Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Libertarians, Thick and BIG

Matt Zwolinski is out with his bleeding-heart argument, not only thick but BIG, as in Basic Income Guarantee: “The Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income Guarantee.”

In what follows, I will make the case for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) as a replacement for the current welfare state. There are a number of distinct ways of arguing from libertarian premises to a BIG, some of which I have discussed in the past.

Arguing from “libertarian premises” for a BIG; I look forward to a reasoned application of the non-aggression principle and property rights, being, you know, pretty important “libertarian premises.”  Pretty important, as in there is no such thing as “libertarian” without these premises.

I will focus on what I take to be the strongest and most persuasive libertarian argument.

That’s good, because I don’t want to waste time on the weakest and least persuasive arguments.

I will argue that a BIG, even if it is not ideal from a libertarian perspective, is significantly better on libertarian grounds than our current welfare state, and has a much higher likelihood of being achieved in a world in which most people reject libertarian views.

I might see how BIG might be better on conservative grounds, or make-government-more-efficient grounds, or I-want-to-be-accepted-at-Cato grounds, or acceptable-dialectic grounds…but libertarian grounds?  This should be interesting.

Matt proposes a $10,000 per year, unconditional cash grant to every American citizen over 21 years of age.  He then lists “four reasons why libertarians should support a BIG over the current American welfare state.”  He then closes “with some reflections on libertarian ideals and political compromise.”

Let’s see if he can do this half as well as Rothbard has regarding libertarian ideals and political compromise.

No libertarian would wish for a BIG as an addition to the currently existing welfare state.

That’s a relief.  So far, so good.

But what about as a replacement for it?

This might be a fiscal conservative’s argument for it (a naïve fiscal conservative, but a fiscal conservative nonetheless), but a libertarian’s argument?  Come on Matt, convince me.

Such a revolutionary overhaul of the welfare state would almost certainly require a constitutional amendment, both to insulate debate somewhat from the pleas and protests of special interests, and to make it considerably more difficult to renege on the deal afterwards.

Does the naïveté have to be revealed so early?  Matt, please do an analysis of current government actions relative to the insulation that the Constitution provides (I’m looking for the Constitutional provision that requires me to buy health insurance, for example), and then get back to us. 

So now to the four reasons:

Less Bureaucracy

Every one of the more than 126 federal welfare programs comes with its own bureaucracy, its own set of arcane rules, regulations, and restrictions, and its own significant (and rising) overhead costs. A BIG, in contrast, requires significantly less in terms of administrative expense. A program in which everyone gets a check for the same amount is simple enough to be administered by a computer program.

Matt, do you have any idea about how government bureaucracies work?  You are going to strangle a few hundred thousand employees and dozens of departments and 126 programs?  Really?  Reagan couldn’t even close the Department of Education – only a few years old when he said he would do it.  If you succeed at this dream, it will be the first time government has grown smaller (except for immediately after a war…temporarily) ever. 


Second, a BIG could be considerably cheaper than the current welfare state. How much cheaper depends on the details of the particular proposal. Some, like Murray’s, which involve a progressive tax on the BIG once a certain threshold of income is reached, appear to be considerably cheaper. Other analyses, like Ed Dolan’s, suggest only that a moderate BIG would not cost more than what we currently spend.

It “could” be cheaper, but it also could not be cheaper.  Do you really believe any scheme will result in the government spending less?  If the math says it is cheaper, you don’t think constituents will pound the doors to make the benefits bigger?  Or keep those government employees on the payroll, or lower the eligibility age, or give an additional amount per dependent, or something?

How many years has Cato been working on rolling back federal government spending?  Please point to a tangible success – one measured in dollars and cents.

Less Rent Seeking

A BIG, in contrast, allows virtually no room for bureaucratic discretion, and thus minimizes the opportunities for political rent-seeking and opportunism.

No room for bureaucratic discretion.  Name one government program that succeeds at this, naïve Matt.

Less Invasive / Paternalistic

One of the main differences between a BIG and the current welfare state is the unconditionality of the former. Under a BIG, everybody gets a check. Under the current welfare state, only people who meet the various stipulated qualifications are eligible for assistance.

