A Libertarian Argument for the Basic Income Guarantee

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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252 Responses

  1. I like the idea of a GMT/BIG, but here are my objections that Zwolinski doesn’t address, at least not in the article to which he linked at Bleeding Hearts Libertarians:

    1. Inflationary concerns: if everyone gets a check–as some of the plans Zwolinski mentions provide–there will be inflation. Not necessarily bad, but needs to be accounted for.

    2. The compromises necessary to obtain it: I’m all for a GMT and for many of the reasons Zwolinski offers–it decreases paternalistic requirements for welfare among them–but what if the only thing enactable is actually a vast reduction of most welfare supports but a modest GMT that in practice is barely enough, or not enough, to realize the reduction on those supports?

    3. Perverse effects that might arise from the most likely plan, which I take to be a more robust EIC (as opposed to other GMT plans on offer): people will have to wait for their end-of-year tax refund/EIC check, so they’ll have to borrow against it, at interest, and so there will be rent-seeking after all that Zwolinski does not mention: from the lenders who get a certain percentage, perhaps a large percentage, of the GMT right off the top.

    4. Along with rule #3, a redistribution of wealth to the middle and upper classes: it is those classes most likely to be able to enjoy the EIC (or GMT, or whatever) check in its entirety, while others might have to balance that against loans a la payday lender variety.

    5. A return to paternalism: perhaps a GMT, to be truly fair, will require something like weekly reporting of one’s activities, and perhaps close surveillance of one’s own daily habits, to determine whether one is truly working working and therefore deserves the GMT (of course, this assumes that my concern #1–inflation because of a check given to everybody, mostly doesn’t happen).

    To be clear, I’m not hostile to the idea–it’s how it might work in practice. Would it be better than current safety nets? Maybe. Maybe not. I’d want other supports along with it (some sort of universal healthcare provision, and maybe guarantee of housing), but keeping those supports seems to militate against Zwolinski’s arguments for the GMT.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      I see #5 happening because of the rare (but it’d be EXCEPTIONALLY well-publicized) instance of someone showing up and pointing out that they’re out of money on day two or three and they still need to pay their rent and buy food.

      Heaven forbid that this happen when there are children in the house as well. Surely we don’t need to deal with that example.

      Anyway, what happens when the person points out that he or she has truly screwed him or herself over in the first couple of days?Report

      • Murali in reply to Jaybird says:


        If the BIG comes in every week, this would be less serious of a problem. Presumably, he can also take some sort of payday loan which will tide him over until the next cheque comes in. If a person is too feckless to manage even that, he is not fit to raise kids.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

        I suppose… we could have apartment complexes used to the idea of renting weekly rates rather than monthly on top of that.

        For the record, I generally support the idea of a GMI/BIG/Whatevs but I know that there will be a bad apple who will ruin it for everybody and paternalism will sneak in for the sake of, among others, the children.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Jaybird says:


        But he may very well have kids regardless of whether he’s fit to raise them. What then?

        I’m probably coming off as an anti-GMT scold in these comments. Truth is, I like the idea, but I’m suspicious of how it will work in practice and think that in the American context, the most likely scenario will function as a defunding of welfare supports with a very modest GMT I guess what would make me happy is a GMT + other supports. But from Zwolinski’s point of view, or at least from the point of view of many of his fellow libertarians whose support he’s trying to win, that’s more or less the status quo.Report

      • Murali in reply to Jaybird says:

        Take his kids away from him.Report

    • North in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      With regards to #1 I’d hazard that if there was serious inflationary concerns then that’d indicate that we aren’t economically to the point where we could afford it. That said we are shelling out significant per person outlays (very significant if you consider everything that the government is doing rather than just safety nets) and inflation is prostrate. So I suspect that we’re either close to or past the point where the economy has the muscle to support a GMT.

      #2 The thing to remember is that the idea of a GMT/EIC is that you get it regardless. So it may not be very good all by itself but if you add even part time work income on top of it you end up with something rather humane and that’s a pretty good thing.

      #3 Nothing says it has to be paid out in one lump sum. It we’re thinking of it as an employment credit then yes but the system could be designed to pay out monthly if it was found to be more useful. This also addresses #4 & #5 in my opinion.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to North says:

        #1, I’d say good point.

        #2: I just don’t know if what in practice would be enacted would be enough, especially if the price of enacting it is to end the other supports, and for Zwolinski, ending the other supports is one reason to do it (not, to be fair, because he wants to do away with all supports, but because of the restricted opportunities current supports offer). In sum, part of my #2 objection is that it would be too stingy. Maybe not, though, but I don’t think that in practice, a GMT would work on its own.

        #3: I think a lump sum is most likely, but maybe I’m wrong. I guess I find myself in favor of a contradiction. I want means testing because I don’t want middle-class people to get the GMT, but I don’t particularly want the paternalist-style regulations and measures that means testing requires.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to North says:

        +1 to all parts of North. I don’t think inflation would be a big problem at this point, but it remains the main concern IMO. And to combat benefit fall-off disincentives I think you just want to send out a flat amount to everyone regardless, and then adjust the tax code in view of to get the progressivity how you want it.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to North says:

        …And I can’t see any reason to think that in the improbable world where this is a possibility, that a yearly payment is that much more likely than monthly. Welfare benefits are generally monthly as is.Report

      • Kim in reply to North says:

        as is shopping, most places where welfare is king.Report

    • James K in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


      On your point 1, government spending doesn’t cause inflation – deficit spending causes inflation. If the BIG is paid for by diverting money from baselines or by raising taxes then there will be no inflationary impact.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James K says:

        If, in fact, the GMI costs less than the current spending on welfare, it would actually reduce government spending overall.* It could even reduce government deficit spending, if they didn’t decide to just match the previous spending amounts by shifting the savings to building mini-waterparks in every American town.
        *I guess in some people’s mind, this reduction in spending would mean doom for the economy. I’d be willing to wager not, though.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to James K says:

        I’m willing to concede the point about inflation because I don’t understand the economics well enough and those who do seem to disagree.Report

    • Morat20 in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      nflationary concerns: if everyone gets a check–as some of the plans Zwolinski mentions provide–there will be inflation. Not necessarily bad, but needs to be accounted for.

      No. Or rather “not always” or even “sometimes yes, sometimes no”.

      Look, if you fund it in a purely redistributive way, then there’s no more money in the economy than before. If you fund it out of deficit spending, only if borrowing starts crowding out private spending .

      In short, you’d only need to worry about inflation if the economy was at or close to full employment — and even then, the Fed has plenty of tools to put a break on it — and you wouldn’t have to worry about REAL inflation (like the 70s) unless you got a wage-price spiral going.

      That’s….really unlikely, actually. Heck, full employment is probably a pipe dream at the moment.

      Without full employment, you wouldn’t get a wage-price spiral. Without an economy going flat-out, you’re not crowding out private investment with deficit spending (given that a basic income would be a fairly small outlay, compared to GDP).Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Morat20 says:

        In my ideal world, BIG would actually be a program that we would authorize the Fed to administer. Or, more accurately, to administer the financing of. ( @james-pearce call your editor’s office.) Congress would authorize the Fed to send out the payments paid for via printing, set a range of adjustment to the amount sent out (and the formula for inflation-pegging of the basline amount), and instruct them to adjust monetary policy accordingly to maintain the traditional dual-mandate under those conditions. I’m guessing we’d have to settle for slightly higher baseline inflation, but that preference would put me only in the moderate-dovish wing of the current actually-existing set of Fed governors. So it would be okay.

        In the case of hyperinlfation, the Fed would be empowered to significantly cut the benefit in addition to their other powers, which would suck, but then hyperinflations suck, so that’s just how it would/might have to be.

        I might be completely ignorant as to why this couldn’t work, but something like this approach is actually how I’d like to see it done, unless someone can tell me why it is an absolute nonstarter practically speaking.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Morat20 says:


        No, no, no, please no. Agencies work best when they have a clear purpose. If you give this to the Fed, you are adding a new purpose to their existing purpose(s). From a public administration perspective, this is not a good idea.

        This is why I suggest either the IRS, the SSA, or a new single purpose agency. The IRS handles money, including taking money in and sending it out. If this was handled as a form of negative income tax, it would be right up the IRS’s alley. If it’s handled as a form, or even replacement, of Social Security, it’d be right up the SSA’s alley.

        Let’s let the Fed keep focusing on pulling their heads out of their asses and figuring out whether they’re going to focus on employment, inflation, or as Scott Sumner recommends, nominal GDP.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      Along with rule #3, a redistribution of wealth to the middle and upper classes: it is those classes most likely to be able to enjoy the EIC (or GMT, or whatever) check in its entirety, while others might have to balance that against loans a la payday lender variety.

      This is entirely offset by the fact that we’d be the ones paying for it, as well.Report

    • The biggest problem is the problem that we already have: people get their checks and then immediately blow it all on drugs, gambling, binge drinking, new car, vacation, whatever, and then are right back to where they were in the first place: broke and waiting a year for their next check. What does society do, let them starve? Let their children starve? For the millions of people who have uncontrollable emotional/psychological problems and can’t or just never learned how to budget their money GMT/BIG will NOT work and this will simply usher the welfare state back in and we’ll be even more worse off now than before this all began. And come on, when has government EVER “replaced” one handout with another rather than “adding” yet another handout to the already existing handouts? Did Bush’s prescription “entitlement” replace some other entitlement or just add a new one? You know the answer. Libertarians should remember that BIG ignores reality: http://www.examiner.com/article/another-big-idea-from-the-anti-freedom-freeloading-collectivistsReport

      • Patrick in reply to Garry Reed says:

        The biggest problem is the problem that we already have: people get their checks and then immediately blow it all on drugs, gambling, binge drinking, new car, vacation, whatever, and then are right back to where they were in the first place: broke and waiting a year for their next check.

        How big of a problem do you think this is?

        One thing about putting your kids into public school in Pasadena, about 80% of their cohort is on free/reduced lunch. They’re poor.

        In a fairly large school, I therefore see a fairly large number of economically disadvantaged parents to go with those kids. I know of exactly one that has this sort of chronic damaged behavior, that’s less than a half percent.

        And that’s with all of the work we put into the welfare system to prevent that person from being that way. And most of that audit work we put into the welfare system wasn’t going to stop her, and indeed makes it harder for the other 900 adults that are parents of the kids in the school and are economically disadvantaged to get the assistance that they’d be able to get if we didn’t create giant bulwarks of paperwork to try and keep that one woman from being chronically crazy.

        I think this approach is trying to solve a problem at the very much wrong layer of abstraction.

        We have two distinct problems:

        We have a bunch of reasonably responsible folks who are pretty broke, to whom we want to provide some assistance.

        We have a very small number of crazy ass crazy people who are pretty broke, to whom we want to provide some guidance on how not to be crazy any more.

        Trying to solve both of those problems at the same time, using the same mechanism, requires the bunch of reasonably responsible folks to constantly prove that they’re not crazy. This is a huge waste of resources.Report

      • Matty in reply to Garry Reed says:

        I don’t quite understand why it has to be annual rather than weekly or monthly. Even if it has to be based on a years tax I’m sure it is possible to use the previous years figure divided by 12 or 52.

        As for the implication that the poor are be drug addicts or alcoholics that is pretty offensive so I think I’ll just leave it.Report

  2. greginak says:

    I think a BIG is something to look at although it will never happen. Still interesting. I think to really judge it i’d want to see a lot more specifics.

    I think liberals would agree with him about the work disincentive. The problem would be getting conservatives on board though.Report

  3. Mike Schilling says:


  4. Saul Degraw says:

    I’m intriguing by the idea but I think things will need to get really really bad before it happens if it ever does.

    I would want it to be a biweekly or monthly payment. And I would probably raise the amount to 32-35KReport

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      I would also want it to be an actual payment like Social Security instead of an Earned Income Tax Credit.Report

    • Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Texas and Florida would immediately require drug testing. And gun ownership. OK, maybe not the second one. Hell, states like Texas and Florida would probably administer on it a card pre-programmed to not work with certain kinds of purchases (no Doritos or X-Boxes for you!).

      Texas and Florida can fuck anything up.Report

      • greginak in reply to Chris says:

        When you want really oppressive nanny statism R’s are usually the ones to give it to you. Sure we can raise our glasses to some BSDI, but still…Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Chris says:

        I wouldn’t administer it through the states.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Chris says:

        How about the UN, then?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Chris says:

        It’d be easiest to just administer it through a federal bureaucracy. Probably the most efficient federal bureaucracy we have today is the Social Security Administration, and in large part that’s because they have a simple, straightforward task that doesn’t have conflicting demands. The IRS is also pretty efficient (contra popular perception), largely for the same reason (although they do have some extra duties).

        We could probably task either of those agencies with the job, creating a new division within either one. Or we could create a new agency that likewise has essentially this one single task, which would allow it to be done efficiently and with a minimum of error.Report

  5. Chris says:

    Dude, anything that makes work less of a necessity is good, and in our system, money is the only thing that can do that.Report

    • Roger in reply to Chris says:

      Why would it be a good thing to make work less of a necessity? Work is about production of things and services with utility for yourself and or others.

      Seems to me any incentive to work less is effectively an incentive to produce less. Less production means less utility which means less prosperity and lower overall human welfare.

      Obviously leisure is another form of personal utility, but I am sure we all agree that the problem with the relatively poor is not a lack of leisure.Report

      • zic in reply to Roger says:

        Obviously leisure is another form of personal utility, but I am sure we all agree that the problem with the relatively poor is not a lack of leisure.

        Only if you think the ‘poor’ are all unemployed, and don’t bother considering the working poor.Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        We already had this debate with empirical data showing that poor families tend to be retired, unemployed or part time. I can re link the census data if anyone needs a reminder.

        To the extent we are talking about families cutting back on second incomes or overtime work, we are indeed talking about lowering productivity.

