Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Principled Case for Liberty?

Reason is the monthly print magazine of "free minds and free markets." It covers politics, culture, and ideas through a provocative mix of news, analysis, commentary, and reviews. Reason provides a refreshing alternative to right-wing and left-wing opinion magazines by making a principled case for liberty and individual choice in all areas of human activity.

Reason Foundation advances a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law.

Is Reason libertarian?  Yes. Reason Foundation's mission is to advance a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law.

I hope this is clear.  I hope this leaves no room for confusion.

Reason Magazine published almost 7000 words on “The Indestructible Idea of the Basic Income,” by Jesse Walker.  A “principled case for liberty and individual choice” based on “libertarian principles” would not take so many words to destruct this idea.

Yet, being Reason, you know it cannot be so simple…or principled. But, before we get there…the subtitle of the essay is telling:

Is this the only policy proposal Tom Paine, Huey Long, Milton Friedman, Timothy Leary, and Sam Altman can agree on?

A scary thought.

Let’s examine each of these individuals:

Thomas Paine was an English-American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary.

There was a “good” Thomas Paine and a “bad” Thomas Paine.  Walker cites the bad Thomas Paine:

Agrarian Justice, which was ultimately published in 1797, posited that "the earth, in its natural, uncultivated state was…the common property of the human race." Therefore, Paine argued, each landowner "owes to the community a ground-rent" to compensate the dispossessed for their loss. From those fees, "the sum of fifteen pounds sterling" should be paid to everyone when they turn 21, with another "ten pounds per annum" paid after they've turned 50.

The earth is the common property of all of humanity.  Common property: more closely associated to “libertarian principles” or communism?

Huey Pierce Long Jr., self-nicknamed The Kingfish, was an American politician who served as the 40th governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and as a member of the United States Senate from 1932 until his death by assassination in 1935.

Long's Share Our Wealth plan was established in 1934 under the motto "Every Man a King," also the title of his autobiography. It proposed new wealth redistribution measures in the form of a net asset tax on corporations and individuals to curb the poverty and homelessness endemic nationwide during the Great Depression.

Share Our Wealth?  Our Wealth?  This has what, exactly, to do with individual liberty?  Sounds more like communism.

Milton Friedman was an American economist who received the 1976 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his research on consumption analysis, monetary history and theory, and the complexity of stabilization policy.

Like Thomas Paine, there was a good Friedman and a bad Friedman; Walker cites the bad Friedman:

In the 1940s, Milton Friedman and George Stigler started exploring the concept of a negative income tax.

Friedman advocated a payment to those who paid no income tax – not a refund, a payment.

Timothy Francis Leary was an American psychologist and writer known for advocating the exploration of the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs under controlled conditions.

Leary believed that LSD showed potential for therapeutic use in psychiatry. He used LSD himself and developed a philosophy of mind expansion and personal truth through LSD. He popularized catchphrases that promoted his philosophy, such as "turn on, tune in, drop out", "set and setting", and "think for yourself and question authority".

I am not sure how any of this qualifies Leary to speak on the topic of basic income from a “principled libertarian” perspective.  He could speak on much that is libertine, but I am not sure about libertarian.

Samuel H. "Sam" Altman is an American entrepreneur, programmer, and blogger. He is the president of Y Combinator and co-chairman of OpenAI.

Apparently a very successful young entrepreneur.  As best as I can find, he is worth about $1 billion.  He could guarantee a basic income of $1000 per month for 20 years to over 4000 people.  That’s principled liberty and individual choice in action.

It is rather difficult to find joy in communion with these gentlemen on the idea of a basic income.

Yet Reason proceeds, undeterred.  The starting point of Walker’s examination was a Cato Institute sponsored discussion between two gentlemen, presumably on opposite ends of the political spectrum:

Andy Stern is a former president of the Service Employees International Union. Charles Murray may be America's most prominent right-wing critic of the welfare state.

Either a “principled libertarian”?

Walker identifies the range of possibilities when discussing this topic:

Some people want to means-test the checks so that only Americans below a certain income threshold receive them; others want a fully universal program, given without exceptions. Some want to replace the existing welfare state; others want to tack a basic income onto it. There have been tons of suggestions for how to fund the payments and for how big they should be. When it comes to the basic income, superficial agreement is common but actual convergence can be fleeting.

Is there any indication of preference for one scheme over another?  Might a self-described advocate for liberty and individual choice have a preference?  Is there a “principled libertarian” argument against any such scheme?  If so, you won’t find it in this essay.  Instead, we find a focus on “convergence,” a term used ten times to describe the (presumably) positive (in Reason’s eyes) meeting of the minds of left and right on this issue.

Instead, from Walker, we get advocacy for the program:

…it can cashify and combine programs.

