Another day, another suck-the-joy-of-liberty-out-of-the-joy-of-liberty article. This one, from Reason, is entitled “Time for a Guaranteed Income?” And sadly, it isn’t followed by a simple one-word, two-letter response.
The author is Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Get any clues from this position and title? I will give you another clue, in case you still haven’t caught on: The subtitle of the article is “The pros and cons of a welfare idea championed by liberals and libertarians alike.”
Raise your hands if you already know where this is headed.
OK, for the rest of you….
Switzerland will soon hold a nationwide referendum on granting a guaranteed and unconditional minimum monthly income of $2,800 for each Swiss adult. In America, where Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty just celebrated its 50th anniversary of failing to achieve victory, liberals jumped on the Swiss news to reconsider the un-American-sounding idea of a universal basic income.
Surprisingly to some, they were joined by many libertarians. The list of intellectuals who have made cases for a guaranteed minimum income over the years includes such laissez-faire luminaries as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Charles Murray.
Let’s see, who are these libertarians? A Chicago School Keynesian monetarist central planner (but I repeat myself), an Austrian economist who, unfortunately, supported many interventions in the market, and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Hear no libertarianism; see no libertarianism; speak no libertarianism.
And what libertarian cred do these three bring to the discussion?
Friedman favored a negative income tax (NIT), in which taxpayers who earn less than the established minimum taxable income level would receive a subsidy equal to some fraction of that difference. (A watered-down version of this became the Earned Income Tax Credit.) Hayek defended a minimum income floor, in which the government provides a conditional income to each adult. Murray's 2006 book In Our Hands argued for an unconditional $10,000 annual cash payment to all adult Americans, coupled with a repeal of all other welfare transfer programs.
A negative income tax…a minimum income floor…and $10,000 cash on the barrel-head.
Paid for by whom? Enforced how? Wait, sorry. I am getting a bit too extreme in my libertarian thinking.
The author goes on to a long discourse about the pragmatic and utilitarian possibilities of such proposals. Don’t get me started (and gpond, don’t be so eager to point out my logical flaws!). She finds less and less reason to support any of the existing proposals, because they really don’t seem to help much. Not because they require theft to implement, but because they don’t work very well.
But even this is not her main cause for objection. Oh no:
But my main objection to a guaranteed minimum income is rooted in the wisdom of public choice: The poor structure of government incentives ensures that good intentions and elegant theories rarely equal expected results in public policy. The biggest risk in implementing a guaranteed income is that it won't completely-or even partly-replace existing welfare programs, but instead simply add a new layer of spending on top of the old.
Her main objection is not the violation of the non-aggression principle, or the breakdown of property rights; her main objection is that government is just not very efficient at doing what it publicly claims it wants to do. If only government was more efficient. Then, of course, they could violate liberty better than ever before.
So what are libertarians to support?
Here it is; the money line. Please, Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, drop some libertarian wisdom on us. What should we support?
If nothing else, more research: We could use a new series of voluntary, dispersed trials aimed at finding ways to avoid work disincentives while delivering payouts more efficiently and tying the hands of special interests and politicians.
More research (funded by whom?); more trials (conducted by whom?); tying the hands of politicians (tied by whom?).
Can’t we support something much simpler, and – dare I say it – libertarian? Can’t we support the end to the legalized initiation of aggression?
The author closes with a statement that indicates at least a germ of awareness regarding the proper answer:
But more importantly, as economists Peter Boettke of George Mason University and Adam G. Martin of Kings College in London remind us in a recent paper, libertarians shouldn't forget that "the most robust protection against poverty comes from institutions that generate a harmony of interests rather than those that foment distributional conflicts."
The single-best institution that generates a harmony of interests is the free-market. I challenge any milquetoast libertarian to explain how it can be otherwise. Try initiating aggression and otherwise violating property rights and see if expanded harmony is the result.
How is it possible to claim libertarianism through violations of the non-aggression principle – no matter how efficient one might hope to make the violations?