        I am sure it is grand assuming the disincentive to work will translate into more time caring for grandma and volunteering to sew dresses for orphans. Truth is it probably WILL. But that isn’t all it incentivizes. It also incentivized more time surfing. More time playing video games. More time watching TV. More time, on net, not serving fellow humans productively.Report

      • zic in reply to Roger says:

        We already had this debate with empirical data showing that poor families tend to be retired, unemployed or part time.

        Well, let’s parse that out a bit. Say it’s a single father, working at WalMart, where they won’t give him enough hours to cover his health insurance, so he also receives Medicaid and SNAP benefits. He’s working 25, 30 hours a week (and on-the-moment scheduling, which changes so he’d be hard-pressed to take a second job,) but he’s also doing 100% of household chores, schlepping kids, paying for child care while he works, etc. etc. etc. I don’t think our poor working father has an excess of ‘leisure time,’ no matter how he might opt to spend that time.

        And just because he’s a minority of the population does not suggest he’s still not a significant group of the population for us to be concerned with; his well-being reflects directly on the well-being of the children he’s raising singlehandedly.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Roger says:

        Not all leisure is created equal. Passing the time watching tv all day because one is dispirited and in despair from not having been able to find a job is different from me watching tv all day because it’s Saturday and my day off. So yes, the poor (at least those who don’t work 60 hours a week or thereabouts) may very well have more leisure than the non-poor. But the quality of that leisure is harder to measure than the quantity.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Roger says:

        “It also incentivized more time surfing. More time playing video games. More time watching TV.”

        The video game industry is worth $100 billion. The TV business is worth many times that.

        Point being….it’s a mistake to consider these things to be mere idle, useless activities. If a BIG results in more people playing video games, then that only ensures a steady revenue stream for the video game industry. What’s wrong with that?

        The fields won’t be plowed if everyone’s playing video games? Sure, they will. Look out the window. See that self-driving, GPS-guided tractor? Here, let me pull up the dash-cam on my tablet. Look, I can even control it with this app. It gives me coins if I stay between the lines….

        It’s not that far-fetched, actually.Report

      • LWA (Liberal With Attitude) in reply to Roger says:

        Poor families tend to be unemployed?

        The gob, it is smacked!Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

        It gives me coins if I stay between the lines….


      • Mike Schilling in reply to Roger says:

        The agrarian version of Ender’s Game?

        Actually, a self-driving tractor is simpler than a self-driving car.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

        In fact many farmers are already using GPS in their tractors. They have their fields gridded and have determined what areas need more/less fertilizer, and the equipment disperses more/less as appropriate. I suspect it will be a while before farmers trust their equipment to operate autonomously, but given the amount of time they spend behind the wheel of their tractors/combines, I suspect they’ll eventually welcome it.

        The question (or at least “a” question) is whether that further accelerates the demise of the small farmer, or whether it supports small farmers by allowing them to do something else productive (e.g., money making) while the crops are being harvested.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Roger says:


        “In fact many farmers are already using GPS in their tractors.”

        I went with farmers, but in the back of my mind was developments in my own line of work: the movie business. I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that the 24-plex down the street is almost entirely automated these days.

        A little data entry, a couple presses of the Enter button, and boom: you have the rest of the day to sell tickets, pop popcorn, and sweep floors. No need to build prints. No need to start movies.

        There is, of course, a downside. Some theater chains believe that their business consists of opening the doors and counting the money. Unfortunately, as automated as things are, there’s still more to it than that.

        For smaller firms, such automation is mostly a disaster. Fewer and fewer 35mm prints are being made, and eventually no one’s going to make them at all. At that point, the choice will be simple: Pay for expensive upgrades or close the doors. Creative destruction, I guess.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:


        I know more about ag than about the movie business. 😉 But I assume you heard about Tarantino and some others promising to buy a certain amount of film from Kodak, to keep it in production?

        I’m wondering if that’s something that’s only temporary, a last gasp before the end of film, or if it will turn out to be like vinyl records, which we all thought were going to disappear but which have found a niche market. I assume, though (without actually knowing diddly), that producing vinyl records is a lot cheaper than producing film, which would probably prove the difference maker.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Roger says:

        Hate to say it but I think Tarrantino’s film project is more of a museum piece than a viable business. The photo-chemical process is expensive and labor-intensive, and the aesthetic differences of film versus digital do not justify the expense or effort.

        That wasn’t necessarily true 10 years ago, but it’s true now.

        Only one filmmaker in Hollywood has the pull to resist the digital revolution: Christopher Nolan. And even then, his resistance is futile.

        For the Dark Knight Rises, Nolan convinced IMAX to remove some of their digital projectors in favor of reinstalling their old 70mm film projectors. As soon as the movie closed, the film projectors were removed and the digital variants put right back. They indulged him that once, but I don’t think they’ll do so again.

        It’s just not worth it for that grainy, warm “film” effect that most people won’t even notice, much less appreciate.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Roger says:

        When I was in Ottawa I often went to a local theatre that used film; it considered its use of film rather than digital a point of pride. As far as I could tell, the quality was worse, especially for older movies (the showing of Goldfinger cut out in the middle and missed 5-10 minutes before it restarted, and some of the other movies seen on film had specks and dots and such in the middle of the screen). I have no expertise on this, but from my point of view the love for film seems like pure nostalgia.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Roger says:

        I suspect (knowing *nothing* about the technology, which allows me to play pundit) that the grainy, warm “film” effect would be easy enough to recreate digitally.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Roger says:

        Point being….it’s a mistake to consider these things to be mere idle, useless activities. If a BIG results in more people playing video games, then that only ensures a steady revenue stream for the video game industry. What’s wrong with that?

        Maybe instead of just giving people money for nothing, we could require that they break at least one window a day to earn it.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Roger says:

        “Maybe instead of just giving people money for nothing, we could require that they break at least one window a day to earn it.”

        That’s one thing we could do, sure. We could also make them “earn it” by working for shit wages at shit companies, which would be totally awesome if that kind of thing didn’t tend to devolve into feudalism without some kind of equalizer, whether it be employment laws or labor unions. How supportive are you of robust employment laws and labor unions?

        In that sense, something like a BIG may actually be better from a libertarian perspective, if you can get over the “money for nothing” objection.Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        Zic, Gabriel and JP,

        I am not sure how to reply to any of your comments. Zic seems to be saying that some poor people buck the trend and do work a lot, Gabriel seems to be saying the quality of leisure differs for the poor, and James P that the poor will spend lots even in their leisure.

        I agree, of course. But back to the start of this thread. Someone said it was a good thing to disincentivize work, for people who are already — on the whole — not working a heck of a lot. I don’t agree that this is a good thing, assuming it even is what would occur.

        I DO agree it is a good thing that the poor be less totally dependent upon a given job. The freedom to say “take this job and shove it is good,” as long as they find something else productive. In this sense I am partially agreeing with the power imbalance framing that the left often uses. I agree with Katherine below that this idea would force employers to offer better working environments, and that this would be a great side effect.

        I also want to add that too much leisure is a dangerous thing to most people, especially younger folks. I am not sure the average person will fill their leisure with activities which create well balanced human beings.

        Here be dragons.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Roger says:


        “I also want to add that too much leisure is a dangerous thing to most people, especially younger folks. I am not sure the average person will fill their leisure with activities which create well balanced human beings.”

        That’s a bit paternalist, innit?Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        No. Worrying about the secondary effects on behavior of a revolutionary change in social institutions is more in line with what I would call pragmatic realism. Are you implying that you think it would be good for young people to have more leisure and less pressure to invest in becoming productive members of society?

        Paternalism is behavior, by a person, organization or state, which limits some person or group’s liberty or autonomy for their own good. Paternalism can also imply that the behavior is against or regardless of the will of a person, or also that the behavior expresses an attitude of superiority.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Roger says:


        I don’t think what I said about leisure necessarily contributes to the broader discussion of dis-incentivizing work and whether that’s a good thing. So in that sense, it was an irrelevant aside.

        I do think, however, that anyone who says the poor have more leisure ought to consider that leisure for a poor person is different (and I assume not as enjoyable, but who knows?) from leisure for a more affluent person. Pointing out the relative leisure hours is an important starting point, and from what I recall from previous threads in which you’ve mentioned it, you actually have cited studies to back the point up whereas I have cited none. But relying on that starting point by itself can lead to sweeping, probably inaccurate, statements that fail to take into account the lived reality of a large number of people.

        Again, none of this necessarily speaks to your or others’ arguments about disincentivizing work. I will say I’m not concerned about that particular effect, but maybe you’re right that it’s a bad thing, especially along some margin of choices. And maybe that margin, and the badness of it, is greater than I suspect.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Roger says:


        After providing the definition of paternalism, you’re still going to say that limiting young people’s leisure time for their own good is NOT paternalism? Okay then…

        As to your question: “Are you implying that you think it would be good for young people to have more leisure and less pressure to invest in becoming productive members of society?”

        No. What I’m implying is the worry about profligate youth squandering their guaranteed basic income is overblown. Yes, there will be some squandering. It’s youth; they squander.

        But isn’t it possible that for every youth that squanders it we’ll have one, two maybe, who use it to to do something useful?Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Roger says:

        I think it can be both pragmatic realism and paternalism, of the “or also that the behavior expresses an attitude of superiority” variety. I’ve seen no place where you out-and-out said you believe yourself superior to the poor, and as you admit elsewhere in the thread, albeit on a slightly different element of this topic, most of use are engaging in idle speculation. But I do think some of the things you are saying might be read in good faith as suggesting a sense of superiority.

        But that’s an ad hominem. And if I indulge in it I might have to face instances in which what I write might be read as expressing an attitude of superiority. It’s not that sussing out “attitudes of superiority” is factually wrong, but not particularly useful. So I prefer the first sentence of your definition of paternalismReport

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        I agree, Gabriel. It is hard to speculate on these matters without a smidgen of being a superior know it all. Always something to be mindful of.

        “After providing the definition of paternalism, you’re still going to say that limiting young people’s leisure time for their own good is NOT paternalism? Okay then…”

        When did I ever suggest “limiting” young people’s leisure time for their own good? My argument is that a revolutionary social experiment of this nature could have negative and unpredictable effects that dis incentivize production. Arguing that we should be careful before handing out checks is not an example of “limiting.” Either that or we use words quite differently.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

        When did I ever suggest “limiting” young people’s leisure time for their own good?

        Perhaps when you said, “too much leisure is a dangerous thing to most people, especially younger folks.Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        And if I said, riding motorcycles without a helmet is dangerous, that is another example of “limiting.”?

        Please feel free to elaborate.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Roger says:


        If you’re truly flabbergasted how someone might interpret your words as “paternalist” in some fashion, you may wish to consider Vikram’s recent post on communication.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Roger says:

        And if I said, riding motorcycles without a helmet is dangerous, that is another example of “limiting.”?

        It would be if you then took steps not to allow people to ride motorcycles without helmets.

        And your participation in this section of the comment thread does seem to be, “I think this might be bad for people, so we shouldn’t do it”.

        So yes, I think you rightly deserve the hat this time ’round. If you cropped off the “so we shouldn’t do it” part, then you’d be a worrier, but not paternalistic.

        Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with paternalism. Just misdirected paternalism. But then, the whole thing about paternalism is “when I do it, it’s not paternalism because it’s not misdirected. When you do it, it’s paternalism because it’s the icky sort.”

        But the definition of paternalism is, as you pointed out, “Paternalism is behavior, by a person, organization or state, which limits some person or group’s liberty or autonomy for their own good. ”

        The bit about paternalism is “are you properly judging ‘their own good’?”Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Roger says:


        “And if I said, riding motorcycles without a helmet is dangerous, that is another example of “limiting.”?”

        If this is just a simple observation, then no. But if you said, “Riding motorcycles without a helmet is dangerous, so you can’t do it,” then yes, it’s a bit paternalistic.

        But rather than argue over whether you were being paternalistic (you were) let’s get back to your point:

        “My argument is that a revolutionary social experiment of this nature could have negative and unpredictable effects that dis incentivize production.”

        Leaving aside the fact that your argument seems to be that a BIG could have negative, but utterly predictable, effects, it is most certainly true that such a policy could have negative and unpredictable effects.Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:


        There are two subthreads of concern. In one, I am arguing whether it is good in principle to take active steps to dis incentivize work (which someone argued specifically as a pro not a con) . I am arguing here be dragons.

        In the main thread, my position is that we should experiment with this idea, but that I worry of adverse impacts many of which are unanticipated. Thus the emphasis on experimentation.

        If we go back to the motorcycle helmets, my comments are in effect that I support experimenting with a new law which encourages riding without a helmet, but that I worry it could lead to more deaths. If this is “paternalistic,” or “limiting” then we are clearly using our words differently.

        And yes, Gabriel, I am pro date rape.

        “Machete don’t tweet.”Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Roger says:

        “I think we should try it, but I worry – like, I’m really worried – about unintended consequences.”

        How is that a view worth taking seriously?Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Roger says:

        That wasn’t what I was trying to say, Roger. I was suggesting that saying something that to you doesn’t sound “paternalist,” but that in context has undertones of paternalist-type arguments, might very well make you sound paternalist and as a result, miscommunication develops.

        Of course, I guess you could point the same context back at me and suggest my own reference to an OP that discusses date rape was trying to bait you. So maybe I should learn from that error. But please be assured I’m not accusing you of that.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

        If we go back to the motorcycle helmets, my comments are in effect that I support experimenting with a new law which encourages riding without a helmet, but that I worry it could lead to more deaths

        Roger, as a guy who’s generally on your side, I want to suggest that probably nine of us read it that way. I take you at your word on what you meant; I just don’t think your writing in this case succeeded in expressing that meaning well.

        You’re generally a lucid writer, imo. But you probably had your mind on surfing. 😉Report

  6. Mo says:

    Does this include Social Security and Medicare under “welfare state”? Because if so, I think rejoining the UK would be more likely politically.Report

  7. Roger says:

    I agree with Manzi.

    If this idea is to be tried it needs to start small as a laboratory and be slowly and deliberately rolled out with multiple versions competing amongst themselves. Most good ideas fail, and I have doubts whether this even is a good idea. It could be the seed for a good idea though.

