Monday, May 08, 2006

The Friendly Version

Understandably, the hostile version ruffled a few feathers. I hope some of you enjoyed the post all the same. But let me now offer a friendlier presentation of the right-wing arguments for a UBI.

Dear Right-Winger,

It must get awfully irritating to continually suffer Leftists accusing you of having an inadequate conception of justice. But I have good news for you! The predominant right-wing theories of justice are all far more substantial than Lefties typically realize. (Indeed, most right-wingers even sell themselves short here.) I bet you can't wait to see the Lefty's air of smug superiority falter upon hearing you explain how you too are committed to the institution of an unconditional basic income! The precise explanation will differ depending on the ideological basis for your commitment to capitalism, so I'll explore the alternatives in turn.

Let's begin with the deontologists. A very common right-wing thesis is that individuals can only be morally bound by negative duties, or duties of non-interference. If you affirm the fundamental importance of negative liberty in such a way, then liberals get all huffy and attack you for having an impoverished conception of freedom, or they dismiss your system of rights as an "empty formality" that's insufficient to protect the vital interests of persons.

Next time a liberal tries to paint you as this straw monster, feel free to throw back at them my post on significant negative duties. It shows how a fundamental commitment to non-interference can have very substantial consequences indeed. Libertarians who take liberty as their fundamental value have the theoretical resources to rival any leftist's concern for the poor. This might stem from their recognition that enforcement of property rights -- though a vital precondition for a flourishing society -- entails a socially-imposed unfreedom for the poor. They will thus want to do what they can to alleviate this imposition; and the freedom granted by the UBI would be a great way to achieve this.

Propertarians (libertarians who take self-ownership as their fundamental value) might be skeptical of the above reasoning. But other arguments remain open to them. For instance, they can appeal to the principle that demands of morality must be reasonable demands. Since it would not be reasonable to ask a starving man - who has exhausted all other means to meeting his basic needs - to sit back and die rather than appropriating surplus goods from a rich man's holdings, it cannot be the case that the starving man has such a duty. So the rich man cannot have any absolute right to his property that would entail such a duty.

Now, we want to institute a defensible system of property rights. But the only way we can achieve this is if we take pre-emptive measures to ensure that the kind of "unreasonable" situation described above will be avoided. So even though you wouldn't countenance the incoherent notion of a positive moral right to welfare, you have sufficient grounds - based entirely on legitimate libertarian reasoning and negative rights - to institute a positive legal right to welfare. Paradoxical though it may sound, you should institute the UBI to protect your property rights. With it, your post-tax holdings will be rightly inviolable. Without it, there is no such guarantee.

Around this point, the squawking Lefty might return to his straw monster: "I thought you propertarians all held that taxation is theft, effectively indistinguishable from enslavement and forced labour!" Just laugh patiently, and remind him that it's only theft to take another's rightful possessions, and that you're addressing the prior question of how much of our holdings we have by right.

A crucial Right-Wing principle here is the Lockean Proviso, which entails that property owners owe compensation to the propertyless who are deprived access to material resources that would otherwise be available to them. You still insist that individuals own their labour, of course. But their resulting property is not solely composed of labour; it also involves material components. And your appropriation of those natural resources harmfully interferes with others, as explained above, and thus violates their negative rights. So the right-wing principle of rectification for past injustices straightforwardly entails the duty to recompense others. Again, the most reliable way to effect this rectification would be through the institution of a UBI. (Just imagine how the Lefty's eyes will pop when you explain this to him!)

So that's the deontologists sorted. Let's now turn to the utilitarians. I must admit, I like you guys better. In fact, I am one myself. We have some empirical disagreements, of course, which is why I'm slightly further left than you. But we share the fundamental commitment to not letting ideological fetishes get in the way of good policy that will improve lives. Now, there are a host of reasons to think that a moderate UBI could improve most people's lives -- I review some of them here.

What I want to do now is address the committed free-market ideologue, who insists that a perfectly free market is the best possible system. Let me begin by noting that to some extent I share your respect for markets (though I can't rival your enthusiastic optimism), and wish more leftists did too. However, I think the UBI is a crucial complement and precondition for a well-functioning market, for reasons explained in the linked post.

But even if you don't buy that, and continue to hold that a pure free market is ideal, still you should support the UBI as a step in the right direction. It is obviously a huge improvement on standard welfare schemes, with their perverse incentives and subsequent "poverty trap" -- problems of which right-wingers are all very aware (though leftists too rarely listen). Further, as explained in my post 'Basic Income for the Economy's Sake', the UBI would offer workers sufficient protection that minimum wage laws and other pernicious labour regulations could be completely done away with. Even if not ideal, it would at least bring us much closer to your ideal of the free market. Surely the combination of market + UBI is much preferable to the tangled mass of regulations and state-subsidized benefits that currently beset our economic system.