Someone may want to check if every person receiving a check is actually…a person.  Congress would certainly want such a safeguard, not that the bureaucracy is capable of ensuring this, but they can pretend.

Matt demonstrates the same illness with which all proponents of an efficient state are afflicted: the belief that efficiency is possible.  It is not.  Without profit and loss, without the feedback that the market provides, efficiency is never possible.

Matt ends with a real laugher:

Utopia is Not an Option

By now you can probably guess that he uses this to bash libertarians who actually propose this thing called liberty; you would be correct.  However, the laugher is that Matt believes in the efficiency of government and the goodwill of those employed by government.  Talk about utopian.

Many libertarians believe that any redistribution of wealth by the state violates individual rights and is therefore morally impermissible.

Forcibly taking my property and giving it to someone else – Matt suggests this does not violate individual rights.

Libertarian theory is based on the non-aggression principle, grounded in property rights.  Any proposal that suggests violating this basis of libertarian theory is…well…a proposal, but it cannot be reconciled with libertarian theory.  Not one bleeding heart, thick, or humanitarian “libertarian” has taken me up on my challenge to reconcile the NAP with the blood they wish to shed or the force they wish to use to take my property.

Now the straw-men start coming out:

But we do not live in Libertarian Utopia, nor have any of its prophets yet produced any compelling plan for how to get There from Here.

This is so tired: Matt, show me a compelling plan to shrink the state – not a utopian one, but one that has actually worked at any time since…well, the collapse of a state.  One thing is certain: unless you discuss libertarian ideas, you have no chance to succeed at implementing libertarian ideas.

Moreover, most people are not libertarians, and so unless we are willing to impose our views on them by force, we must try to find policy proposals that can command the assent of those who do not share our fundamental moral commitments and empirical beliefs.

Matt, people will never become libertarians if you don’t expose them to actual libertarian ideas. 

Further, where are Matt’s “fundamental moral commitments and empirical beliefs”?  He is making a pragmatic argument (check the title), not a moral one.  If he had a moral commitment to libertarian principles he would not be making this argument at all.  If others do not share a commitment (moral or otherwise) to the NAP and property rights, they are not libertarian.

From this perspective, the question of social welfare policy becomes less an exercise in ideal theory and more a problem of comparative institutional analysis.

Every government program pretends to be a “problem of comparative institutional analysis.”  There is no libertarian theory behind such analysis – it is merely Matt’s opinion (based on whatever mental gymnastics he chooses to use) of a different (maybe more efficient) means of initiating coercion.

The question is not whether a BIG is a perfectly libertarian policy in every way, but whether it is more libertarian than the other realistically available policy alternatives.

It isn’t a “perfectly libertarian policy” in any way.  Replacing government power with government power – somehow this is more libertarian?  Matt checked his realism at the door when he first put these digits on his computer screen – a few hundred thousand federal workers and lobbyists are working against him even as we speak.

It gets better:

I also believe that a BIG need not be merely a compromise. Even in a Libertarian Utopia, in other words, I think there would be good reasons to provide a social safety net through the mechanism of a BIG.

So, using government coercion is not merely pragmatic, Matt insists it is not even a compromise with principle.

Matt then goes on to suggest we must move beyond Rand and Rothbard.  I will deal with the Rothbard part, who has dealt with every argument and every straw-man raised by Matt in this post – and has even (I know this will be a surprise to Matt, because if he was aware of it he certainly would have mentioned it) suggested a proper foundation for when compromise is acceptable within a libertarian framework.

Libertarians are utopians:

Every “radical” creed has been subjected to the charge of being “utopian,” and the libertarian movement is no exception.

Yes, even by so-called libertarians.

Rothbard goes on to identify the true utopian:

The true utopian is one who advocates a system that is contrary to the natural law of human beings and of the real world.  A utopian system is one that could not work even if everyone were persuaded to try to put it into practice.  The utopian system could not work, i.e., could not sustain itself in operation. 

Does Matt have a mirror handy?  In it he will find a true utopian, one who believes that limited government is possible.  A self-limiting legalized monopoly power backed by a gun is contrary to the nature of man. 

Further shedding light on who is more realistic, Rothbard offers:

The libertarian is also eminently realistic because he alone understands fully the nature of the State and its thrust for power.  In contrast, it is the seemingly far more realistic conservative believer in “limited government” who is the truly impractical utopian. 