    I specifically agree with Manzi that a major concern is with incentives to work. I think it is a bad idea to create a state where people are incentivized to avoid working for each other’s benefit. Young people and those with lower skills or behavioral issues will delay getting into the work force, with potential long term negative connotations for themselves and others.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

      I think it is a bad idea to create a state where people are incentivized to avoid working for each other’s benefit.

      I share that feeling. However at present a lot of poor people are incentivized to work not for each other’s benefit but against it–i.e., crime. To the extent this minimized the incentive to engage in crime, that incentive plausibly outweighs the other incentive in terms of net social productivity.Report

      • Rog in reply to James Hanley says:

        If tested in markets and
        1) it proves to NOT have disincentives toward work and
        2) it proves to NOT lead to more dependency and
        3). It proves to reduce ( not increase?) crime and
        4). It proves NOT to have disparate harm on underprivileged groups and
        5). It proves NOT to encourage unwanted babies for the money and
        6). It proves not to have any other unforeseen problems that outweigh benefits

        Then I support the proposal.

        In other words I strongly endorse testing the idea in multiple volunteer test markets. Let’s see what we learn.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Roger says:

      If you know you’re going to get $1000 or $1500 a month forever no matter what you do, all you you have is a guarantee (if you trust it) that you can remain in poverty your whole life if you do nothing or very little. The incentive to work for others’ benefit is still there; people take lots of actions all the time specifically motivated to move their incomes upward from numbers way above $18,000 to other numbers way above $18,000. People will still have an incentive to make more money, i.e. do work of value for others in the labor market.

      To me the greatest potential of this policy is to extend the time horizons across which people can work for each other’s benefit. It’s hard to come up with that idea that will have great long-terms benefits to others when you’re struggling on a daily basis to cover basic expenses and deal with the constant stress of poverty. (Google “Bandwidth poverty”). Covering people’s basic expenses will free up the good energies of a lot of people to assess their skills and abilities and figure out what their best contribution can be. I think that the benefits of that effect (as well as the de-incentivizing of crime that James mentions) are likely to outweigh the effects of this policy that cause people to be somewhat less interested in the kind of work they’d do to maintain a level of subsistence offered by BIG.

      Left to their own devices people broadly seek to be productive. IMO, a BIG will facilitate that at least as much as it will impede it.Report

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    The BIG has a notoriously bad rap and I think it’ll get shot down.

    Too soon?Report

  9. LWA (Liberal With Attitude) says:

    “He concedes the puritan libertarian argument that the state shouldn’t be giving out welfare at all, but…”

    This provoked all kinds of snarky responses from me, but I will stifle them and play it straight.

    This is a serious problem. His conceding that point, instead of refuting it.

    Its like me conceding the puritan socialist point that all wealth should be socialized, but politically we can’t get there right now, so argle bargle so on and so forth, look at this proposal that uses free market stuff to accomplish that.

    Am I being unreasonable here, to be wary of socialist sounding ideas from guys who concede the very premise of a society?Report

    • James Hanley in reply to LWA (Liberal With Attitude) says:

      It might satisfy you that some of his critics likewise attack his attempt to get there through political convenience.

      I think you’ve made two fundamental errors, though.
      1. You’re saying a libertarian is making a mistake for not attacking the idea that the government shouldn’t be transferring wealth. But you can’t really make a good argument that person from ideology X is making a mistake by not attacking a basic point of ideology X. That is, you’re complain is that Zwolinski isn’t attacking libertarianism, even though he’s a libertarian. That’s incoherent.

      2. You seem to be claiming that a welfare state based on authoritative transfers is “the very premise of society.” I’d say that’s empirically and historically inaccurate. Society as a form of human organization long predates anything that resembles the modern welfare state.

      None of that is to critique your support of the modern welfare state, or even to critique your belief that libertarians are wrong. It’s just to critique the content of your arguments.Report

      • LWA (Liberal With Attitude) in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’m claiming that the very premise of society is a group which has rules for membership, with both obligatory contribution and benefits.

        For example, even before the modern nation-state, most societies were tribal and clan-based. Every member was assured of some form of charity, but also contribution to the group was mandatory.
        If a relative was in need, you were expected to contribute- it wasn’t voluntary. At the same time, if you became a layabout, you were rebuked and shamed.

        Are there any historical examples of societies that don’t follow this mold?Report

      • I don’t think LWA said he thinks Zwolinski is making a “mistake” by not attacking that position. As per my comment below, I think he’s saying it’s “a problem” from the perspective of people on the left trying to figure out how to react to a proposal like this, who have a problem with that view and don’t want to concede it. If they agree to work on the terms of the proposal, are they in effect conceding to Zwolinski’s “concession”? (Obviously, I believe the answer is “no.”) It does take some mental gymnastic to understand why Zwolinski wants to make such a point of affirmatively proposing all this welfare spending if he really doesn’t want a welfare state at all. The left would rather see him defend it on the first-order merits. And if they take on board his refusal to, does that inject the seed of destruction into whatever would be built on top of this gesture? In short, can they trust the Matt Zwolinskis of the world – should they, if he’s basically saying, when they can, they’ll go back on this structure as well because in fact it’s not justified, it’s just less undesirable than what we have now? Is it a transparent Trojan Horse, and if so, do the attackers have the power to sack the city?

        My answers to all of that are basically no, yes, yes, and no. I.e., they should be happy to see gestures like this and should work with them. But that’s the sense in which I think LWA meant there is a problem. It’s a problem if you do want to defend welfare, inasmuch as the position doesn’t. Not that Zwolinski is doing something wrong from his own perspective if this is his position. The problem is, how much does the left need to fight that perspective anywhere and everywhere it encounters it? My view is, it should be quite tactical and not (always) dogmatic about that.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’m claiming that the very premise of society is a group which has rules for membership, with both obligatory contribution and benefits.

        But “obligatory” does not have to mean imposed from above. It is a broad enough concept to include voluntary societies that are contractually based. Whether those are truly feasible or not, many libertarians believe they are and prefer them as the appropriate model for human organization. And as that is a model of society, it’s incorrect to say that Huemer is arguing against the premise of society. He’s only arguing against the premise of society as it is currently constructed.

        I think this is an important point, because I hear the “against society” claim from certain liberals pretty regularly, and it’s really not accurately descriptive of libertarians as a whole, and while I’m not very familiar with Huemer, there’s no evidence presented in the Cato Unbound essay suggesting he is opposed to voluntary societies.

        So, please, feel free to criticize the voluntary society idea all you want, but please don’t make the error of thinking libertarians are anti-society.Report

      • LWA (Liberal With Attitude) in reply to James Hanley says:

        Well OK-

        You are positing the hypothetical existance of a purely voluntary society, as a way of refuting that you are not challenging the very premise of society?

        Is that really your argument?

        If so, can we agree that the libertarian project challenges the very premise of society, as it has so far existed, in favor of one which exists purely as a theoretical construct?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        No, we cannot agree with that. You said “the very premise of society is a group which has rules for membership, with both obligatory contribution and benefits,” and the voluntary contractual society concept meets that definition. So unless you want to move the goalposts by changing your own definition, what you’re asking is out of bounds.Report

      • LWA (Liberal With Attitude) in reply to James Hanley says:

        I guess I will have to move the goalposts then.
        You’re saying that your hypothetical society meets the definition of the kinds that actually exist.

        OK, point given!
        So back to my post-

        Its a problem that Jason concedes the point of all contributions being voluntary- this flatly contradicts the rules of [all known existing- ed.] societies in favor of one that exists only in his head.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Shrug. Then we’re back to you saying the libertarian shouldn’t be a libertarian, which just doesn’t have much bite.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        As a compromise, may I suggest that no society ever has or could be based totally upon force and compulsion, and no society ever has been based totally on voluntary action (though the evolutionary norm in our ancestral environment is pretty close to the latter).

        The real debate in real modern societies is within the extremes. If more compulsion as per LWA made the world a consistently better place for us and our grand kids, then I am for it. If voluntary cooperation consistently improves things over the long haul, as per libertarians, I am all for that.

        My guess is that James pretty much agrees. Not sure about LWA though. After all, slavery is free markets, or whatever.Report

      • LWA (Liberal With Attitude) in reply to James Hanley says:

        More voluntary engagements is a fine idea.
        That sentence implies the status quo, with some incremental change.
        It leaves intact the notion of a shared ethos, moral norms that are enforced by men with guns and cages, and compulsory contribution to the group.

        I deliberately phrase it this way, using libertarian scare words, to heighten the contradictions between our points.

        “More voluntary engagements”= Liberal Republican who accepts the New Deal.

        When I assert that libertarianism represents a radical break with tradition, it isn’t accusatory, or a smear.
        When Jason concedes that there shouldn’t be any governmental transfer of wealth, that isn’t the same as a Rick Santorum suggesting church-based charity- what he is suggesting is a abolition of the idea of the group contract as I described above.
        In this fomulation, the group owes you nothing, and you owe the group nothing. If any transfer happens, its merely a utilitarian device, not anything larger.

        That is radical- its never been done before, never been tried before, and would require the total upheaval of every system of ethics we know of.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        would require the total upheaval of every system of ethics we know of

        Oh, look, another wild overstatement by a guy who claims not to be demonizing others. Well played, LWA, well played.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:


        You are avoiding my main point. If no society has ever been 100% at either extreme or can be at the immediate time, your criticism of movement toward more freedom seems shallow.

        You are comparing a moderate version of reality to an absurd caricature when the other side suggests incremental movement, but not doing the same thing for your suggestions.

        It is like me saying ideas to increase forced redistribution can’t work because no society has ever existed based completely on coercion.Report

      • LWA (Liberal With Attitude) in reply to James Hanley says:

        “He concedes the puritan libertarian argument that the state shouldn’t be giving out welfare at all, but…”

        At all.

        Again, if he were a social conservative, I could safely assume he means that welfare should be administered by churches and NGOs.

        But he isn’t really talking about that, is he?

        I know that you and Hanley have acknowledged previously that a coercive governmental welfare system can be legitimate- most libertarians do.

        But as long as the pole star, the magnetic north of libertarianism is the idea that there is no compulsory bonds of obligation between the state and the individual, its a problem for the rest of us.

        If you want to attack wild eyed cartoon libertarians, start with

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        Are you aware that our welfare system has been in existence tor much less than half of the time our country’s been in existence?

        So this astoundingly radical thing of not handing out welfare, that you seem to think requires or produced the complete destruction of society? American society existed longer without it than it has with it.

        Of course you can argue we’re a better society now than then, but you can’t argue that handing out welfare is a crucial existential element of society without ignoring your own country’s actual history.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Again, if he were a social conservative, I could safely assume he means that welfare should be administered by churches and NGOs.

        But he isn’t really talking about that, is he?

        Why would you assume that? Are you suggesting he thinks nobody should ever help anybody else out?Report

      • LWA (Liberal With Attitude) in reply to James Hanley says:

        I can see that you are trying mightily to evade the point.

        Compulsory obligations of the group, is the point. Which has always existed, and which most libertarians find troublesome.Report

      • Citizen in reply to James Hanley says:

        “Compulsory obligations of the group.”
        Are these written law, or rule of law?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        I can see that you are trying mightily to evade the point.

        Compulsory obligations of the group, is the point. Which has always existed, and which most libertarians find troublesome.

        Then you agree that saying the government does not have to provide welfare at all is not, in itself, an attack on the premise of society? That those are separate things?

        Because, as a reminder, here’s how you began this whole thread:

        “He concedes the puritan libertarian argument that the state shouldn’t be giving out welfare at all” …

        Am I being unreasonable here, to be wary of … guys who concede the very premise of a society?

        You began by conflating not giving welfare with attacking the very premise of society. So saying I’m trying to avoid your point is a bit rich–that is the point you made, and I’m just responding to it.Report

    • To some extent I had the same reaction because in effect he’s saying he’s for eliminating welfare (if that’s a fair summary f his position “concedes the puritan libertarian argument that the state shouldn’t be giving out welfare at all,”) and wants a BIG only until such time as the argument or political movement can be devised that will do that. But I think that the basic impulse here is constructive and positive enough that it should be welcomed and met with engagement by those who want to preserve the welfare state at least for now.

      For one thing, I actually think the left needs to figure out where it stands on this; it dfintiely doesn;t have a consensus on whether converting all or much assistance to a simple cash transfer would be desirable, so this is an opportunity to assess policy values on the left.

      For another, it just doesn’t get a lot more promising in terms of practical opportunities to forge cross-ideological coalitions to preserve basic priorities than this for the left. There are first order disagreements, but this represents an area of substantial potential second-order agreement.

      None of which is to say that the basic issue you’re concerned with needs to be dispensed with. If Matt Zwolinski thinks welfare should be eliminated and is interested in arguing that point, then the left should argue about that with him. But where his bigger emphasis is a potential willingness to set that aside and lend support to a robust welfare program on certain reasonable conditions (which the left may or may not be able ultimately to agree to), the left should be happily willing engage with that kind of gesture on its terms without insisting that the first-order disagreement be emphasized (or certainly resolved).Report

      • zic in reply to Michael Drew says:


        For one thing, I actually think the left needs to figure out where it stands on this; it dfintiely doesn;t have a consensus on whether converting all or much assistance to a simple cash transfer would be desirable, so this is an opportunity to assess policy values on the left.

        Just think it’s important to point one thing out; the welfare we have now is, in fact, far removed from the cash handouts it was before reforms that began in the 1980’s, and is, in fact, a result of the tension between the liberal impulse to help those in need and the conservative response of, “Maybe, but not too much.” Much of the hoops, the requirements result from that tension. So we don’t have a liberal welfare system that in any way reflects what a consensus of liberal values might actually be; we don’t have a conservative welfare system that reflects consensus of conservative values; we have a hodgepodge of conflicting values and compromises that isn’t really reflective of any particular political ideology.Report

      • @michael-drew

        I agree that “the left” needs to figure out where they stand on this. As a self-identified “neo-liberal,”* I don’t consider myself a member of “the left,” but I need to decide what I’m comfortable with. And for the record, my principal objections concern 1) how the GMI** would work in practice or the types of compromises necessary to get it passed and 2) the loss of some supports (like health care provision) that even a basic income couldn’t satisfy (a point Manzi alludes to, as well).

