Bleeding Heart Libertarian, Matt Zwolinski, has caused a small stir in libertarian circles with his recent “libertarian argument” for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) in the United States. His proposal involves abolishing every existing welfare program run by the U.S. Government, and replacing them with a universal guarantee of income for every adult citizen, regardless of their employment or economic standing. Switzerland is facing an impending vote on just such a policy, although the Swiss proposal differs in that it would be implemented on top of their already gigantic welfare state. Realistically, if such a policy were to be on the table in the United States, no welfare program big or small, would be cut or abolished. The entrenched interest groups affected by such a policy shift would almost certainly prevent it from happening. Zwolinski acknowledges that there may not be a practical way to implement this program, but insists that it does no harm to merely propose it, if the idea itself does have merit. Unfortunately, it does not. From top to bottom, the proposal is entirely brainless.
Zwolinski’s justification for a BIG has several components, the first of which is based on cost and efficiency. He argues that if a BIG could be implemented in place of the byzantine bureaucracies managing existing welfare programs, the tax payer would ultimately be saved an enormous amount of money. Taken at face value, this seems highly plausible, and it would probably reduce (but not eliminate) the public choice problems associated with these organizations. Taken on its own, this argument might be forgivable if Zwolinski were simply an honest left-liberal trying to reduce waste and corruption, but since he tries to further justify this on libertarian principles and appeals to justice, it quickly crumbles both morally and economically.
Matt argues that the current distribution of property rights in the world is not entirely just. With regards to the property of many organizations and individuals, we cannot establish a clear chain of title back to the state of nature. In many cases, the state engaged in clear breaches of property rights and perpetrated injustices against innocent people, injustices which have never been rectified. Often times, the descendants of these victims are still suffering negative consequences as a result of these past injuries.
The BIG serves as a rough “rule of thumb” for rectifying these violations, as the epistemic challenges involved in identifying victims/calculating ratios of proportionate restitution are insurmountable, and prevent precise corrections from being made. So relying on the “capability approach” we can determine a payment that would ensure that no one were to become so harmed by past or present injustices, that they are prevented from living a minimally decent life. While this may be an imperfect solution, doing nothing to right past wrongs would be worse.
There are numerous problems with this, but I want to grant Zwolinski his argument for a moment, because I don’t think he has fully thought it through. If we accept that the state is obligated to rectify rights violations, and that a BIG is a good rule of thumb for accomplishing this end, why would guaranteeing income and capability standards be limited only to United States citizens? It can be argued that the U.S. government has violated the rights of large groups of people in virtually every society on the face of the planet.
Whether it be through the most visible and destructive acts of U.S. military conflicts over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, political manipulations in Central and South America, installation and support of dictators across Africa and the Middle East, embargoes and trade restrictions the world over, manipulation and disruption of world markets through the actions of the Federal Reserve System, credible threats of nuclear annihilation, systematic undermining of electronic security and the ongoing collection of private information by the NSA, or even the abominable threat and execution of violence against those who simply try to immigrate to the United States (something which would increase their capability standards more than any check would), virtually no human being has been left untouched by the tentacles of the United States government.
Zwolinski’s theory of justice already leads us into economic and ethical absurdity, especially if we accept that property/human rights apply to everyone, and not only to American citizens. In order to make restitution for the past and continued crimes of the U.S. government, the state ought to provide a basic income to all of the estimated 5.8 billion adults on planet earth. By his reasoning, doing nothing to rectify these injustices would be worse than the state simply ceasing its activities.
If we start somewhere in the range of $25,000 per adult per year (less than the Swiss are proposing), the government would be obligated to pay out roughly $145 trillion in basic income payments every single year. Let that number sink in for a minute. Now I am willing to be generous in realizing that capability standards are recognized to be different across cultures and economies, but even if I were to be extremely conservative and reduce this estimate by an order of magnitude, the government would still be obligated to pay out $14.5 trillion per year. That sum does not include any funding necessary to actually run the program, this is simply the amount needed to pay the reparations themselves. The fact that this number approaches the entire GDP of the U.S., should be a ready indication that the program’s realization is impossible. But even if we were to assume that it was possible, the public choice nightmare that would accompany an international welfare program of this type, would dwarf and obliterate any concerns that we might have about actual welfare programs currently in place in America. The entire idea is absurd on its own terms.