By cashify, I mean taking a subsidy with strings attached—food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, anything like that—and instead simply send money to the people who qualify for it, letting them choose how to spend it.

Simply send people the money, no strings attached.  This is principled libertarianism?

Those programs might not converge all the way to a basic income, but they could at least become simpler, less intrusive, and less expensive.

Make government more efficient.  This is principled libertarianism?

Might there be a libertarian objection anywhere in these 7000 words?

Many libertarians dislike even Friedman's version of the idea, arguing that it won't displace the rest of the welfare state for long: Other programs could still creep back, leaving us with an even costlier system than before.

You think?  Please tell me: how many “other programs” were eliminated as a result of Friedman’s negative income tax?  Has government been made more efficient because of this scheme?

In any case, Walker offers (and quickly discards) only a pragmatic objection.  Is there a “principled” objection anywhere to be found?



For me, it all started with RUSH and 2112; this led me to Ayn Rand.  The other place it led was Reason Magazine.  I grew up intellectually with Rand and Reason as my first influences.

At the time, Murray Rothbard was a contributing editor of the magazine; he would regularly write columns for the magazine.  Perhaps this is why my recollection of this publication was, in the past, positive as it relates to developing my libertarian thought.

Eventually I quit reading the magazine; unbeknownst to me at the time, it turns out I quit sometime after Rothbard was no longer associated with it.  Given my understanding today of libertarianism, this doesn’t surprise me.

Thank God I am not growing up intellectually under its influence today.  I certainly wouldn’t be bionic.


  1. The Reason blog should be renamed "Hit and Miss".

    They will do some good pieces on police brutality, drug freedom, and what have you, making one think that he is reading a libertarian website.

    Then, before you know it, they will be giving respectful consideration for the UBI, shilling for the government vaccine program, promoting a porn star as some kind of exemplar of liberty, and doing other ridiculous things.

    1. I suspect a libertarian would find about an equal proportion of "hit and miss" when reading National Review or Huffington Post.

      A sad indictment.

    2. The good pieces are usually on easy topics that by and large don't offend anyone, particularly donors and the government. The good articles don't prevent Reason's staff from being invited to those kinds of parties in D.C. and New York.

  2. A guaranteed income tax, how will it even be distributed, all 18yo and older? Regardless if living independently, with minor dependents? Etc. A bureaucracy still needed to manage.
    I could go with the scheme only as an intermediate step to get rid of all welfare programs ...
    I began laughing. As it that was going to happen?!!!

  3. Ah the beltway boys. Their odious rag eschews the air of liberty for the odious fumes of Mordor. I sure wish stopping real-life socialism was as easy as Frodo's job in the book. I'd gladly give my ring finger to make it all go away.

  4. Typical of Reason. I remember reading it in the 70's when it truly was principled. Somewhere in the 80's and 90's it tried to become relevant. When Virginia Postrel was running it, it went off the rails. I cancelled. They asked me why and I told them I thought they were writing fluff. I think it was Nick Gillespie who answered me, defensively. I now rarely read their stuff, and I never suggest that anyone subscribe, lest they think libertarianism is a form of benevolent communism.

    1. The progressive mother of a former girlfriend told me that Reason's overall perspective was "too harsh" after I had given her a couple of editions back in 1995!

      Liberty Mike

  5. Perhaps the problem is that the term libertarian is only meaningful in a political sense and that there is really no such thing as a libertarian (idea or person).
    The Libertarian party seems to have become, in my opinion, a container for socialists, anarchists, and various other philosophies at war with each other.
    Still, the fundamental ideas as I understand, of freedom and limitation of government occur to me whenever I encounter the term, but soon I am reminded of what the party has become, and I have difficulty identifying any universal respect for or adherence to any principles.
    Open borders, checks for everybody, and free body piercings... That's what I call liberty.

    1. 1. No there are very much things called "libertarians." It's not that hard to define.
      2. Again, confusing the LP with libertarianism.

    2. So, the distinction is between those who are identified as libertarians and those who actually are libertarians. Then the question becomes, what is the point of being 'libertarian' if not to engage politically nor to publish (promote) it?
      And, what exactly do you claim is a libertarian?

    3. "Then the question becomes, what is the point of being 'libertarian' if not to engage politically nor to publish (promote) it?"

      The NAP is derived from fundamental principles like "humans act purposefully" and self ownership. It is a moral definition as much as it is a political position. I focus mostly on the morality of not personally infringing on other's rights. If there were no other purpose, that would be enough for me.

      However, it also gives perspective in political discussions. I avoid the ambiguous term libertarian in discussions outside groups like these. I find my arguments are readily understood and accepted with no libertarian theory at all. Without using the term, no one has any trouble understanding NAP violations are "bad". The twisted justifications that follow are simple to dismantle as long as the debate remains unemotional.