        This thing you said is interesting:

        in effect he’s saying he’s for eliminating welfare…and wants a BIG only until such time as the argument or political movement can be devised that will do that.

        That type of statement some libertarians*** offer–they’re against the welfare state, but dismantling it isn’t a top priority because there are so many other much more pressing issues–is one of the things that prevents me from embracing libertarianism. That type of statement’s thoughtful and consistent and demonstrates a concern for those less well off, but it bothers me in two ways.

        1. It suggests that there will come a time, maybe after the libertopic millennium, when finally the welfare state will wither away of its own accord or more likely be dismantled. Maybe by then, it won’t be needed because we’ll have other freedom enhancing supports and people as a whole will be better off.

        2. It suggests and affinity toward supporting others who would place a higher priority on dismantling the welfare state. So someone who makes that statement might not want to devote his or her energies toward dismantling it, but they’ll defend the continued challenges to Obamacare, including the recent effort to ensure subsidies don’t apply to federal exchanges. And I admit that contrary to some of what I said on the matter, the subsidies objection is a good faith one and not necessarily wrongheaded and in pursuit of something that can reasonably be considered better than the ACA. But in my opinion it’s evidence of a certain set of priorities I’m wary of signing on to.

        *I’m trying to come up with a definition of neo-liberal that makes sense to me and is consistent with at least some ways with which the term is used. My best shorthand definition is “new deal liberalism informed by libertarianism, plus civil rights and national health-care provision.”

        **Ugh!!! I realize I’ve been writing “GMT” instead of GMI in my many comments on this thread. At least I know what time it is!

        ***I’m not sure what I’m about to say necessarily applies to Zwolinski.Report

      • @gabriel-conroy

        For my part, I don’t see the uber-simplified model ever going anywhere. Health care is too unpredictable an expense and Medicare too valued a program for the left, and certainly the Democrats to ever abandn them in favor of a pure cash transfer that can be manipulated (not to say “gutted”) over time if it isn;t pegged to an ability to pay for certain particular parts of life-expense. I.e., I don’t see certainly Dens agreeing to trade a social commitment to health cost coverage for decent levels of care for a cash benefit of $x not pegged to the provision of certain social standards. With health costs rising like they are (even at their lessened pace), that would be crazy. It’s not like you’re giving up the ability to seek a BIG without those concessions.

        It would also write out of welfare policy the encouragement of positive choices (I mean that as opposed to the discouragement of negative choices even if logically those aren’t distinguishable). By which I largely mean education. If I am not mistaken, the numbers cited by libertarians to get to the levels of welfare spending currently done include at least some higher education grants. Whether it does that or not, I expect the libertarian proposal would want to bring in much of current student aid under the umbrella of the new BIG. I’m pretty sure the left and certainly Dems are goin g to want to continue to be able to make some funds available to those who want to use them for higher education, voc. ed., etc., but not for other purposes. There are other such functions I’d be less concerned about that would probably also pose obstacles to an agreement like this.

        The flat per capita cash BIG starts to look less and less attractive when all that starts to go out the window when it comes in the door, especially when you see the kind of numbers that will be offered that are meant to make up for these benefits cuts. IMO it makes sense for people on the left who want a BIG to advocate for it on the merits, and not look to a deal like this as a way to et it done. Nevertheless, I think they should be willing to talk to guys like Matt Zwolinski about what he has in mind.Report

      • @michael-drew

        I pretty much agree.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

        it dfintiely doesn;t have a consensus on whether converting all or much assistance to a simple cash transfer would be desirable, so this is an opportunity to assess policy values on the left.

        A debate about this on the left (using that term very loosely) would be interesting. I’m not sure I see the prospect of any consensus. But then, I’m looking in from the outside. And also but then, it’s not like libertarians are likely to come to any consensus on it, either.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Well I’ll speak as someone kinda-sorta on “the left” (but maybe not really on the proper “left” maybe more some kinda socially-radical/economic-liberal who likes hanging out with people on the left, ’cause they’re more fun at parties, but can’t really bring herself to drink the Kool Aid, so whatever).

        Anyway, I’m kinda left-ish. Myself, yeah I think this is a really great idea but maybe orthogonal to health care. Like, just as we want universal healthcare for working people, we also want universal healthcare to folks depending on their minimum income.

        In fact, this seems pretty obvious to me.Report

      • North in reply to Michael Drew says:

        A very small quibble Gabriel as a fellow neoliberal. I don’t think neoliberalism can be written out of the left. It’s probably on the right/center most side of the left but it is still of the left wing family.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Michael Drew says:

        North, it depends on whether you think you can be a Leftist and believe in a market economy. If you think that to count as a Leftist, you need to adopt an explicitly anti-capitalism/market stance than neoliberalism or even its less market friendly version Modern Liberalism is not in the Leftist family thought. Many, but not all Leftists, argue that anyform of market-based economy is against the Leftist cause. All forms of liberalism usually assume some form of market economy rather than collective or cooperative economy. If you operate on the assumption that leftist must mean anti-market than no form of liberalism can count in the left family.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Michael Drew says:

        @leeesq — But at what point does this definition of “leftist” become kind of useless, or at least the wrong thing to talk about on this forum. What I mean is, who on this forum rejects entirely the idea of a market economy? A few? One or two? Speak up.

        This is not to say such people do not exist. In fact, like a fairly large cross section of my social circle fall into some anarcho-leftists space. So fine. On my Twitter feed this is an issue.

        My Twitter feed is — shall we say — hardly representative of US politics.Report

      • Murali in reply to Michael Drew says:


        We used to have people like Elias Isquith and Shawn Gude, the former of whom at least was much more explicitly anti-market. Even Chris, if I interpret particular cryptic remarks by him correctly, is much more radically anti-market that you would ordinarily think (often because he stays silent on these issues)Report

      • Chris in reply to Michael Drew says:

        (often because he stays silent on these issues)

        “I have but one language—yet that language is not mine.”Report

      • Kim in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Cosign wit’ cha.
        This is a great idea, but health insurance is separate. Reduce BIG as necessary to afford health insurance.Report

  10. LWA (Liberal With Attitude) says:

    I think conservatives actually have a valid point in their scorn for the lazy.

    Completely misdirected, heavily laden with ethnocentrism and racism and class divisions, but still, under all that is a valid notion, that inasmuch as society has a moral obligation to care for its members, its members have a moral obligation to contribute.

    So I am ambivalent about the various forms of guaranteed income. If it came as part of an overall ethos of self-interest and material aquisitiveness, then I think it would devolve into exactly the sort of looting and grifting that conservative and libertarian purists fear.

    But if it were part of a larger vision of a society that accepted the need for personal time and circumstances where a paying job wasn’t available; And there was a culture that celebrated industriousness and labor was recognized as an uplifting endeavor, then it would probably make sense.

    I’m just not hearing that message.Report

  11. Kolohe says:

    The big unanswered question in Zwolinski’s piece is how we handle immigrants.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Kolohe says:

      He admits, if not there, elsewhere, that this is a problem.

      For my own part, I wouldn’t find it conceptually problematic. Limit the payments to people with legal residency. They’re generally going to be like the rest of us, working and paying taxes. I truly doubt that without looking at the official paperwork whether any of us could reliably distinguish between citizens and legal residents even if we followed them around 24/7 for a month.

      Politically, well, there’s still this widespread belief that immigrants are net takers, and if we can’t overcome that now, it’d probably be still harder with a GMI/BIG.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to James Hanley says:

        Along with the childbearing incentive I mentioned, immigration was one of the key potential issues I saw with the proposal – $20,000/yr would be a fortune to a lot of people in Latin America. (If significant numbers of people did get legal residency, it would also be a massive boon to their countries’ economies, in terms of remittances.) I think your solution is a good one.Report

      • Would the rules on political asylum have to be tightened? Are there still places in the world where, if you can get to the US from there, you’re automatically entitled?Report

      • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        then we WOULD need to deal with inflation, and that might incentivize more people heading to norte america.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Kolohe says:

      I forgot about this one, too. Definitely an issue. I would actually be a little bit of a hardliner on this one. If we’re going to eventually have a legitimate pathway (rather than impossible gauntlet) to citizenship, with the implication being that citizenship is something we’d like people who want to take full advantage of the benefits of living here to work to attain, then to me it’s obvious that you wouldn’t extent a generous income guarantee to people who hadn’t completed it. I.e., if we’re going to have a naturalization process that we’d like people to complete, this would be an obvious thing to use as a carrot to give them reason to actually do it. And it gives a corresponding stick, which is that if they want to just work here and not seek citizenship (something I’m very much in favor of allowing essentially as many people to do who want to do it), they’ll be paying taxes to support an income guarantee that they’ll only receive when they gain citizenship.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Kolohe says:

      If you’re over 18, able bodied, and ambitious enough to come to the US, leaving behind your home culture and relatives and whatnot, giving you the GMI is no more worse or better than giving anybody else the GMI when comparing immigrants to citizens. Arguably, it’d be better, unless you show up, live on the streets for a month, buy nothing, and the take the check and go home. Don’t see that happening, too much, really.

      Although politically it’d be a hard sell, sure.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Patrick says:

        So we should discriminate against the non-able bodied?

        More seriously, I would be among those on the other side of the argument, making it a hard sell.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Patrick says:

        So we should discriminate against the non-able bodied?

        Economically, hell yes. From a normative sense? Well, that’s a bigger question and not tied directly to immigration, now isn’t it? If we decide we shouldn’t, then we really should expect our immigration policies to be a net drag, and not complain about it.Report

  12. KatherineMW says:

    I don’t think the “disincentive to work” problem is as big as some people would suspect.

    Firstly, our economy – at least in the West – is at a point where we don’t need everyone of working age to work, due to substantial increases in automation. That’s one of the reasons there’s so many unemployed and underemployed people. In addition, many low-level jobs are currently becoming obsolete – for example, grocery stores are starting to introduce automated checkout machines in place of cashiers.

    Secondly, plenty of people like to work. They like the sense that they’re achieving something, they like to challenge their intellect, they like to contribute to helping their fellow man. Personal accomplishment makes people happier.

    Thirdly, people also like stuff. “People like stuff” is the fundamental premise upon which capitalism is based. $20,000 is enough for basic needs, but if you want more stuff, then you have to work. People don’t generally stop working once they’ve got the bare minimum for subsistence.

    Everyone has a preferred balance of work and leisure. A minimum income would probably lead to many people wanting to work less than the currently do, but not stop working entirely. This would be good, on the whole, because it would reduce the problem of unemployment (more people working, at less hours per person) as well as give people more leisure time, with the end result of everyone being happier.

    Given that our society and economy doesn’t need everyone to work 40-hour weeks in order to produce the amount of goods and services that people want to purchase, regarding that level of work as a moral obligation strikes me as fundamentally perverse.

    And if too many people did stop working, we could just increase immigration, because there’s tons of people in the third world who would love to have a $20,000 minimum income, work full-time, and send a bunch of money back to their relatives. People already come to the US for that; it would just mean they’d have more to live off of and more to send back as remittances.Report

    • I don’t think the “disincentive to work” problem is as big as some people would suspect.

      However, it might be a huge disincentive to mismanage minimum-wage (or whatever we call it under the new regime) workers. You know, the shift manager from hell, exercising their petty authority to make workers’ time miserable just because they can? Suddenly there are lots more workers who can say, “I don’t have to put with this crap!” Keeping workers happy probably becomes a much more important part of first-level managers’ evaluation.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Yes, that’s a major advantage. Minimum-wage jobs would have to become better-compensated, less unpleasant, or both, because people would have a lot less reason to work them.

        I figure that industries heavily dependent on minimum-wage jobs would be split between businesses that decided to treat their workers better, and ones that decided to invest in finding or developing technology that could replace the workers. We can’t get people to work in pizza-delivery? Fine, we’ll buy self-drive cars (or, maybe, flying drones) and send them to deliver your pizza, and you order it online and pay for it by credit-card ahead of time.

        I’m happy with both options, because if everyone has a GMI that they can live off of, a lower number of crappy jobs is a plus. Why should people be miserable if they don’t have to?Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Come to think of it, if people could survive on a GMI without working, a minimum wage might not be necessary. That would be another plus for libertarians.Report

      • @katherinemw & to the general readership re: BIG & the minimum wage,

        That’s actually the alternative thing I’d want liberals to offer up in exchange for GMI rather than radical simplification of welfare structures. If society guaranteed a basic income on the order the current minimum wage at near-full-time hours, at that point the way I see it all the labor market benefits of eliminating the minimum wage open up to us without the associated immiseration of a significant swath of workers. A lot of people could work for a lot less than we currently allow and still end up in okay shape. A lot of marginal work that currently doesn’t get done because business can’t pay the minimum wage for it might get done as people add income from very low-wage work that they don’t absolutely need to the societal guarantee.

        In the absence of a BIG, I strongly support a minimum wage to set a baseline standard for what we expect business to contribute to workers’ well-being. But I’m not attached to that as a moral principle under all circumstances. Instead, it’s tied to the civic-moral role that gets assigned by default to business in the absence of a social guaratee like a BIG. If society were to choose to take on the provision of that minimum through a BIG or the like, I’d be interested in looking at the benefits of relieving business of that burden and likely to do it.

        This is another point of significant dispute on the left, where some people have a strong in-principle commitment to the idea that society should impose that burden on business at least as long as we continue to organize society around free enterprise. I think they feel that a society like ours offers so many benefits to business that that expectation should be maintained regardless; whereas I feel that, so long as we put business in this position of Revered Primary Provider of Jobs & Baseline Income (“The Jobs Creators”; “The Makers”) we should maintain that expectation, but if we were to remove that special status that they receive from playing that role by establishing a BIG, then we should accordingly adjust our expectation that they hold up their end of a bargain in which they play that kind of social role (since we no longer expect them to).