So join such right-wing luminaries as Milton Friedman, Charles Murray, and the philosophers at Right Reason, and support the UBI. (You may prefer to call it a "negative income tax", but so long as it does the same thing, I'm not worried about the name.) Brush off the straw, spread these arguments, and prove to liberals that they don't have a monopoly on justice. The depth of your own theories commits you to no less.



  1. Just out of curiosity. Why do you see libertarians as right-wing? Is that a New Zealand thing?

  2. Just to add, I recognize your definition of right wing as anyone who rejects a minimum income. But I've noticed in many posts you tend to portray the more libertarian positions as typically right wing whereas in America libertarians tend to lay in a kind of no-man's land between the right and the left. One can find libertarians in both "wings" yet it seems both the right and the left in America typically do view there to be very positive duties and not just the libertarian negatives. (Indeed Bush's Wilsonian adventures can be seen as a manifestation of this positive sense of justice)

    I put this here rather than the other set of comments so as to not thread jack. I'm just wondering if you could perhaps outline the political situation where you live so we readers not familiar with your context can get a bit more understanding of what you are railing against.

  3. Yeah, my impression was that the distinction is primarily economic, with right-wingers seeing themselves as staunch defenders of capitalism (as free market libertarians surely do), and left-liberals tending to favour more state-sponsored social programmes, welfare, etc. I don't think I'm entirely idiosyncratic in seeing things this way; the Political Compass quiz does likewise, for example, by adding a second "social authoritarianism" dimension where libertarians and leftists are together in opposition to conservatives.

    As for why I focus more on libertarians than conservatives, it's unclear to me whether the latter actually have any systematic political philosophy that one can engage with. Insofar as they have any reasons at all for their economic positions, I assume they'll be covered by the discussion above. (And their social positions tend to be so transparently awful as to not require any counter-argument at all. Though I have discussed anti gay marriage arguments before.) Also I read more libertarian blogs, so tend to have more exposure to their ideas. (This latter point is probably more important than my nationality. I'm not much involved in local politics.)

  4. What about the Burkean conservative or traditionalist argument, which cautions against doing away with complex social institutions that have developed over time to fill important but sometimes difficult to identify roles in our society? These people love tangled masses, and are suspicious of attempts to sweep them away and replace them with neat, clean ideas that sound wonderful (even utopian) in theory but could easily turn into disappointments when confronted with reality. Unintended consequences and all of that.

    Now, this approach is more commonly used to argue against the imposition of the welfare state (or the "nanny state"), so it doesn't strike me as very right-wing to instead use it to support the existing welfare state against replacement by a UBI. But I think that there actually might be something to this argument (or at least a more moderate version of it). I'd like much more information about what other welfare programs the UBI would be replacing, along with arguments for why it would be at least an adequate replacement. Murray, for instance, seems to run with the UBI idea in some crazy directions, suggesting that earmarking a portion of each person's UBI for medical expenses would somehow be just about all that the government needs to do to produce an effective health care system.

  5. As a moderate right-wing libertarian (i.e. believing that some level of taxation is a necessary evil), I fully support the UBI on efficiency grounds. As you note, when combined with the repeal of many existing welfare programs and regulations, it reduces net government intervention in the market compared to the convoluted mess we have now. Seems like a win-win scenario to me.

  6. Brian - that's good!

    Blar - such caution could reasonably recommend to us that we make piecemeal reforms, "one step at a time", rather than sudden upheavals of the entire system. I'm fine with that. I don't see it as an argument for total stagnation, however.

  7. gc grad student5:02 am, May 11, 2006


    I'm definitely in favor of a Minimum Wage (This is perhaps not quite the same as a UBI, or is it? Is the UBI guaranteed to even those who had property but lost it all due to poor choices or lack of effort? Is it owed to prisoners who have commited violent crimes?)

    However, I think your arguments for the UBI, particularly those against 'Propertarianism', are not nearly so strong as you seem to think. You claim that the Lockean Proviso shows how those without property have a right to rectification against the rich. However, the Lockean Proviso only proves that those who aquire property rights over resources who do not leave 'enough and as good' for others do not thereby rightly own what they aquire. Thus, the Proviso only allows us to conclude that we have a right to rectification against some owners, for example companies that have monopolized on natural resources like oil companies, mine owners, timber companies, etc. Now, I can see that a Propertarian must admit that it is therefore acceptable and indeed right to tax the companies that use such resources and then spend the money on the public. However, this does not make it acceptable to tax all wealthy people or all owners For instance, Steve Jobs (Founder of Apple), who became wealthy without aquiring property in a way that violated the Proviso should not be taxed on the basis of the Proviso. Jobs never aquired resouces that I wanted or that anyone else wanted. He didn't really take opportunites or resources from anyone, and thus what he aquired he rightly owns. It seems reasonable to me that the majority of rich people in this country became rich by aquiring property while leaving 'enough and as good for others'. Thus taxing all of the wealthy is not justified by the Proviso, as you say it is.