  6. Bionic, something tells me that aou are against Universal Basic Income for some wrong reasons. I mean, more reasons than the only reason compatible with libertarianism: that UBI implies theft.
    For, if UBI could be financed without any sort of theft, then a real libertarian should not oppose it. Not at all. Unless he thought that giving money for free was harmful to individuals and, therefore, harmful to the culture and to mankind at large. But then you would have added something to the NAP only version of libertarianism... and you would not be a real libertarian anymore, right?
    Please, don't break my heart. Tell me whether your are really a Thin Libertarian who doesn't care what evil happens to human beings as long as they don't wrongfully use force, or a fake Thin Libertarian that secretly aspires to a universal moral redemption of humanity, in addition to a strict and rational adherence to the non-aggression principle.
    On my part, I am only against violence-based UBI. I don't care if a libertarian UBI (assuming it is possible, which might be, depending on how you define income and money) induces people to kill themselves.
    And Reason Magazine should go to Hell, IMHO.

    1. Please describe a universal basic income that doesn't involve theft, some way that "something for nothing" does not require the forceful taking from those who have produced the "something" to those who have produced nothing.

      As to thick or thin libertarianism, I have written on this far to much to count. Libertarian theory is thin; libertarian requirements are thin.

      Life is thick; libertarian theory does not offer a roadmap for life.

    2. I can't speak to what Lady Albatross is talking about, but in my country (Australia) there could easily have been a no-tax regime and a cash gift to citizens (a UBI, I suppose) that did not involve theft.

      The government owns most of the mineral wealth here, and it was no homesteaded previously by others so it is hard to say that the government "stole" it from anyone (certainly no individual owner could be identified, or even claims ownership).

      However we do have taxes in Australia. Quite oppressive, heavy taxes because Australian have to fund immigration into Australia. The figures are hidden but I would not be surprised if it takes well over 50% of our tax revenues like Denmark.

    3. Matt, I also have no idea what Lady Albatross is getting at (“a libertarian UBI (assuming it is possible, which might be, depending on how you define income and money)”). What does this mean? Anyway, I didn’t expect a reply from her, and so far she hasn’t disappointed.

      As to your point: to address this point, I will avoid the topic of the state as a legitimate institution.

      Forgive the several questions – I know some people get turned off by this.

      Base a universal basic income on commodity prices? Have you seen a more volatile segment than commodities when it comes to prices? How stable will that income stream be? What will happen in years where prices are low? Do you think they will tap into the general fund?

      With that out of the way…

      First, Australian petroleum: “The PRRT is a profit based project tax. It is applied at a rate of 40% to a project’s taxable profit and is based on assessable receipts less general project expenditure, project exploration expenditure and project exploration expenditure transferred in from other associated PRRT projects.”

      After this, income tax is still applied.


      What’s left? In other words, the state is already taking a majority of the profit, or close to it.

      Regarding minerals, these companies already lose money about as often as they make money. From where will regular payments come?

      Alternatively, where oil is a state “owned” commodity, we find the worst despots – Venezuela, Saudi Arabia as two examples. How is this working out?

      But, maybe if we get saints running the system?

      The closest example to a functioning system is the Alaska Permanent Fund. It is also a state where the “oil to population” ratio is extremely favorable – most of the world has no such luxury.

      Its annual payments have varied widely – ranging from $300 to $2000 per year per eligible person.

      From this, you can base a successful UBI program?

    4. Beats me. I'm not going to get into utilitarian arguments, or considerations about what the "best" payment is. All I can say is that there is sufficient wealth here in Australia and that under different circumstances there would be zero taxes and also a cash gift.

      Under the current circumstances that obviously isn't the case.

    5. Matt, you are the one who raised the possibility.

      My only point is that there isn't enough money in so-called natural resources (and certainly not at a stable price) by which to pull this off, even in the most resource-rich and population poor environments.

  7. I supposed the UBI can be accomplished by setting up what churches call a benevolence fund. All who want to contribute to the fund can do so voluntarily. The funds can be disbursed on a per capita basis.
    The problem is that there will be costs, unless all labor is volunteer and buildings, capital etc. are donated. Is the disbursement to all, all over a certain age, etc.
    If all other welfare programs are abolished, something like that could work in a perfect environment.
    Still searching for the perfect, thin, environment.

  8. Without taxes and the massive monetary inflation of central banks, production increases and technological advances would rapidly depress the costs of a basic living: food, shelter, safety. Even today automation is reducing the workforce needed to produce/provide these essentials.

    The concept of a UBI is only valid under an authoritarian system. Even ignoring the costs, the implementation would necessarily give the distributors knowledge of every individual in the program, and a significant amount of power over those individuals. There is no libertarian argument to support it.