Against “The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income”

by Ash Navabi

Originally posted on on December 6, 2013

Matt Zwolinski, of Bleeding Heart Libertarians fame, has a new post on in which he attempts to defend a so-called “Basic Income Guarantee”, whereby the government pays everyone (or a very large portion of people) a minimum amount of money regardless of employment or any other status, using libertarian principles.

I believe he failed in his endeavour.

Zwolinski’s first defence: A Basic Income Guarantee would be much better than the current welfare state.

This has a simple response: Why should the federal government be taking money by force from anyone, for any reason at all? There are many economic costs associated whenever the government purloins the public, of course; but there are also moral issues involved with theft. Just because a BIG may be less paternalistic and condescending to the poor than the current welfare paradigm, as Zwolinski suggests, does not mean that it just and ethical to do in the first place. Zwolinski provides no defense of why the state has either the right or the obligation to take from some to give to others.

Zwolinski’s second defence: A Basic Income Guarantee might be required on libertarian grounds as reparation for past injustice.

Zwolinski suggests that some people in the United States deserve reparations. But he admits that it may impossible to determine precisely who deserves these reparations, and thus concludes that the best way to remedy this situation would be for the state to take from the rich and give to the poor. He calls this an “approximate rectification”. There are are several problems with this line of reasoning. First, state reparations entail collective punishment, which is at odds with the individualism of libertarianism. Not everyone in the US is guilty of some past crime. For example, why should rich or upper middle class immigrants from eastern Europe or central Africa, or southeast Asia be paying reparations to any American? Beyond the US, what past injustice are the rich and middle class ofSwitzerland paying for?

There is no ground for calling the BIG “approximate rectification”. Zwolinski admits that there is not much historical information to go by to determining who really is a victim today of injustice in the past and who is a beneficiary. He then suggests that the poor today are most likely to have been victims, and so deserve to be remunerated by the rich. But there is absolutely no reason to assume this. There is just as much likelihood that a rich person today is the descendant of a victim of some grave injustice in centuries past as a poor person is the descendant of a robber baron or a British baron.   Stealing from some innocents today to repay the descendants of those who potentially may have been robbed in centuries past and have been on net innocent of all other crimes is not approximate justice. It is precisely baloney.

Onto Zwolinski’s final defense: A Basic Income Guarantee might be required to meet the basic needs of the poor.

In his second point, Zwolinski said because it’s impossible to have the knowledge to determine precise rectifications, it’s just to take from some innocent to give to others who may not deserve anything. But here, he’s promoting Friedman’s argument that because it’s impossible to have the knowledge of whether there will be an optimal level of voluntary charity under a free market, then therefore it’s just to take from some innocent to give to others who may not deserve anything. It seems that to Matt Zwolinski, the knowledge problem can only have a state solution.

And even though Hayek’s language is stronger than Friedman’s, Hayek’s argument falls to pieces if it is true (as many libertarians hold) that the state itself is an unjust institution, therefore making any and all state action unjust.

Some brief comments on the potential objections he anticipates libertarians to make against his arguments:

1) Disincentives 

It’s true that under today’s regime, many don’t work at all in order to keep collecting their (meager) welfare checks. But under his proposed regime of giving $20,000 to every poor person in America, he is suggesting that giving people the equivalent of working full-time for $10 an hour (almost 50% above the current federal minimum wage) will have no more, and perhaps an even negative, effect on willingness to seek employment. Colour me unconvinced.

2) Effects on Migration

Zwolinski does not attempt to refute this objection. He also does not consider my objection above, of forcing new immigrants (some of whom could not even be citizens yet) to paying taxes to support citizens, either native born or naturalized.

3) Effects on Economic Growth

Asking how much poorer the country would be if some centuries old policy limited economic growth is an impossible question to answer. The counterfactuals are literally unimaginable. We have no idea what radical innovations may have been deemed to expensive to develop, and which would have enormous effects today. But his question of how much poorer the *poorest* Americans would be is slightly easier to answer: not much, if we take “poorest” in the literal sense, meaning someone who is homeless and barely has any clothes. However, even their already limited access to charity would be even more limited, and because of this reason there may in fact be many more people who classify as among the poorest in the country.

As well, we have to remember that America’s riches had vast “network effects” around the whole world: advances in health care, entertainment, information technology, and manufacturing that started in the US have enriched many millions, if not billions, around the world today.

BONUS (not included in Zwolinski’s list of objections):

4) The Non-Aggression Principle

Zwolinski didn’t offer this as an objection himself, but I found it shocking that he did not include it in an article that appeared on a website called namely, the non-aggression principal. I know that Zwolinski has elsewhere criticized the NAP, and that he himself is a consequentialist (the defining feature of all Bleeding Heart Libertarians), but why not include the NAP-based objection in his list of objections? Surely a significant portion of the libertarian community reject his claims here on the basis that they violate the NAP. Does Zwolinski not think of these libertarians as significant? Or as not worth engaging? Either way, a troubling sign.

In conclusion, Matt Zwolinksi decidedly did not provide a comprehensible libertarian defence of the Basic Income Guarantee, nor did he satisfactorily anticipate libertarian objections to his claims.