    Now the money raised by taxing those who are in violation of the Proviso should be spent on the public. But why spend it in the form of a UBI for all people? Would there be enough money from such tax for a UBI? Why not spend the money on public education, welfare, roads, etc? (Money can be spent on helping people become wealthy instead of on handouts. You know the saying; Feed a man to fish...)

  8. GC - minimum wage is completely different. As explained in previous posts, the UBI is not linked to work. It is received by every citizen, unconditionally. This includes everyone from full-time parents, students, bums, and millionaires. (You might exclude prisoners from the class of "citizens", or perhaps require them to pay victim compensation. Such details are of little importance here.) Concerns about reciprocity and free-riders are discussed here.

    Judging by your response, you don't appear to have actually read my arguments about the Lockean Proviso, and how recognition of future generations effectively means that any appropriation will fail to leave "enough and as good" as before. Again, see here. The point is that it is impossible to rightly acquire an absolute property right in material objects. The most that can be justified is a conditional right, whereby one pays some public tax in return for the remainder of one's post-tax holdings to be treated as inviolable (until the next tax bill). If this is the strongest title allowed to the original appropriator, it is the most they can pass along to Steve Jobs when contracting with him.

    "But why spend it in the form of a UBI for all people?"

    A libertarian might argue that it would be paternalistic for the state to spend ("on their behalf") what is owed to other individuals. I'm a utilitarian so I simply point to all the good consequences.

    "Money can be spent on helping people become wealthy instead of on handouts."

    False contrast. You know the saying: "it takes money to make money". People can spend their UBI on investments, or better education, or whatever else they might need.

  9. Interesting Richard. I do agree that conservatives as a whole don't have a coherent ideology. Certainly there are some libertarians among conservatives and perhaps conservatives in general have libertarian tendencies. But most conservatives I know are pretty skeptical about ideological libertarianism. That is the kind you tend to find in philosophy arguments. They put practical concerns and efficiency above ideology. Given that it is perhaps understandable why there are disagreements.

    Now I tend to see the problem of UBI are one of efficiency and effectiveness. That is the empirical question. What would be the effects on growth, on business, on GDP and so forth? But your approach is philosophical. And I may well agree with many of your arguments but my conservativism comes out of a deep distrust of practical implementation of most utopia schemes. (And I see UBI as an example of a utopian scheme) But I admit that I also don't think libertarians are necessarily opposed to UBI. For instance I've seen libertarians arguing for a simplified progressive tax code that would include negative tax for the poor. Which appears to me pretty similar to what you're arguing.

  10. "efficiency and effectiveness" are utilitarian concerns, of course, so I'm sympathetic to that. I don't have any economic expertise, so can't speak much to the empirical question, but there does seem to be a lot that can be said (prima facie) in favour of the UBI on utilitarian grounds, as described in my earlier posts.

  11. Richard,

    I am a conservative that leans libertarian in domestic policy - with a few exceptions. My misgivings as to the UBI tend to be practical/empirical, not theoretical. I agree that the free market produces winners and losers - and that we should have some sort of "safety net" to ensure that the losers can recover. The issue seems to be what is the appropriate level which minimizes the perverse incentives (free rider, etc.) and maximizes individual economic output and freedom of choice.

    I have some questions that remain unanswered on your UBI thoughts:

    1. What, if anything, do you think that the the UBI would/should replace? It seems that you imply that it would replace all other welfare programs.

    - All federal and state programs, or just federal? Would we get rid of federalism with respect to welfare? My concern is that federalism allows the 50 states to experiment empirically the theoretical ideas - like UBI.

    - What about education? I have no issues as to giving individuals the choice as to whether they want to use their money for X or Y, empowering them to take personal responsibility for their actions. The problem is your current arguments clearly assume that all individuals make their own decisions - with attendant consequences - for themselves. But what about minors? Does the UBI replace government education funding, leaving it to the parents to decide what, if any, formal education their children should receive? On this issue I believe that the government (federal or state, with a preference for state) needs to be paternalistic and set a minimum required level of education that would give minors the minimum skills that they would need to succeed in the future economy. This does not mean, however, that I belive the government should have a monopoly on providing education (I do not). However, they should set the minimum required standard. Parents could even homeshool and pocket the "school" UBI - as long as their kids are tested and meet the minimum standard of knowledge for their age-group. So does education get paid out of the UBI? If so, do parents get an increased UBI depending on the number of children they have, to pay for education?

    more issues follow.

