I think it cannot be found if one is aware of communist alternative. (Although few agree with me.) However, egalitarian redistribution has utilitarian justification compared to free market capitalism: $1 on bottom has greater utility than $1 on top. The question from egalitarian point of view is how to maximize redistribution before adverse effects – essentially laziness – prevail. Basic income is not good step in that direction: adverse effects strike immediately. Very few people can adapt well on situation in which they do not need to work at all. Almost any other form of egalitarian redistribution seems better to me.

    • Reasonable Extremist

      “communist alternative.” oh my.

  • Tyler Mittan

    Hey Chris,

    A) I miss our bickerings about utilitarianism (we met at WFU at an IHS seminar awhile back and I am a pretty strong Huemerian.. if that’s a thing).

    B) You’ve addressed the issue that the two scenarios are quite different (life saving emergency vs.. whatever you want to call it..), but that’s not where the title of your post is about. It implies you’re making a case in favor of BIG, but what you’re actually doing is making a case against strict, non-breakable property rights.

    P.S. I think you’re right. I agree with your premise, but I think your post and post title are not related

    • Chris Freiman

      Hey Tyler,

      Good to hear from you. And I agree–I probably should have gone with a different title as this one is a bit misleading.

  • J Peterson II

    Why don’t I just grab the other part of the pier and climb up, thus no “confiscation” needed?

    Also, in the life preserver scenario, I get the preserver back, yet with the UBI I don’t receive my money back.

    Not a very good analogy.

  • dudemeister

    Is this really a “moral case for a basic income”? This seems to be (at best), a case for why a basic income isn’t theft. There are many things that aren’t theft, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a “moral case” for each of them.

    Now, like most people who aren’t doctrinaire libertarians, I think confiscation of private property for the purposes of common welfare through taxation is essential for a modern society to survive. So, from my point of view, this article says basically nothing.

    • Ron H.

      Actually, this seems to be a case of justifying theft by asserting a higher moral imperative. Not a right to life, certainly, but perhaps a positive ‘right to be rescued’ overriding a right to private property. Subjective third party judgments are involved.

      • dudemeister

        Yes, your formulation makes more sense than mine.

        • Ron H.

          I should explain that, strictly speaking, don’t believe there can be any positive rights, as they would require that someone be forced to provide something against their will. (i.e I might have a “right” to an abortion,m but no one is required to provide me with one.)

          • dudemeister

            Right and I don’t agree, but that’s besides the point.

          • Ron H.

            Would you force a doctor to perform an abortion he refuses to perform because he considers abortion to be murder? Would you punish a baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding because of their religious beliefs?

            In your view what positive rights exist?

            I should also add to my explanation above that I believe we instinctively feel strong, moral obligations to others as part of our nature as human beings, but I wouldn’t call them “rights”
            ..

          • dudemeister

            No, but I would probably be okay with making an anti-war activist pay taxes that (in part) fund the military. I’d probably also not be okay with allowing a racist doctor let a black patient die in an emergency room. And I’d probably be okay with taxing everybody (at different rates, depending on relative wealth) and then spending that money on a universal basic income.

            I’m not claiming to have a philosophically coherent view of positive rights. Just saying that I can’t oppose them unconditionally.

  • Theresa Klein

    Is a UBI really analagous to a duty to rescue? A UBI is *universal* – everyone gets it, whether they need rescuing or not. So if you want to justify it, you can’t justify it with life-boat ethics, you have to justify it with something more like Rawlsian distributive justice – the lucky should pay some sort of share to the unlucky.

  • JW Ogden

    Philosophically if you create a BIG shouldn’t the BIG be given to everyone in the world?

    • Ron H.

      Absolutely. How is it fair to limit redistribution to a favored few who benefit by accident of their birth? If anything, those born in the US deserve less than someone born in, say, Zimbabwe, as they already have more.

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  • anarchobuddy

    Dr. Freiman,

    I wanted to ask whether you had (or are aware of anyone having) addressed the following objection: on strictly utilitarian grounds, it is unclear that wealth confiscation and redistribution is justified, even assuming away problems of interpersonal utility comparison. That is, to have this arrangement of coercively funded UBI, there has to be an entity empowered to engage in carrying out such transfers. Even if the wealth distribution resulting from the UBI creates a net increase in utility, what about the disutility that may potentially result from such an empowered entity doing bad things with impunity (such as bombing civilians) that they are only able to do because they have been given the power to tax and have a monopoly on the use of force?

    • Bill Green

      Economic rent – as the source for a UBI – can’t be considered part of “wealth” confiscation because by definition there are no labor inputs to it’s creation.

      I labor to improve my location & my neighbors’ (in close proximity) economic rent goes up…

      • Ron H.

        That’s right. Economic rent is not wealth, it is income derived from the use of an asset.

        • Bill Green

          The return on land (an asset not created by labor) is called “economic rent”

          It is called an “unearned” income for a reason…

          It is unrealized “income” until sold or monetized as collateral

          • Ron H.

            Look, you need to find something new to say. I’m losing interest in the same old repetitive nonsense.

            Unused and unowned land is not an asset, because it has no value until it becomes useful to humans in satisfying their needs. Land becomes an asset when it is improved so as to be useful in satisfying human needs. That change from not useful to useful is the result of human action.

          • Bill Green

            “Land becomes an asset when it is improved”

            Then the value created by the labor to improve the land in question is called a “capital” asset, not “economic rent”…

          • Ron H.

            Then why do you keep calling it an economic rent? We’ve been over this before. This is the last time.

            By your definition any change in value of any asset is undeserved and should be redistributed to everyone. How about losses? Should losses in the value of my property that I haven’t created by my labor be subsidized by the community, even though they aren’t responsible for those losses either?

            If I buy an apple for $1 and later sell it for $2 am I obligated to share that gain with everyone else who also didn’t do anything to increase that apple’s value? The value has changed due to the different perceptions of others.

            If not, why not? Is there no negative economic rent? If I must share my gains, I should share my losses also, right?

          • Bill Green

            “By your definition any change in value of any asset is undeserved and should be redistributed to everyone”

            My point is that using economic rent to fund a BIG can’t be considered theft because there are no labor inputs by definition from the landowners.

          • Ron H.

            Unable to answer the questions?

      • anarchobuddy

        I think you’ve missed the point of my question. It’s not about whether the wealth transfer itself can be considered unjustified theft or not, but whether the benefit from having an entity empowered to do so is worth the cost of having an entity empowered to do so.

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