Wait, that’s what I said.

This conservative keeps repeating the litany that the central government should be severely limited by a constitution….

Matt believes this!  Maybe someone should try it; oh, wait…it has already been tried:

The idea of a strictly limited constitutional State was a noble experiment that failed, even under the most favorable and propitious circumstances….

Matt, do you believe this generation is more capable of limiting a central government via a written constitution than the one that tried this 225 years ago?

No, it is the conservative laissez- fairist, the man who puts all the guns and all the decision-making power into the hands of the central government and then says, “Limit yourself”; it is he who is truly the impractical utopian.

I wish Rothbard would quit copying me….

Go ahead, Matt; offer some significant examples to prove Rothbard wrong.  Can’t do it, can you, you…you…utopian?

Rothbard does Matt’s work for him, offering a libertarian path toward intermediate steps:

Are “transitional demands,” steps toward liberty in practice, necessarily illegitimate? No…

See, Matt?  There is a way, if you would only shut off your institutional “hate Rothbard” gene.

How, then, can we know whether any halfway measure or transitional demand should be hailed as a step forward or condemned as an opportunistic betrayal?  There are two vitally important criteria for answering this crucial question: (1) that, whatever the transitional demands, the ultimate end of liberty be always held aloft as the desired goal; and (2) that no steps or means ever explicitly or implicitly contradict the ultimate goal.

I will not get into the application of criteria “2” offered by Rothbard; it isn’t necessary given that nowhere in Matt’s government-efficiency-program argument does he offer the ultimate goal, the means to get there, even a desire to get there.  Nowhere does he suggest that getting to an elimination of property-rights violations is desired.  It would be so easy to write it – a short paragraph – yet Matt cannot bring himself to do it.

Back to Matt and what is clearly a purposeful and coordinated campaign to define the word libertarianism out of existence – as has been done with the words freedom, liberty, conservative, liberal, money, individual:

We can, of course, define libertarianism however we wish….

It is Matt attempting to define libertarianism however he wishes.  Words have meaning, something the humanist Jeffrey Tucker also wishes to ignore.

Words have meaning; absent this, all that is left is grunting (wait a minute; that explains Matt’s post).


  1. Thanks for the article refernce. It's decades behind the times and ignores what is actually being done by Libertarians IMHO. For correct information on Libertarianism, see the LIO or Libertarian International Organization at www.libertarianinternational.org

    Libertarians have been working on BIG for decades. My father helped develop the pilot Alaska Permanent Fund and IRA's. Key, however, is funding is voluntary/based on common resources, and NOT managed by government officials. See OPERATION DIGNITY at the LIO link.


  2. Marvelous and urgently needed demolition job on Orwellian "Thick Libertarianism."

    "Thick Libertarianism?"

    What's that?

    Libertarianism for people too thick-skulled to understand what genuine libertarianism is?

  3. "It “could” be cheaper, but it also could not be cheaper. Do you really believe any scheme will result in the government spending less? If the math says it is cheaper, you don’t think constituents will pound the doors to make the benefits bigger? Or keep those government employees on the payroll, or lower the eligibility age, or give an additional amount per dependent, or something?"


    Even if we accept that this is indeed a great idea and needs to be implemented the realities of the political process will ensure that the initial idea will bear no resemblance to its final outcome.

    In order to get it through one would have to play the game; compromises would have to be made; palms would have to be greased; votes would have to be gathered. In the end what would be left is a partially aborted Frankenstein monster pillaging through the countryside. Then we'd spend decades reworking it, tweaking it, and massaging it only to have some new mastermind think up a whole new scheme and start the process all over again.

    How these people, who call themselves libertarian, are still under the delusion that the government actually works as we're conditioned to believe in school is beyond me. Do they believe in Santa Claus too?

  4. These libwaps should just come out of the closet and admit that they're left liberals.

  5. I really do think that a winning strategy - at least in the long run - is to promote the notion of self-ownership. People seem to already instinctively believe in self-ownership, if only for themselves. What they may lack is logical consistency in applying the notion of self-ownership, and the emotional acceptance of the logical conclusions of doing so.