        (Sorry for the rambling character of that comment.)Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Michael – I would agree with you on a lot of that. I prefer national health care over employer-provided health insurance because it’s available to everyone, decreases employers’ power over their employees, and increases employees’ ability to move from one employer to another.

        A GMI is another step in the same direction. It radically changes employer-employee power relations in the direction of employees. With it in place, you don’t need a minimum wage.

        A GMI would be funded by taxes (likely higher ones than are currently in place), including taxes on businesses, so businesses would still be contributing to the social welfare without the existence of a minimum wage. They’d just be contributing to everyone rather than to their employees specifically – which, again, makes the employer-employee relationship more free and equal and less paternalistic. If some on the left don’t think employers would be contributing enough under that framework, that’s a question of changing the tax code so that they’re paying comparatively more than they are now.Report

      • Roger in reply to Michael Cain says:


        I really enjoyed all your comments. Just saying.Report

  13. KatherineMW says:

    One potential issue with this that I’m thinking of is that, if it’s $20,000/person, it seems to heavily incentivize childbearing. Have two kids and you’ve got $60,000/yr. That’s a large lump sum of money, very different from some tax credits plus the existence of health care programs that ensure you can afford care for the kids if they get sick.

    If you incentivize kids that heavily, then not only is reproduction likely to increase substantially, there’s going to some people who decide to have kids just for the money they bring in. And that’s going to motivate a lot of people to demand further regulation of the system, and surveillance of people receiving money, and behavioural requirements for funding – the kind of bureaucracy the GMI is designed to replace.

    If anyone has a rebuttal to this or ideas on how it could be prevented, I’m interested in hearing them.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to KatherineMW says:

      An interesting thought. Maybe it could be a graduated payment that rises as you grow toward adulthood, where it hits its maximum? Taking the $20,000 as our starting point, maybe increasing by $1,000 per year until the individual reaches 20, and then we call them an adult (Hey, this year you can get your full $20k and drink!).

      Of course that opens it up to more perpetual tinkering, which is one of the things I think proponents are trying to avoid.Report

    • We already have various social programs that have age restrictions. Why couldn’t this one? I was assuming adults would get this benefit, not kids.

      I would be in favor of a greater allowance of a modest size to parents for having kids, but I would view that as to some extent a captial-upstart kind of benefit, where there would be a bump up just for having kids (i.e. the first kids or set of twins etc.), but any bump-ups thereafter for additional kids would be exceedingly modest or nonexistent.

      I would certainly be very open to discussions about some kind of separate bond program for kids that would have very limited access until either adulthood or legal emancipation but then give 18 year-olds something to get started with. (The legal emancipation thing would probably put a bit of a strain on the family court system, but it already determines when there is cause to grant amncipaion and when not, so I don’t think it would be that hard for it to determine when kids are just looking to get early access to their benefits bond.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I was assuming adults would get this benefit, not kids.

        I think different proponents have differing positions on that.Report

      • I think that’s right, but I’m assuming the notion that the U.S. government is going to start sending thousand-dollar checks made out to two-year-olds each month is one that we can probably decide is as unlikely compared to the likelihood of a BIG being passed at all as the BIG being passed is unlikely compared to what actually is likely to happen. We should assume that any BIG will be a benefit for adults, and that kids will benefit by an increase of some amount or other in that benefit for people who are parents – or just via the benefit of having parents with a bit more rather than a bit less money in their pockets.Report

      • …I suppose the graduated system you mention or the bond program could be seen as “the way we do this BIG program for kids. But I’m assuming that a big part (not all or the majority, because god knows one of my biggest issues with the current welfare system is the way it apparently thinks the only thing worth helping an adult to do is raise a kid) of why we’d do this is to help parents raise kids; that’s a major expense that adults have. To me, a system of sending kids money so that they can save for their education or the like is a different kind of a program with a different purpose from an income guarantee for adults to help them with the cost of living. Unless we’re looking to facilitate kids going off to live on their own, buy their own groceries, etc., etc.;)Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Dand says:

      But notice that he doesn’t actually build an argument that critiques it. All he says is that the current system isn’t as bad as the libertarians say it is. That may very well be true, but it says absolutely nothing about whether a GMI/BIG would be an improvement or a retrogression from the status quo.

      I’m afraid to say it, but this is pretty typical of Krugman’s op-ed columns these days. There’s a lot more sneering than substantive argument in there.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to James Hanley says:

        The Mike Konczal piece that he links does that. Krugman’s issue is that the op-ed space he has simply isn’t long enough to address the proposal in depth – although I think he could have done a much better job of drawing out the main points of the proposal and the key issues with it.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        There are certainly limitations in the op-ed format, and Krugman’s uncontrollable desire to lash out at libertarians cause the limitations to get the best of him. It’s not, as he suggests, an idea promoted solely by wild-eyed libertarians. As the Cato Unbound piece makes clear, it’s the more moderate libertarians who consider it, while the wild-eyed ones reject it. The space he used to mock libertarians could have been used to say something useful about the idea. Maybe even providing insight from an, oh, I don’t know, let’s say “economic” perspective.Report

      • Noah Smith?

        …And yeah, you libertarians should definitely take the opportunity to demonize Noah Smith as much as possible, because he’s not the kind of liberal you should hope to be able to talk about these matters and find some common ground on them with at all. Not at all.Report

      • Fnord in reply to James Hanley says:

        Yeah, I’m not sure where Walker came from.Report

      • …And btw, I think Smith is wrong to be confident about the way the politics of moving the BI level up and down will go. the problem with a BI is precisely that it’s easy to move around: you just do it. Politics are dynamic, and one day there will be budget strain. (Like, tomorrow.) it’s as likely to go down (via inflation if not nominally) as to go up. What keeps that from happening now is the same thing the Smith says weakens the guarntee (and it does weaken it compared to his ideal perhaps, but not compared to what really will happen): it’s fragmented, but a large fraction of those fragments are pegged to particular, qualitative social guarantees. X% of an average college education, depending on income. Y% of a partcular basket of heath treatments. Etc. Not only are those things qualitative guarantees (quantitatively defined, but based on a qualitative determination of what should be guaranteed, as opposed to just a dollar amount that could move in various ways without reference to what it’s supposed to cover, because the whole point would be to give people choice in how to use their guaranteed scrilla), but they are based in a series of poltical arguments undertaken and won on the political merits over the decades. To move to just a single cash benefit would be to relinquish the policy gains made with each of those individual political arguments about each qualitative guarantee,

        Which is to say, it would be to dismantle the political infrastructure holding up the welfare state as we have thus far managed to erect it in the U.S. It’s a serious question for liberals to consider whether what would replace it would be structurally sound enough to be lasting, and whether the benefits of the change would even be worth it. What exactly are the benefits that would compensate for the uncertainty that would be introduced into the new system? A BIG put on to of what we now have in exchange for some moderate streamlining? Very worth considering. In exchange for a wholsesale switch-out of all the welfare structures we now have? I’m not even sure I see what the offer to liberals consists of there, since that’s about as likely to ever happen (conservatives and other non-liberals themselves being significant beneficiaries of many of the fragments of the existing system) as is liberals managing to graft a BIG to the existing system with no concessions at all.

        [Still rambling. Sorry.]Report

      • …As a frame of reference for that last comment, I’m going to go ahead and reproduce that Smith post in it’s entirety here, as it’s not long at all and contains thoughts worth considering for anyone pondering this issue. Also: I don’t see the libertarian-bashing here. Also also: read Noah Smith, if you read anyone on the internet. He’s that good.

        Mike Konczal has a post attacking the libertarian support for Basic Income. Paul Krugman approves. Basically, Konczal argues that the mix of programs we have now works just fine.

        I think Konczal is wrong, for a one, er, basic reason. Basic Income, unlike the programs we have now, will be politically easy to raise once it’s in place.

        Redistribution programs (the good ones anyway) are designed to help a lot of people and hurt a few. But this means that the constituency opposing redistribution is much more concentrated and focused than the constituency in support of it. As Mancur Olson might tell you, this makes redistribution a tough sell politically.

        But if you have one big, high-profile redistribution program, you can get enough popular support to overcome the concentrated opposition of the rich people footing the bill. As an example, look at the minimum wage, which gets big popular support. The Democrats can go back to the minimum wage again and again as a populist issue.

        But that’s not true for the whole array of redistribution programs we currently have. If the Democrats want to increase the strength of the safety net as a whole, they have to mount a populist campaign for each one of its components. That’s hard to do. So a lot of the components of the safety net get left behind, or killed by Republicans when no one is looking.

        Such a fate would never befall a Basic Income. It would be in the spotlight all the time.

        In fact, by endorsing Basic Income, libertarians are walking right into a trap. Anti-redistributionists’ great fear has always been that the masses will use the power of majority rule to simply vote themselves more money. As things stand, the fragmentation of our redistribution programs makes it easier for the anti-redistributionists to punch holes in the safety net. If the fragmented system were replaced with one universal, high-profile program, the result would be a huge political gift to redistributionists.

        Libertarians will eventually realize this, and their tentative support for Basic Income will vanish. But pro-redistribution liberals should not be so quick to dismiss the idea just because it came out of the mouths of their opponents in a moment of confusion.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        See, in contrast to what Krugman wrote, I wouldn’t define what Smith said as an “attack.” It’s rather more of a puzzled warning. I can hear a very strict libertarian saying exactly the same thing, but in astonished outrage at how the moderates are selling the libertarians out.

        And Smith’s substsantive argument is a good one, too.Report

      • But doesn’t pulling all welfare under one program more broadly spread, rather than more narrowly focus, the benfits of welfare programs? Doesn’t that exacerbate the Mancur Olsen problem he’s concerned about? Isn’t the piecemeal approach (not strategically chosen at the outset, but designed by natural selection in the Osenian political environment) respond to exactly that problem? So: Medicare treats one relatively narrow constituency (compared to: “everyone”) in a relatively narrow area of life (as comapred to “any need or want I might have that money might help me satisfy), which also in turn further narrows the contituency (i.e. the true uber-constiuency for medicare isn’t seniors, it’s sick seniors). WIC another. College students another. For each a *relatively* (compared to: “everyone”) narrow constiuency. And that’s why it matters that “programs for the poor are poor programs.” The (simply) poor are not a very narrow constituency, and on top of that they’re relatively powerless. And, beyond their poverty, they don’t necessarily have a compelling sob story, otherwise they lkely fit into one of the stronger (because more narrow) constituencies.

        This is what I was getting at with the bit about the left having won a bunch of individual political arguments about the deserving nature of a bunch of sub-constituencies for welfare. I’m open to the possibility that that’s wrong and that Noah is right, but I’m not so sure about it, nor that he’s right that the effect of essentially voiding out all those earlier arguments and establishing a cash-only program for everybody will be to adequately replace (from the liberal perspective) all of those narrow-constituency benefits (but not really that narrow from a policy perspective in a lot of instances) and to secure the politics in such a way that makes less likely decreases in the real value of the cash benefit over time, or relative to what the constituency-fragmented system would have provided.

        [I don’t mean to badger, but this is important and I genuinely want to see if my intuition is wrong. Maybe we can pretend we’re both other people?]Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        It does, but I think the benefits are already broadly spread enough that increasing the number of recipients doesn’t really exacerbate it. The benefits diffusion curve probably flattens out, so to speak. And because everyone gets it, you minimize the concentrated cost problem.

        Also, the educated, who know how to get in touch with their congressmembers and are very likely to vote will get it. And it’s a substantial enough amount that people would have a real incentive to fight for it.

        Simply put, I think it becomes more like Social Security and less like welfare. It may not be as easy to increase as Smith assumes, but cutting it will bring howls of outrage.

        It may not be as good for Dems in terms of building voting constituencies, though.Report

      • Hmm. I guess I come away thinking it’s no slam dunk in this regard either way. I think it could possibly remain in the “welfare” category in people’s minds, because you always would get it. I could be wrong but my impression has always been that part of makes SS so sacrosanct is that you spend your life paying in & not receiving. So that a benefit cut is more than a benfit cut: it’s a betrayal. This would just be a benefit cut. Not to say there wouldn’t be howls, but they might be resistible for pols under budget stress. Or not.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Dand says:

      Just so it’s not unclear, Krugman in no way rejects the idea of a BIG there. What he rejects is the idea that there are significant gains in terms of efficiency to be made by replacing the existing welfare apparatus with a(n even) simple(r) cash transfer system. He goes on to suggest that other areas in which libertarians claim there is great waste are not as wasteful as is suggested. So the waste question is the one he’s treating there, not a BIG proposal per se.

      (OTOH, BIG is one of those issues on which I think Krugman is very wishy-washy in general. He has little to say about it, and when he says something, it’s usually along the lines of saying that it’s politically vanishingly improbable and has a lot of practical question attached to it. [As if any given policy structure Krugman would defend now that it’s established wouldn’t have had/didn’t face significant practical questions before it went into effect and the questions could begin to be worked out.] Kevin Drum is the same way; he had a post to that effect recently. More generally, I find middle-aged neo-liberal leaning liberals as a class to be quite dubious about this idea (BIG per se, not even as a replacement to other structures). As are even more hard-leftists whose raison d’etre is attacking neo-liberals: they invented a term, “pity-charity liberalism,” just for the purpose of deriding the income-guarantee approach to liberal economics. So it’s an idea that, as much as I’m for it, has significant political challenges to overcome on many sides before entering the realm of the realistic.)Report

      • Kim in reply to Michael Drew says:

        in so doing, Krugman misses out on a key component of the system that has FAR more waste than the government. Non-profits — which generally exist to fit the chinks in the government’s benefit structure.

        I think Krugman can’t bring himself to say no to the elegant and concise BIG, but is skeptical — which is fair. Other liberal economists are more on the side of “this will be a good idea, when it happens.”