  12. 2. Social Security. Does UBI replace Social Security as well? Do we allow individuals to determine the level of savings, if any, that they would need to have a minimum living during retirement? It seems to me that without a paternalistic system that requires a minimum level of savings, many will not. What will happen when they can no longer work? Too bad, so sad - they should have saved more? Do we allow them to live in unacceptable conditions - or die? Or does the level of UBI that you envision ensure the elderly a minimum standard of living? I saw that you have not put a number on the UBI, but you linked to someone who said $10,000 per adult over 21. Assuming that the number is inflation-adjusted, is that number sufficient to maintain a minimum standard of living? Maybe so for retirees that pool their UBI. But what number do you envision?

  13. Richard,

    It seems to me that theoretically, the UBI you propose MIGHT have the beneficial consquences that you forsee. But then again, maybe not. My concerns are with the situations where it is more difficult for individuals to determine the appropriate trade-offs, because the pros and cons are are not easily compared. For example, is it better for a parent to use all their UBI to start up a business (and not educate their children formally) - thinking the best way to ensure their kid's future is to hand off an income producing business? Or, is it better to use that UBI money to start the business instead of saving for retirement at all? My point is that a complete UBI with no paternalistic requirements may have numerous unintended consequences. I focus on education and social security because I think that these two areas are probably the ones where trade-offs are the most difficult to compare for individuals.

    Theoretically, you make a good argument, but so does Karl Marx. Unfortunately, Marx's assumptions on human nature are not realistic, so he arrives at conclusions and a social/economic system that is a failure in the real world. In the UBI case, I think that the devil is in the details, and without those details, I cannot determine what your assumptions about human behavior are when arrayed with different choices, especially with respect to the education and social security welfare systems, which I believe have a large propensity for individuals to undervalue/underfund. Therefore, without more details, your theoretical UBI cannot be tested empirically. And without being able to test the theory, it becomes a risky proposition for a conservative like myself. It seems to me that the more you agree with me on the need for paternalism in some situations, the less choice/freedom we give individuals, and the more the system looks like the current welfare system (but without the required government monopoly in providing these services, which suits me just fine ;-). The less you agree that government should impose paternalistic controls over the UBI, the more risk there will be that individuals will not properly value/fund those areas whose benefits accrue decades later.

    Just trying to explain a "non-evil" utilitarian/empirical conservative rationale for why I view your UBI idea with skepticism.

  14. Thanks for the thoughtful questions! I leave the details of implementation as open questions, as I think there's plenty of room for reasonable disagreement there. But I'm happy to offer some tentative suggestions below. I do agree with you that the crucial question is how big to make the UBI. (I take it you agree that some small UBI would be better than none at all.) In particular:

    - I like the idea of replacing all other welfare programs, if that would be feasible. There may need to be some exceptions (especially if the UBI is not enough to live off), but at least it could reduce the need for those less efficient systems.

    - I don't know much about the U.S. federal system, so I've no idea how best to implement the UBI there.

    - Education standards seem an independent issue from government funding. You can still have the former without the latter. Also, note that the UBI is defined to be unconditional on the recipient's particular circumstances (e.g. whether they are parents). Everyone gets the same amount, no questions asked. That's why it's so tidy and efficient. So there's no question of giving parents an "increased UBI". Rather, we might supplement the UBI (if it isn't enough to pay for education) by giving parents some other special benefits in addition, e.g. school vouchers. Or government might continue to directly fund public schools as they do at present. There are many possibilities here, and it would take closer investigation to settle which option would be best.

    - I don't have any set number in mind, but around $10-15k sounds promising. If that's not enough for any particular group (be they parents, the elderly, or disabled, etc.) to live off then that group may require special benefits. I would expect most individuals to be able to save enough to have a comfortable retirement when supplemented by the UBI. I think there's something to be said for personal responsibility. But again, paternalists could reasonably support the UBI whilst also supporting a forced savings program, or whatever.

    - In general, the UBI could be implemented in a more or less radical fashion. If you want to retain many of our present paternalistic institutions then you might support a less radical UBI. You should still support this over no UBI at all. You might just want a smaller UBI (perhaps a couple of thousand dollars p.a.) and a moderate reduction in other welfare payouts, rather than total replacement of one with the other. That would still be an improvement, and if it works well then further reforms in that direction might follow. I'd be quite happy to institute the UBI via piecemeal reforms, one step at a time, and have your support at least for the first step or two.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)