How could a libertarian view—which generally believes in limited redistribution and limited government—ever support a basic income program (UBI), which redistributes tax revenues to the public through unconditional cash grants?
In their new work, Miranda Perry Fleischer and Daniel Hemel undertake a careful analysis of libertarian thought to identify the libertarian case for a UBI. The work first identifies the particular strains of libertarianism that would sanction a UBI. In particular, the authors argue that provision for a minimal level of material well-being is consistent with both minimal state libertarianism (for example, of Robert Nozick) as well as classical liberalism (for example, of Milton Friedman). Furthermore, libertarians would generally favor cash over in-kind transfers, since the former preserve individual autonomy and choice. The authors proceed to consider specific design choices for a UBI program from a libertarian perspective, and argue that a libertarian would prefer a grant that is not tied to work effort (due to a skepticism for state capacity to determine earning capacity) and would prefer an annual to a lump sum grant (since the latter will pay too much, or too little, depending on the recipient’s lifespan).
The work concludes by considering additional design choices for any basic income program. In particular, the authors address the design questions of the scope of the designated beneficiaries, the size of grant, the transfer programs that could be replaced, and whether the grant should phase out at higher income levels.
The authors insist you don’t have to be a libertarian to enjoy this work, which was true in my case. The work invites a pro-UBI coalition that will “encompass individuals with different philosophical commitments,” and suggests that “committed libertarians ought to be part of that coalition, and non-libertarians out to embrace them with open arms.”
The challenge with designing a UBI that would satisfy different philosophical commitments, however, largely boils down to setting a single critical variable: the size of the grant. A sufficiently large grant could meaningfully constrain economic inequality while ensuring equality of economic opportunity and individual autonomy, whereas a more parsimonious grant may amount to little more than an allowance or a bare subsistence for those left behind in an era of declining economic mobility.
Although the authors state that they only address views justifying a limited “sufficientarian” grant, even the different libertarian strands the authors identify could imply dramatic variance in the size of the UBI grant. For example, the authors suggest that minimal state libertarianism concerned with preventing the general public from storming the gated communities might warrant a bare subsistence grant of $200 a month for rent, $2 a day for food, and allowances for clothing and health insurance, amounting to a somewhere between $6,000 to $11,000 per year. Atlas tosses some crumbs.
The author’s acknowledge, however, that a classical liberalism justification grounded in the consent of individuals to the system of private property rights might warrant a higher UBI grant in order to induce that hypothetical consent from the less-well off. For example, it’s hard to imagine an individual consenting to receive $11,000 for the privilege of living in a society where others earn more than twice that amount every minute. And what if the individual would demand nothing less than complete inequality (even if to her own detriment) or to the Rawlsian maximin principle whereby inequality is only tolerated if it benefits the least-well off in society?
Finally, the authors suggest that UBI-like transfer may also be warranted under Nozick’s entitlement theory of “justice in holdings” which is central to much libertarian thought. Under this view, however, redistribution would be justified—and required—to rectify prior thefts. To take one example, an honest attempt to rectify the theft resulting from slavery in the United States—and its continuing consequences for the unequal distribution of economic resources today—could require compensatory grant substantially larger than $11,000 for descendants of injured parties. (And strict application of the successive just transfers premise would not accept a cursory objection of “that was long ago, and the immediately injured parties are gone as well.”)
Squint hard enough and certain libertarian arguments start to accord with those of an egalitarian or a liberal egalitarian.
The different possible outcomes under different strains of libertarianism are precisely what makes this work illuminating. In its various incarnations across decades and even centuries, UBI has appealed to proponents of different ideological and political stripes. This work illustrates how the shape of a UBI program could also vary—possibly even dramatically—under different strands of a single ideology. In this respect the work might have as much to say about libertarianism as it does about UBI, and illustrates how this facially cohesive body of thought could in fact lead to radically different policy prescriptions.
Stated differently, a libertarian UBI might find common ground with a liberal or a liberal egalitarian variant, but only at a place that may be unrecognizable to the more casual adherent of everyday libertarianism. Perhaps in the end, behind the philosophies, it’s always ultimately a question of how much.