But we shouldn’t accept it on its own terms. The idea of what constitutes justice in a Zwolinskian world is totally perverse. During the government shutdown, BHL writer Andrew Cohen argued that the government is obligated to fulfill contractual promises to pay its own employees, even if the ability to fulfill these contractual agreements rests on the violent transfer of property from one set of individuals to another through taxation. He even embarrassingly uses an incorrect analogy to the mafia, which thankfully Monty Python expertly satirized decades ago. This is a view that Zwolinski has defended in many places, but it can be seen explicitly in the comments section of his latest post on the BIG.
In the context of this argument, they are quite literally claiming that if the state violates someones rights, the state must make restitution to the victim, even if “making restitution” was predicated on the state violating someone else’s rights in order to do so. Zwolinski’s pitiful attempt to appeal to the standard libertarian idea of what constitutes justice is a complete perversion of the principle in question. If Person A violates the rights of Person B, Rothbardians argue that A owes B restitution in proportion to the offense committed. However, the means by which the restitution is paid is of the utmost importance. Person A does not then have license to steal property from Person C to pay Person B. This would simply be an additional crime committed by A. The Basic Income Guarantee would necessarily have to be paid out of funds obtained through taxation (i.e. theft) and would be an illegitimate act, piling injustice upon injustice upon injustice. No matter what violations have been perpetrated by the state in the past, there can be no justification for continuous and perpetual invasions of the rights of third parties to make restitution for those crimes. True restitution would mean an end to the crimes of the state, and the most egregious perpetrators being compelled to work off their debts as determined by a free competing court system.
But even worse than this, Zwolinski isn’t simply wrong when it comes to the natural rights component of this argument; it seems rather, he is being deliberately dishonest about it. When making his appeals to the natural rights tradition, he sneaks in a competing theory of justice and uses it interchangeably with the first. By using the social justice concept of the “capability approach”, he is jettisoning any reference he may have had to rights violations, and substituting it with a theory of well being. These are two completely incompatible sets of ideas, and it destroys any semblance of consistency in his argument. This wouldn’t be so repugnant if he had not framed this as a “libertarian” or “natural rights” argument, and admitted that he was pursuing an entirely different theory of justice from the outset.
In short, the proposal is totally self-defeating. It rests on the premise that the state is a legitimate institution (absurd on its own), and that rights violations can be repaid and made whole by further rights violations. Acknowledging there are times when “second-best” policies are the only possible options, it seems prudent to ask: what would be the purpose of proposing a policy that is neither practical nor ideal? Why would we trade an economically disastrous, ethically miserable state of affairs for one that is even worse on both accounts? If we are going to propose radical changes in government policy, why not stick to the truly radical idea that the state itself ought to be abolished in toto? Zwolinski has claimed many times that he is sympathetic to the anarchist program, and that he is very compelled by Michael Huemer’s arguments against political authority, so why hesitate to advocate the only way of ending systematic injustice? Why continue to rely on an institution that has committed more murders, more theft, and more injustice than private individuals could have ever hoped to commit? How could you possibly trust that institution with one iota of power? For someone as clearly well read as Matt Zwolinski, it is an abominably stupid and evil position to maintain.
As a final note, Matt also argued that both F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman advocated for something like a BIG, and that Rothbardians who claim “real libertarians don’t support welfare” are incorrect, as these highly influential figures are clearly a part of the libertarian tradition. I agree that these men are influential figures in the libertarian tradition (just like the classical liberals before them) but they also made egregious errors along the way. The hardcore propertarianism of the anarcho-capitalists excludes and ridicules these errors not because of some sort of backward dogmatism, but because private property theory is a distillation and refinement of the libertarian idea. Appealing to the worst parts of Friedman and Hayek is no way to demonstrate that an idea is sound. One must defend ideas on their own merits, not the presumed authority of other intellectuals.