        I say give it 20 years. It’s either BIG or we lose the internet. I know what I’m betting on.Report

  14. KatherineMW says:

    Here’s a response to the proposal: http://www.nextnewdeal.net/rortybomb/pragmatic-libertarian-case-basic-income-doesnt-add

    Zwolinski puts significant weight on the idea that there are, following a Cato report, 126 welfare programs spending nearly $660 billion dollars. That’s a lot of programs! Is that accurate?

    The programs Zwolinski describes can be broken down into three groups. First you have Medicaid, where the feds pay around $228 billion. Then you have the six big programs that act as “outdoor relief” welfare, providing cash, or cash-like compensation. These are the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), housing vouchers and the Child Tax Credit. Ballpark figure, that’s around $212 billion dollars.

    So only 7 programs are what we properly think of as welfare, or cash payments for the poor. Perhaps we should condense those programs, but there aren’t as many as we originally thought. What about the remaining 119 programs?

    These are largely small grants to local institutions of civil society to provide for the common good. Quick examples involve $2.5 billion to facilitate adoption assistance, $500 million to help with homeless shelters, $250 million to help provide food for food shelters (and whose recent cuts were felt by those trying to fight food insecurity), or $10 million for low income taxpayer clinics.

    Well, if everyone was getting $20,000/yr, there would be a lot less need for food banks and homeless shelters. However, there would still be some need for nonprofit social services – a lot of folks on the street are drug-addicted, mentally ill, or both. Program-based evidence shows that providing them with a stable place to live and with plenty of social supports is effective in getting them stable, but just dropping a lump sum of money on them isn’t going to achieve it. That’s one way where social programs are more effective than just giving people money.

    A third of social programs being Medicaid is a much bigger issue. Going by the current costs of medical care in the US, you cannot simply give a person $20,000/yr and say “pay for your own medical care”. They wouldn’t remotely be able to afford it if anything major happened. A broken leg might be manageable, but cancer? Kidney failure?

    The major programs have administrative costs ranging between 1 percent (EITC) and 8.7 percent (housing vouchers), each proportionate to how much observation of recipients there is. Weighted, the average administrative cost is about 5 percent.

    …there isn’t a lot of fat here. If all the administrative costs were reduced to 1 percent, you’d save around $25 billion dollars. That’s not going to add enough cash to create a floor under poverty, much less a BIG, by any means.

    Based on this evidence, the problem isn’t bureaucracy wasting our money. A large part of the problem is that medical care is really, really expensive. And going by cost-comparisons between the US system and other countries, it’s considerably more expensive than it needs to be.

    [[Zwolinski’s] other example is a plan by Ed Dolan. Dolan doesn’t touch health care spending, and for our purposes doesn’t really touch Social Security. How does he get to his basic income? By wiping out tax expenditures without lowering tax rates. He zeros out tax expenditures like the mortgage interest deduction, charitable giving, and the personal exemption, and turns the increased revenue into a basic income.

    …Removing tax expenditures, which tend to go to those at the top of the income distribution, certainly seems like a good way to fund a BIG. However we’ll be raising taxes if we go this route… the top 20 percent of income earners will certainly believe their tax bill is going up and react accordingly.

    I’m not necessarily opposed to this, especially not to getting rid of the mortgage interest deduction – incentives towards people buying larger homes are really the opposite of what we want in terms of urban policy. If you’re making $20,000 every year before work, there’s less worries about saving for retirement, so you could rent for your whole life without a problem if you preferred that to a mortgage. People would be more mobile that way, too.

    On an emotional level I do like deductions for charitable giving. And a lot of small churches simply wouldn’t exist without it – the costs of a building, water, heat, and a pastor can cut things pretty close to the line without it. My church has been in the red for years. I understand that won’t hold much weight with atheists and agnostics on this blog, but it matters to me. And it’s not just churches – you’d gut the non-profit sector as a whole. Removing charitable deductions in order to fund GMI is essentially replacing private charity with the state, which ironically tends to be the exact opposite of what libertarians argue for.

    But the fact that a third of what’s being replaced is health care funding is still the gaping hole in Zwolinski’s proposal.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to KatherineMW says:

      This is mostly a good critique, that needs to be taken seriously. I see one off-point point, one silly point, and one serious point.

      Off-point point: Administrative costs. There’s no doubt they could be reduced with a BIG, but that’s not where the savings are expected to come from. It’s a bit of a red herring, although I don’t think intentionally so.

      Silly point: Charitable donations. First, I don’t think keeping his church afloat is a legitimate public policy issue. Second, nothing in the GMI/BIG proposal necessitates eliminating tax deductions to non-profit organizations. Some charitable organizations might close down because they find they’re not much needed anymore, but that wouldn’t have anything to do with disallowing tax deductions for contributions to non-profits. Because even if no humans needed charity anymore, the ASPCA would still be showing us pictures of sad-eyed puppies.

      Serious point: Medicaid. This is the real heart of the critique, I think, the part that really needs to be addressed. But I think it’s solvable. We could keep ACA and make sure that the GMI/BIG is sufficient to cover the mandated insurance plan, or if not, just keep the current subsidies for low income folks in place. Or we could go to a full national health plan (although the libertarians who support the idea might jump ship at that point, but who needs their three votes anyway). Or we could let the GMI cover basic medical care, and make catastrophic care a publicly carried burden. So you’re on your own for that ankle sprain, but your cancer treatments are on the American public. That broken bone…is that a finger or a back…Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to James Hanley says:

        The italics are Konczal, the non-italics are me. So the comment about the effect of removing the charitable deduction on churches was me. Even if you don’t think it’s a valid point of public policy, America is heavily religious and that alone would probably render the proposal politically infeasible.

        Second, nothing in the GMI/BIG proposal necessitates eliminating tax deductions to non-profit organizations.

        That’s not one of the things that the program is replacing? Konczal is saying that’s one place that the proposal is drawing its money from: “He zeros out tax expenditures like the mortgage interest deduction, charitable giving, and the personal exemption, and turns the increased revenue into a basic income.”Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        It could be done that way, but it’s not necessary to do it that way.

        But since it’s actually being proposed, I should not have said “silly.” I apologize.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to James Hanley says:

        No problem.

        It would be handy to know what proportion of the money was coming from each source – we know how much would be coming from Medicaid and the other social programs, but not how much it’s expected the government would gain from removing the mortgage deduction, the charitable-donations deduction, and the personal income-tax exemption. Numbers for that would provide some perspective on how necessary removing the charitable exemption is to this plan.Report

  15. James Pearce says:


    Oh, and, James, I just wanted to express gratitude and a full endorsement of this:

    “But I think libertarianism’s only serious hope for being politically influential is to not insist on ideological purity and instead focus on step-wise improvements to the system.”

    Split infinitive aside, yes, yes, and more yes.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to James Pearce says:

      Split infinitive aside

      I keep a very sharp knife just for that.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to James Pearce says:

      Non-libertarian wants libertarians to be less libertarian. Story at eleven.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Be as libertarian as you wish, Brandon. But if you’d like to be “politically influential” you should recognize the limits of libertarian orthodoxy.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        You’re both righ. It’s the difference betweeb libertarianism as a destination vs. libertarianism as a trajectory (or as Jaybird says, a vector). Both are legitimate viewpoints. Both may even be necessary to move libertarianism forward. But the two sides will never be entirely happy with each other.

        But conservatism has it’s so-called three-legged stool, and liberalism has its neo-liberals and progressives, so, shrug. As long as the Brandon Bergs and James Hanleys can talk to each other amicably, there’s hope.Report

  16. Chris says:

    I imagine that if we gave people a living wage-level income, you’d find that a lot of people who are already making less or about that wouldn’t work. Wages in low-wage sectors would go up, because the labor pool goes down, meaning that some people who were making less than a living wage suddenly have a living wage plus a decent wage for the work they actually do. So now you have people making more money for the same (still pretty shitty) work, and feeling significantly less stuck in it as well. Management has to be on its best behavior, because people don’t simply have to grin and bear it.

    Hell, you add in universal health care and suddenly you might have something in the direction of a decent society.

    Plus, all those people are buying stuff, because now they have more money and they don’t feel like the rug could be pulled out from under them at any moment. (They might even save something!)Report

  17. Jaybird says:

    There’s one thing that has been bugging me about this and, I suppose, it’s the critique that you can give to darn near every libertarian awesome theory:

    What About The Children?

    Not in the “should they get money? (at what age?)” sense but in the weird sense that a society that does this sort of thing will need to have a hell of a lot of surplus and for it to be sustainable, it will have to continue to have a hell of a lot of surplus.

    It’s one thing to take an adult and make this deal with him or her, but don’t we want to raise children to aspire to create more than they consume?

    This plan works awesome in a universe full of twenty-six year olds and up that stay that age forever… but I wonder what the second and third generation of kids raised in this society would look like.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      Well-housed, well-clad, well-nourished?Report

    • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

      I think you teach kids to aspire to more by teaching them to dream and wonder. Having basic needs met doesn’t impede dreaming. If a parent is going to teach a kid to aspire and create and grow they will. Those that don’t aren’t going to. I’d guess plenty of people go into solid important careers not out of any desire to aspire, but because they are safe solid jobs. I’m not sure why kids growing up in a BIG world would have any less drive then any other. Not that i’m sold on a BIG, but i’m cool with the principle it aims for.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

        One thing that I hoped there’d be numbers for but, of course, there aren’t is the numbers associated with children who grow up to do the same thing as one of their parents.

        Accountants who have a parent who was an accountant, teachers who had a parent who was a teacher, that sort of thing. For example, my sister is a teacher and both of my parents were teachers… now, of course, *I* am not a teacher… but I am guessing that I get my willingness to live with an alarm clock and other lifestyle choices from them.

        If we are going to have a BIG world, we’ll need people who make enough money for themselves *AND* for the people who aren’t themselves contributing to a BIG but recipients of it. We’ll want a lot more of the former than the latter. A lot a lot.Report

    • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

      I wonder what a the second or third generation of kids raised in poverty looks like.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        Well, the problem of poverty was here when I got here and it’ll be here when I leave. My own morality tells me to do something to the effect of “don’t make things worse in the meantime” and that includes a temporary alleviation of a first effect with a toxic secondary effect.

        I love the idea of making sure that children have all of the stuff that we talk about when we talk about a Liberaltopia. Yes, of course I want those things. But I don’t know that the problem with the last 50 years of the war on poverty is that republicans have been wrecking things behind the scenes.Report

    • James K in reply to Jaybird says:


      You’re assuming that a GBI gives people less of an incentive to work than the status quo, while I suspect the opposite is true.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Jaybird says:

      I may come off sounding suspiciously liberal here, but part of our intergenerational poverty problem is that kids are raised in environments where they’re too stressed and hungry to have a real chance to do well in school. This could change that.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:


        What data are you using to arrive at this conclusion and why are you assuming the big transfer would be used any better than the myriad programs currently available to kids?

        We are not debating whether kids need meals. The assumption today is that both? parents are conscientious enough to use existing programs combined with their own efforts to feed and nourish the minds and bodies of their loved ones. Replacing various programs aimed at supporting this endeavor with a weekly check isn’t likely to change the underlying dynamic. If their parents ignore them and don’t buy food and books and a good environment with the money, then nothing changes. I am sure you hope the check changes behaviors, but this seems more like wishful thinking to me.

        As to stress, what is causing stress in the household? I am sure some of that stress occurs as a result of the parents venting over the stress of looking for a decent job. I would guess not the majority though. My guess is much of the stress is related to the child being ignored, being neglected, being abused, being bullied, being around alcoholics or drug abusers, being in a broken home, etc.

        A weekly check isn’t going to do much to remove stress or put nutritious food in young bellies any more than all the little checks have before.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        Very few welfare recipients qualify for all the available programs. For many, the GMI would be a net increase in income.

        This is particularly true if each person in the family is receiving it. Hell, right now my household’s income would increase if each member got $20,000 per year, so this is likely to be even more true for people who are currently below the poverty line.

        Uncertainty about one’s ability to stay in current housing is a stressor. Uncertainty about whether there will be food in the house is a stressor. Watching one’s parents worry about money is a stressor (i can vouch for that from personal experience).

        Further, by providing guaranteed minimum income, street crime, including drug dealing, becomes relatively less attractive. This should produce a reduction in men going to prison, which should increase the number of stable households. Hell, to the extent conservatives are right that welfare itself destabilizes families by making it harder for a two-parent household to get it, this would eliminate that negative effect as well.

        In general, economic insecurity is one hell of a stressor for most people, and this would minimize that.

        No, it wouldn’t solve the problem of parents who are neglectful and abusive because they’re just that type of person. But nobody’s arguing that this is a panacea for bad parenting and that it will magically turn shitty people into wonderful human beings.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        In my comment I was careful to state that looking for a job or paying bills is clearly a source of stress. I do not believe it is a major source of debilitating childhood stress, nor do I think childhood starvation is a statistically significant issue (compared to say childhood obesity) or to the extent it is a problem (one starving child is too many) that it is at root caused by a lack of transfers.

        I am fine with you confidently asserting that these are significant stressors, that this program would on net put food on more children’s tables, that it would reduce crime, lead to more stable families and lead to all kinds of great outcomes and very few bad ones.

        But honestly, let’s admit that we are just making idle speculations. The only way to really know the future impacts of a revolutionary social reconstruction of this type is to test it in various ways over reasonable lengths of time and see what we learn. My first comment was that this is something which should be explored.

        My idle speculation is that the issues with underprivileged children runs substantially deeper than your comment implies, and that secondary and long term effects of a change of this type are going to be totally unpredictable.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Yes, but as Chris suggests above, we already know what third generational poverty looks like. I think it would be hard to build a really persuasive logical argument that third generational recipiency of a GMI would be worse. Of course I’d consider seriously any such argument, if one were inclined to make it.

        Of course I’m all for seeing an experiment first, too. The difficulty is that it clearly has to be a nationwide experiment. This can’t function just at a statewide level in the U.S. That’s why I was really hoping the Swiss would actually give it a whirl. I’m not so confident in the idea that I want my country to go first.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        I could make such an argument, but doing so would be idle speculation.

