Against the “Pragmatic Libertarian Case for the Basic Income Guarantee”

Originally posted on August 15, 2014

Self-styled “Bleeding Heart Libertarian” Matt Zwolinski is out with a new series of essays defending a “basic income guarantee” (BIG). For those who don’t know, a BIG is a program where the government gives everyone, regardless of wealth or income, a set amount of cash every year. Professor Zwolinksi has previously attempted to justify a BIG on philosophical libertarian grounds, which I considered unprincipled. He is now attempting to justify a BIG on “pragmatic” libertarian grounds. I have issues with this line of defense as well.

Zwolinki’s argument for practicality boils down to four claims: that a BIG is cheaper than the current welfare state, a BIG is less paternalistic, a BIG would require a smaller bureaucracy, and a BIG would remove a lot of the opportunities for “rent-seeking” (meaning it would be harder for the rich and powerful to get special treatment). Zwolinski then attempts to brush aside principled libertarian arguments against a BIG by claiming that a libertarian “Utopia is not an option”.

Unfortunately, Zwolinski does not define what a libertarian Utopia is, let alone argue why it is not an option. He merely states the fact that “most people are not libertarians”, and many thinkers of the libertarian tradition (such Locke, Nozick, Friedman, and Hayek) have supported similar ideas to a BIG. But name-dropping is not an argument. So I’m going to do Zwolinski’s work for him by defining a “libertarian Utopia”, and go on to defend why it is just as feasible an option as a BIG.

Following in the tradition of Murray Rothbard (who Zwolinski insinuated was a Utopianist), I believe a libertarian Utopia to a be a land where individuals have inalienable rights to their bodies, and can come to own property through either Lockean homesteading of unowned property or contracting with another person who has justly come to own that property. The initiation of force is unjustified, and private courts settle disputes.

That’s it. Notice the things that are not part of this Utopia: that there exists perfect harmony between all peoples, that no crime is ever committed, that the oceans are made of lemonade and roasted chickens fly straight into your mouth, that everyone is some sort of super genius, or that people are unthinking automatons.

A libertarian Utopia (at least in the Rothbardian tradition) is strictly a world where individuals own themselves, can somehow come to own other things, and that agressive violence against people and their properties is wrong (a.k.a., the non-agression principle/NAP).

Now, is this vision of Utopia too far to reach from these earthly shores? Maybe. Again, as Zwolinski points out, most people aren’t libertarian. But taken individually, all of the aspects described above of a libertarian Utopia have earthly origins: the recognition of private property rights is thousands of years old, many have referred to the non-agression principle as a variation of the “Golden Rule”, variations of contracting and homesteading have been recognized throughout time and across many cultures, and there are numerous examples of private courts thriving.

But yet, most people today insist that libertarian Utopia is untenable for various reasons: sometimes it’s necessary to use violence to achieve some end, private courts are more likely to be corrupt, private property is exploitative, etc. This is an undeniable fact of today’s political consciousness. And yes, it’s true, as Zwolinski says, that there is no obvious way “to get There”–a libertarian Utopia–”from Here”–a world where most people can’t imagine anyone but The Government can build a road. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t trying to bridge this gap: between think-tanks dedicated to reaching out to the general public, to think tanks more geared towards politicians, to university programs, to popular movements, and to literature & pop art, decentralized libertarian persuasion is gradually shifting the discussion and persuading more and more people. And evidence seems to suggest that, slowly but surely, it’s working.

But as far as I can tell, Zwolinski is unmoved by this growth of libertarian thought among the masses. No, to Zwolinski these efforts are overzealous, and doomed for failure as they aim for an imaginary world where the systematic initiation of violence is not allowed.

But compare that world to Zwonlinski’s “pragmatic” libertarian vision: a world where the current patchwork of subsidies, bureaucrats, legal loopholes, and tax breaks is completely replaced by a BIG. And how we get to “There” from “Here”, presumably (Zwolinski, despite chiding the Utopianists earlier for this very problem, does not actually propose any sort of transition plan) is by millions of bureaucrats and crony capitalists (to say nothing of “welfare queens” and others who live largely or exclusively on the government’s dime) enthusiastically agreeing to end their generous payouts of tens or hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars of other people’s money in favour of a BIG. (And it must be enthusiastic agreement, otherwise you would need a strong-armed libertarian government hell-bent on eliminating bureaucracy and cronyism, which won’t happen because most voters aren’t libertarians.) And they will do this because a BIG is more libertarian than the current system… Even though, as Zwolinski himself pointed out, most of these people are not libertarians!

Now, gentle reader, which seems more “pragmatic”: the method of decentralized persuasion, or the method of expecting oligarchs and lifelong bureaucrats to voluntarily give up their power? For me, slowly persuading more and more people of the feasibility and desirability of a voluntary society is more likely than to expect plutocrats to make moral decisions that harm them but benefit the poor.

So again, I am unconvinced by the “libertarian” arguments for forcefully taking money from some and giving it to others.