        If you are suggesting a nationwide experiment for the US to see what happens, then count me out. Indeed, I am surprised any libertarian or classical liberal would seriously propose such a social experiment of this scale. I am fine with learning from smaller countries or states which deem it prudent.

        I do not agree though that we could not experiment on smaller levels. We just need to work out the obviously messy details. I would consider this a hard problem of course, but not an impossible problem.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        Because this would replace all the federal welfare payments, this is not appropriate on a state level. The state can’t afford it through its own tax base, which it could not increase enough because its citizens are paying the federal taxes that support the federal programs. The actual prospects of persuading Congress to cancel all federal welfare supports in a single state while providing a GMI to that single state is, to me, inconceivable.

        If you think it can be done on a state level, perhaps you’re more perceptive than I am, and can show me how. But I don’t see it, which is why I want other countries to experiment before we do.Report

      • The difficulty is that it clearly has to be a nationwide experiment.

        This is an excellent point. In the few years after Brandeis made his “laboratories of democracy” remark, it became much more difficult for states to experiment with social insurance.

        When then-Governor Schweitzer proposed a universal healthcare system for Montana, the proposed funding was going to include federal Medicaid and Medicare dollars. Vermont’s state mandate to convert the state to a single-payer system has the same problem: they need all of the federal healthcare dollars that would be spent in the state to make it fiscally feasible.

        The problem has spread into other situations. California has enough market clout to experiment with automobile emissions standards. Other states, not so much.Report

      • greginak in reply to James Hanley says:

        Also it has to be Fed level thing since the Feds can run deficit which AFAIK states are allowed to. Any social insurance plan has to be able to count on continuing to pay out even in down times. It has to be able to work countercyclical. As SI whose payments massively decrease or are cut when convenient/budgets get tight isn’t actually providing a safety net and will never get raised back up.Report

      • Patrick in reply to James Hanley says:

        You couldn’t do it at the state level because folks would pretty easily game the system. Live in Texas collecting your GBI, and when you need support move to California and soak them.

        Pretty big free rider problem.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        I could work up some creative solutions on the front side of a napkin if people are interested. On the second thought, maybe you guys could give it a try.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        Roger, sometimes you just gotta let us ignorant folk work thru this stuff at our own pace.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        Feel free to share your list.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:


        A good mow.

        How’s that?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        I could work up some creative solutions on the front side of a napkin if people are interested.

        I asked, so I am interested. But I think the proper form is the back of an envelope. Less barbecue sauce or something.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        Funny story. The most important product I ever helped to create and launch — which has since become a standard within the industry — was first conceived on the front of an airline cocktail napkin on a flight from Philadelphia to Chicago. We didn’t save the napkin though.

        I strongly encourage smaller scale testing as above. The most obvious place would be to see how various experiments work in other nations which are either smaller or where this is more practical. As it is tried in other places we can learn from their successes and failures.

        I would also argue for state level experimentation. Some ways to explore:
        1) allow (dare I still say limit?) the Guaranteed Income (paid by the Feds) only to people in the locale officially as residents as of a date, or born to these official residents.
        2). Same as above but allow those transferring into state to get the GI as long as they also acquire a job
        3) same as 1 or 2 but allow those not working to get phased in benefits such as zero first year, 25% second and so on
        4) same as 1 or 2 but have a phase in and phase out of the old and new (in other words a gradual multi year replacement strategy which shifts from multiple programs to GI for non-employed folks moving in to the state.
        5). Pick a state looking for lots of immigration (ND or Alaska) or in a state nobody wants to move to (ND or Alaska)
        6). Just do it and see what happens. As long as the Fed Govt is paying the freight for the experiment, the direct costs and benefits are there holistically anyways. The local immigration problems are more secondary in nature.
        7) combine this idea with a work requirement idea of the type we have previously discussed (links available)
        8). Combine this test idea with a free market enterprise zone idea. Then we could use it to revitalize places like Detroit.

        Well, that is all my napkin can hold for now. Note I am quite aware that some ideas are mutually incompatible and others could be further combined or varied.

        If we need more ideas I say we squeeze Stillwater for them. I suspect he is holding out on us.Report

      • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        surely you’ve seen hoarders? Kids who stuff their room filled with rotting food, because they can’t be sure of when their next meal is coming?

        Stress leads to obesity, sure as sunday. And obesity leads to poorer performance, both in seeking jobs, and in school.Report

  18. Brandon Berg says:

    Honestly, poor people’s work isn’t worth much. That’s why they’re poor. So I don’t think it’s a huge loss to the economy if this reduces the incentive for low-SES people to work. And reduction in their incentives to work would be somewhat offset by reduction in disincentives to work from the ridiculously high implicit marginal tax rates from welfare phase-outs and cut-offs.

    What concerns me is the effect this may have on the middle class, and how it may normalize living on the dole—that it might just become a thing you do for a few years before or after college because all your friends are doing it, and that for some people it might even become a permanent way of life.

    Overall, I think a combination of the EITC and some sort of last-resort job guarantee is a better solution than either this or the awful status quo.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      it might just become a thing you do for a few years before or after college because all your friends are doing it

      Wanderjahrs for everyone? I’m not sure that’s not a brilliant idea.Report

    • Roger in reply to Brandon Berg says:


      I think you are committing the exact same fallacy that we constantly berate the left for.

      The poor are not a fixed group of people with labels permanently etched on their foreheads. The poor are pretty much all of us at some stages of our lives. The danger of dis incentivizing work for those currently not making much or anything is its effect on the ladder of economic advancement. If you don’t require young people to learn to start climbing, some won’t ever get these skills. They will not be fully socialized as productive members of society.

      The poor are not just people incapable of ever adding much productive value to society. The bigger set is people who are not currently adding value, but could with proper skills and mores.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Roger says:

        The bigger set is people who are not currently adding value, but could with proper skills and mores.

        The GMI would make people more able to go a few years without work in order to pursue a college or university education, or training in a trade, and thus enable currently unskilled people to contribute more value to the economy.Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:


        Yeah maybe — I would certainly like to hope so. But we are simply speculating and rationalizing at this point. I am all for looking at actual empirical data based upon similar types of programs and then if prudent move forward in states or places willing to try. My guess is that we will find many of our fears are unfounded, some of our hopes were illusionary and that things we never even dreamed of — good and bad — crop up.Report

    • veronica d in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      I know a lot of anarcho-punks who would do exactly that, pay their rent, food, and bus fair using GMI and otherwise while away their days writing punk rock songs and shagging. (Which is mostly what they do now, except add a few hours a week at a go-nowhere crap job.)

      Anyway, I’m okay with this. Lovely people, anarcho-punks.Report

  19. Road Scholar says:

    I’ve actually worked something out (like, a spreadsheet and everything) based on a citizens dividend from a Georgist land value tax (details upon request) that I believe answers a lot of the concerns being expressed here.

    Basically, my plan would establish an account for each citizen at birth with about $15,000 being credited to it annually. This would be available to the individual for three or four basic purposes; health insurance premiums (default public with private option), education (primary, secondary, vo-tech, professional, public or private), disability insurance premiums, and the remainder building up for retirement savings. For minors the account would be administered as a trust by parents.

    The health insurance premiums would be calculated by age cohorts so it starts out small (once you get past the first year with preemies and such kids are cheap to insure). Parents would be able to use the funds to send their kids to whatever school they like; public, private, parochial. A key feature wrt to college and professional education is the ability to deficit spend the account with payback being automatic via the annual influx. Finally, I envision being able to officially “retire” at any age over, say 25 or 30, with the account paying out an actuarially determined annuity. The account would earn interest at a nominal rate of around three to five percent annually.

    I’ve worked out various scenarios assuming more or less being spent on education and the the balance — and therefore the annuity payout — builds up impressively. Faster for someone with less education so they can replace their work income by perhaps age fifty or so. Folks with more education would likely have higher income and consequently more ability to save outside this system, as well as likely desiring a longer career life. In general, a system like this would still encourage work during your productive years but relieve unemployment pressures organically through a shortened work life.

    I would then combine all that with guaranteed employment at a decent wage for any citizen on demand. This creates a normalized supply and demand environment for labor such that the market for labor can actually function like economists pretend it does now.

    All that sounds expensive, and it is! But it also displaces all current spending at all levels of government for health care, education, retirement income, unemployment, and disability. That’s something like 3/4 of government spending. And it does so without seriously disincentivizing work and affording personal choice in living your life.

    Anyway, that’s my plan and I’m sticking to it 😉Report

    • Murali in reply to Road Scholar says:

      I worry that a land tax can be gamed, but maybe I’m just prejudiced. I also worry whether 3-5% interest rate is sustainable. But otherwise looks goodReport

    • Murali in reply to Road Scholar says:

      Except for the healthcare thing universal comprehensive insurance seems like a quick way to reach certain bad equilibriums in healthcare outcome. better to have a universal HSA with high deductible catastrophic plan (at least as the public option. People can purchase more on the private market if they want to)Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Road Scholar says:

      I like the idea except for the guaranteed employment on demand. How’s that going to work?Report

      • Murali in reply to James Hanley says:

        abolish the minimum wage and most business regs. That gets you to unemployment rates of close to 2% or less. That is very close to being employed on demand.Report

      • abolish the minimum wage

        This doesn’t seem to be consistent with Road’s requirement that the jobs pay a decent wage.

        Also, 2% unemployment applied to the US workforce is a bit over three million people. More than that, actually, since that number doesn’t include discouraged workers who have left the workforce, but would be back in a heartbeat if they were guaranteed a job. For comparison, there are about 1.8M direct federal government civilian employees today.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        I assume a significant part of the point of a guaranteed income is to eliminate the need for arbitrary employer requirements and regulations on the price of labor (minimum wages, mandatory benefits, and such).

        I assume this is part of a conscious effort to avoid the economic destructive effects of placing burdens of social welfare on employers.

        I assume that we would have a guaranteed income instead of a minimum wage and mandatory benefits. Absent these there is no long term reason to expect any significant unemployment. Of course this doesn’t mean everyone will be employed. Just that those not employed are so because they don’t find employment worth it based upon the wages set based on their expected productivity.

        If we are talking guaranteed income and minimum wages and transfer program X, Y and Z, count me out.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        Apart from the “I assume, I assume, I assume” mantra – which is beguiling to be sure – the problem I have with this comment is the same problem I have with so many of your comments: it makes no sense. Eg

        I assume a significant part of the point of a guaranteed income is to eliminate the need for arbitrary employer requirements and regulations on the price of labor (minimum wages, mandatory benefits, and such).

        If we are talking guaranteed income and minimum wages and transfer program X, Y and Z, count me out.

        Of course, I don’t want to give the impression that these types of problems are the only problem I have with your comments. 🙂Report

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        If you want to incentivize not working, an excellent way to do it would be to give people money and make it so that any jobs they could get would pay them very little above that. “Here’s $20k. Now, we’ve done away with the minimum wage, so you can either live on that $20k, or supplement it by working at Walmart for $1.25 an hour. What’s it going to be?”

        Like I said above, though, I think universal basic income makes wages for unskilled and low skill jobs go up, because people won’t feel like they have to work a shitty job just to survive. So the labor supply goes down until employers pay enough for people to feel like menial labor is worth it.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:


        And your comment assumes what Patrick called the “libertarian general theory of labor”, which is that monetary incentives drive the bus. There are other views in play, of course, like the dignity of work, or that people get bored doing nothing, or that people like to be productive contributors, etc, etc.

        I think you’re right on this issue (maybe for different reasons 🙂 and that the marginal gain realized from wage earning work would actually increase, thereby increasing the likelihood that productively inclined people would be inclined to be even more productive. At least, it’s not something we could rule out a priori!Report

      • I would bet pretty good money that the end result of UBI, unless a lot of steps were made to prevent it, would result in considerably lower labor force participation (measured in terms of hours or FTE).Report

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        I do think money drives the bus, because we’ve set it up that way. And we’ve also created social pressure to work, to be gainfully employed, which creates a situation in which dignity works against itself: dignity is wrapped up in being employed, even if that means taking a job that does its best to rob you of it (as so many employers do to their low wage employees, and as society often does to low wage workers in the way that it treats them).

        If people don’t have to work to survive, then if they work, they will do so out of a desire to be productive members of society, and they will take jobs that make them feel like they are being such, and are treated as such, rather than taking any shitty jobs available. In other words, a universal basic income makes working less about money for those who most need it, because it becomes a choice.

        I think I’ve said this before, but I think one of the greatest moral failings of our culture is that work is not a choice, which inevitably results in exploitation. If you make work a choice, the opportunity for exploitation diminishes greatly.

        Another thing that would happen: if you give a universal basic income, particularly if you supplement it with housing, I guarantee you much of the recidivism you see that drives our prison-industrial complex, if you will, goes away. i have a good friend who worked for years as one of the directors of Texas’ reemployment program for recently released prisoners. The story he told me over and over again went like this: man gets out of jail, the state tries its damnedest to find him a job and a place to live. Perhaps man gets a shitty job, perhaps he gets stuck hanging out at day labor camps, perhaps he doesn’t find anything at all, because the only people who want to hire ex-cons, if anyone does, are people who can’t get anyone else to do the work. After a month or two or six, man decides that shitty job or chronic unemployment as means of staying out of prison is not worth it, and goes back to selling drugs or getting high or stealing or whatever. Man ends up in jail again. After a few years, man gets out, state tries to find him a job, rinse and repeat.Report

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        Though knowing our country as I do, I suspect that both law and order Republicans and law and order Democrats would demand that convicted felons be excluded from any universal income. Because nothing says law and order like perpetuating the systematic production of lifelong criminals.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        I do think money drives the bus, because we’ve set it up that way. And we’ve also created social pressure to work, to be gainfully employed, which creates a situation in which dignity works against itself

        Well, I certainly didn’t set it up that way. Maybe we can agree with the terminology it’s set up that way, with reinforcement by lots of people who didn’t set it up and leave the substance of that phrase open for further discussion.

        Lawd knows that there are lots of people who want to equate working for wages with dignity and all that, but those are folks who seem all-too-easily accepting of the idea that people’s cultural value in life (which for them equate to their personal value) is determined by their economic value. I don’t know how that idea has gained such a stranglehold over our discourse on these topics, but it surely isn’t because “we’ve all decided so.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        And to expand on that last point, in a recent post one of the OT principals wrote a post citing the work of Harold Lasswell affirmatively. For all his merits as an economist (of which I’m agnostic) Lasswell is also the guy who pretty much invented modern propaganda and introduced the concept “manufacture of consent” into politics as a way to undermine the normal process of democratic determination of policies.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        I am not following you, SW.

        My support for an idea of this type is in great part because it will require less interference in terms of employment. It is the living part underlying living wage. Are those on the left asking for guaranteed living income and minimum wages? Why?Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        I am not following you, SW.

        No surprise there, Roger. If I could identify anything that prevents real communication between us it’s that you don’t understand a word that I’m saying.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to James Hanley says:

        “I would bet pretty good money that the end result of UBI, unless a lot of steps were made to prevent it, would result in considerably lower labor force participation”

        Actually, I think a labor force with a considerably lowered participation rate would need to be a precondition of moving to a UBI system. If the automation trend continues, and there’s no sign of it stopping, we may find ourselves with more people than jobs.

        In that scenario, wouldn’t the UBI be a response to a smaller labor force, rather than the cause of it?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        FYI, Lasswell was a political scientist, not an economist. And he hardly “invented” modern propaganda, but was just one of the leaders in the modern analysis of it who saw it as not inherently a bad thing, but a tool usable for good or ill, and said it was good for governments of diverse democracies to use it to create public opinion, because they can’t simply follow public opinion when it’s very diverse.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:


        Like I said! Bernays coined the term. The rest is an exercise in implantation.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        Implantation works. But I meant implementation. Either way, tho…Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        I wonder if others who favor eliminating the MW on its own merits would concur with @murali offering a concrete prediction about the resulting employment effect. What would be the natural unemployment rate at full employment in the U.S. absent the MW?

        In any case, I appreciate the willingness to put a number out there from Murali. (Not sure if he was thinking of the U.S. there, or saying that should be the case anywhere. Doesn’t seem like the latter could be right.)Report

      • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        So we would be able to have 3 year olds working? [Yes, this is a serious question with a basis in factual reality– younger than age 3, kids are almost impossible to work with.]
        How about overtime?Report

    • Talk to me about the transition. Since I’m about at the age where it matters, let’s consider retirement. On day one, you can’t have the Social Security payroll tax revenue for the new scheme because that’s needed to pay the people drawing SS benefits. Or if you’re going to transition those folks to a paid-up private annuity equivalent to SS, you have to come up with several trillion dollars to transfer to the life insurance companies that underwrite that sort of arrangement (they charge an arm and a leg for an inflation guarantee like SS’s). The SS trust fund isn’t nearly enough — the trust fund is not, and was never intended to be, an actuarially sound investment out of which benefits could all be paid.

      This comment is my experience as a state budget analyst writing. The big problem there was very often not finding a better scheme than what we already had — it was finding a way to get from where we are to that better place that didn’t involve impossible up-front costs. I’m not criticizing the proposal per se, I’m asking how we get from here to there.Report

  20. Patrick says:

    One observation:

    The general theory of labor, as I understand it, from the libertarian perspective is that folks work more to earn more. They work harder to earn more. They gain skillsets to earn more. The major incentive is “earning more”.

    In order for a GBI to provide a real disincentive to work, you’d have to either have it staggeringly large, such that there is no desire to “earn more”, or the folks that just drop out of working altogether are already predisposed to not being productive in the first place, or you’ve seriously misjudged the innate desire of folks to work harder, improve their skillsets, for the sake of earning more.

    If you gave me $20k a year base income, I know what I would do with it (immediately spend it on home improvements, some of which are desperately needed). If you gave most “already established” folks $20k extra a year I’m pretty sure they would *immediately* either pay down debt or do that project that they’ve always wanted to do or buy that thing they’ve been saving up to buy. It would be an enormous stimulus on the economy, I’d guess. The poor folks, of course, would immediately spend it if the lottery is any judge (the one cautious argument against a GBI is that there’s sufficient evidence that shows that folks that haven’t had the historical opportunity to learn to manage money usually don’t manage money well when they get a windfall).

    But the folks that would be sufficiently disincentivized to not work are already not working.

    There’s also folks who might be willing to live base, marginal existences for a year or two while they try to get established as a creative force. So I expect that even a chunk of the folks who are ‘not working’ under a GBI are actually working all right, they’re just doing something nobody wants to pay them to do (yet). Not sure that’s a bad thing.

    Seems to me like it’s a subsidy to cover risk, which actually increases freedom rather than limits it. In particular, since strings are not attached, there’s no overhead or time loss. One of the drawbacks of the existing welfare state is that we spend so much time and effort making sure people are only getting the correct sort of assistance that lots of folks who qualify for assistance don’t get it, because they don’t know how to do the paperwork.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Patrick says:

      Thanks, this clarifies a thought that’s been kicking around in my head. In the presence of a BIG, firms may face an “interesting” new situation. I’ll describe it in first person for convenience.

      My wife and I could live very comfortably on $80K/year, especially if half of it is not subject to payroll or income taxes. So I get $20K as BIG, and she gets $20K as BIG, and now we need to find that other $40K. I’m good at writing real-time software, but I don’t need a $120K/year or even $80K/year full-time job doing so; I need/want a $40K half-time job. I suspect that there are a lot of skilled people in the same position. The ACA exchanges take care of one of the other incentives for full-time work, access to a guaranteed-issue community-rated health insurance group plan. Assuming the BIG replaces other social insurance plans, some of the costs of having part-time skilled employees have gone away. For example, unemployment insurance taxes, paid on the first $X of annual earnings per employee.

      But the tech business, in my experience, is built around the concept of the salaried full-time-or-more worker. Paid by the year, expected to put in 40 hrs/week (less vacation and such), but also expected to put in 60 hrs/week when the ship date is approaching and the software’s not finished. There would have to be a huge adjustment if a large part of the skilled workforce decided that it would rather work part time.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Patrick says:

      One of the drawbacks of the existing welfare state is that we spend so much time and effort making sure people are only getting the correct sort of assistance that lots of folks who qualify for assistance don’t get it, because they don’t know how to do the paperwork.

      Semi-interesting tale…

      Back in the 1990s, the State of Colorado decided that it should buy a single software system to handle client intake and benefit calculations for the welfare programs. The primary goal was to get rid of a bunch of older systems that were becoming difficult/impossible to maintain; a secondary goal was to address exactly the problem you mention. CBMS has had ongoing problems, in large part (IMO) because the legislature mismanaged some things. Nevertheless, when the software rolled out, there was an immediate jump in the average number of programs that clients were enrolled in.

      Intake is actually done by county welfare office workers in Colorado. The counties reacted to unified intake in one of two ways. The big liberal counties embraced it because clients were getting the benefits to which they were entitled under statute. Small rural counties, where intake often meant one or two workers who had to handle all the programs, embraced it because dealing with one system instead of seven made their lives much easier. In between were the counties who went out of their way to try to defeat the system because, well, “applying for welfare should be difficult and degrading.” They made life hard for both the clients and their workers by continuing to require clients to apply (for example) for food stamps at one location and child welfare at another. Harder for the workers because the intake worker at both food stamps and child welfare had to ask the full set of questions for both programs; the software didn’t give them a choice.

      I’ve been away from it for a few years now and don’t know if the middle batch of counties has given up or not. I suspect so — when I left the legislative staff, the legislature was starting to ask questions about whether counties were spending the state-provided administrative money efficiently.Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to Patrick says:

      The poor folks, of course, would immediately spend it if the lottery is any judge (the one cautious argument against a GBI is that there’s sufficient evidence that shows that folks that haven’t had the historical opportunity to learn to manage money usually don’t manage money well when they get a windfall).

      If you’re giving it out every month or every two weeks, which is what I’d presume, then it’s not a windfall; it’s a regular income. I think that would change people’s behaviour over time.Report

      • Patrick in reply to KatherineMW says:

        I imagine that it would change people’s behavior over time.

        And of course, the fact that the poor would spend it immediately in the beginning doesn’t imply that they’d spend it on hookers and blow; the poor have a lot of immediate necessities that they kinda need. That’s why we call them “poor” in the first place.Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Patrick says:

      “If you gave me $20k a year base income…”

      If you took me at the time of college graduation, when I was already accustomed to living on $15K a year, and said “you can do absolutely nothing more than you’ve already been doing, for the rest of your life, and we’ll give you more money then you’re getting now and you don’t have to work”, then I might well have said “awesome, sign me up”.

      You think that $20K a year is insufficient because you’ve cultivated expensive tastes, but what if someone’s cultivated tastes are microwave burritos and Xbox all weekend?Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Jim Heffman says:


        Perhaps we think about welfare wrong. Such systems should not be thought of as “paying people to be lazy”, but rather “paying people to stay the hell out of the workforce!”.

        Nothing is so damaging to an organizations efficiency than that one person who doesn’t care, doesn’t want to be there, and is just punching a clock to collect a paycheck. Sometimes, I think we’d be better off just paying them to sit at home eating cheetos & playing XBox.Report

      • Nothing is so damaging to an organizations efficiency than that one person who doesn’t care, doesn’t want to be there, and is just punching a clock to collect a paycheck. Sometimes, I think we’d be better off just paying them to sit at home eating cheetos & playing XBox.

        …And to be clear here, if I’m not mitaken the “we” who’d be better off paying people to sit at home @mad-rocket-scientist refers to here is *just the one particular employer in question*; not even “society” or “the government,” etc. (Obviously whether that’s true at all in an organization will depend entirely on the organization and its cash flow situation.) Point being, it’s even sometimes worth it at firm level, and the lift there is a lot heavier than the societal lift of dealing with such people with a degree of generosity. (I optimistically like to think of many of them as mis-employued rather than unemployable, though by all means some of them are probably basically unemployable, at least at the salary they’re drawing.)

        I might have MRS wrong to say that, but if not I thought it was a distinction worth underlining.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        And that’s how we get structural unemployment. “You don’t have the ability to do *any* of the jobs that are available in today’s economy. Here’s your dole card.”Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Jim Heffman says:


        I wasn’t being specific on who “we” was (perhaps it was The Royal We – make the queen pay for it), I was just ranting a bit.


        We already have that to a degree with disability payments.

        Of course, being a disabled person myself (at least, the Navy says I’m 60% disabled), I’m always wary of those who claim to be too disabled to work. I mean, if Stephen Hawking can hold down a damn job… No, a real finding of disability should come with a voc-rehab requirement, preferably with some comprehensive career counseling to make sure the person is not, as Michael said, mis-employed.Report

      • Kim in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        it takes significant brainpower to hold down Hawkings’ job.
        And he’s not above using pity to keep it, either.
        [He could upgrade that voice synth at any point, and sound
        like a real human being, and not a robot.]Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Patrick says:

      There’s also folks who might be willing to live base, marginal existences for a year or two while they try to get established as a creative force. So I expect that even a chunk of the folks who are ‘not working’ under a GBI are actually working all right, they’re just doing something nobody wants to pay them to do (yet). Not sure that’s a bad thing.

      There goes @patrick again, going all mind-meldy on me.Report

  21. Stillwater says:

    welfare programs at the federal level alone cost more than $668 billion annually, spread across at least 126 different programs. Add another $284 of welfare spending at the state and local level, and you’ve got almost $1 trillion dollars of government spending on welfare – over $20,000 for every poor person in the United States.

    Let’s call it an even trillion dollars in welfare spending. His math means we’re assuming 50,000,000 poor people in the US, and those are the folks targeted for the BIG. Not everyone. If *everyone* received a check for twenty grand as part of a GI program, the numbers would be staggering, increasing by a factor of +/- seven to something like 7 trillion dollars.

    I don’t think he meant for everyoneto receive a check, did he? Eg, he says “Wouldn’t it be better just to scrap the whole system and write the poor a check?” Seems to me like lots of people, perhaps including the writer of the OP, are under a mistaken impression about the scope of those subsidies.

    In any event, I tend to think the idea has more than passing merit. I also think it’s a progressive idea which could only be implemented by dragging all the kicking and screaming opposers along for a ride they might never forgive or forget being taken on.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Stillwater says:

      If you don’t cut everybody a check, then you have a whole bunch of other problems.

      You can, of course, get most of the check back by taxes, with an appropriate tax schedule. It would be easier to manage this by the tax code than it would be to manage it by trying to figure out who does and who does not qualify for the check in the first place, oddly enough.Report

      • Chris in reply to Patrick says:

        Yeah, I assume that any universal basic income is going to have to come with a progressive tax schedule that makes the net amount for people who don’t need it effectively $0. The point of doing it that way, aside from issues of discrimination, is that if you suddenly need it, it’s there. If we only give it to people who already need it, a substantial portion of its utility is lost .Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Patrick says:


        It’d have to. I could even see imposing progressive penalties for people cashing those checks when they don’t *need* to.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Patrick says:

        My understanding of how a BIG is implemented is that everyone gets $X. If you make $0, you get $X. If you make $Y & $Y $X, you get to contribute to the system for the poor folks making $Y.Report

  22. Damon says:

    I’m not going to troll through 216 comments, but Matt’s article talks about how the bureauacracy would be diminished by this plan. He’s right, but he’s also forgetting that all those people that administer these programs will be out of jobs….gov’t employees…that are hard to fire…that are resistant to change…that vote…and in a lot of cases, may be unionized.Report

  23. ScarletNumbers says:

    the BIG would require less bureaucracy

    This could be a bug, rather than a feature. After all, those bureaucrats would be left unemployed under this plan. Then again, getting BIG should ease their pain.Report