December 16, 2013 columns

A Basic Income as Reparation: Response to My Critics, Part 1

Zwolinski offers more arguments for his claim that a guaranteed basic income can be one way to rectify historical injustice—and needn’t violate libertarian principles.

My essay on libertarian arguments for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) generated a number of thoughtful responses, including some fairly critical comments from David Henderson and David Friedman. In this essay, I will respond to some of their concerns regarding the argument based on rectification for historical injustice, and will say a bit more about the argument that a BIG would be better, from a libertarian perspective, than our current welfare state. In a follow-up essay, I will expand greatly upon a third argument that neither Friedman nor Henderson addressed – the Hayekian argument for a basic income on grounds of freedom and democratic legitimacy.

Before I do that, however, I want to make clear that my position on a Basic Income Guarantee is not one of unqualified support. I do believe that each of the three arguments I presented in my original piece is plausible, and worth taking seriously by libertarians. But I also think the three objections I presented to the policy are quite powerful. As a result, my overall position on a Basic Income Guarantee is somewhat ambivalent. I think there are good reasons to support such a policy, but also some good reasons to oppose it, and I am not entirely certain at this point which way the balance of reasons tips.

With that said, however, it does not seem to me that the criticisms presented by Friedman and Henderson do much to undermine the libertarian case in favor of a basic income that I set out in my original piece.

For starters, it is worth noting that the great bulk of Friedman’s and Henderson’s criticisms are directed exclusively at the second argument I presented – the Nozickian idea that some form of welfare state might be (temporarily) justifiable as a means of compensating for past injustice. Henderson has nothing, and Friedman only very little, to say about the other two arguments. But if any one of the arguments is successful, that is all that is needed for the case for a basic income to go through.

Regarding my first argument, that a basic income would be preferable on libertarian grounds to our current welfare state, Friedman says only that he worries that a basic income would likely be added on top of our current welfare state, rather than substituted for it as a replacement. And this is a real concern. But it does not seem to me to constitute any reason not to advocate for a basic income as a replacement, so long as we insist upon the elimination of other transfer programs, preferably through the mechanism of a constitutional amendment. Once in place, the relatively automatic and mechanical administration of a BIG will almost certainly make it less susceptible to the kind of public choice worries that plague our current system. Rent seeking happens when political agents are able to exploit their discretionary power to serve their own ends rather than the public good. Minimize discretion, as you do with a BIG, and you minimize the opportunity for effective rent-seeking.

This first argument is pragmatic, to be sure. But that, by itself, does not make it un-libertarian. After all, the pragmatic goal that the policy is aimed at achieving is a dramatic reduction in the cost, intrusiveness, and administrative overhead of the current welfare state. If that doesn’t count as a genuine libertarian goal, I don’t know what does.

Turning now to the Nozickian argument, I think it is probably the weakest of the three arguments I presented, so it is in some ways unsurprising that is has drawn the great majority of the criticism. Even still, I do not think it is as weak as Friedman and Henderson make it out to be. After all, much of what Friedman and Henderson have to say against the proposal merely reiterates what I myself conceded in my original essay – that a basic income would be an extremely imperfect mechanism for compensating for past injustice, giving money to some people who have not suffered from past injustice, and taking money from some who have not caused or benefitted from it. But any method of correcting for past injustice – including doing nothing about it at all – is imperfect from the standpoint of justice. We simply do not have the kind of detailed information about past events or the relevant counterfactuals that would be necessary to make everyone precisely as well of as they would have been had no injustice occurred. 

But the fact a BIG would be an imperfect mechanism for rectifying past injustice leaves open the possibility that it is better than any available alternative – in the same way that the existence of market “imperfections” does not suffice to demonstrate that any alternative involving government intervention would be better. The case for BIG, then, is based not on any claim to perfection, but simply on its being better (or less bad) than the alternatives

Why might one think this? First, it seems perfectly clear that many currently living Americans suffer harms traceable to past injustices. Descendants of slaves enter life with fewer material and social advantages than they would have had their ancestors never been enslaved. But the same is true, to a greater or lesser extent, of other persons whose ancestors were harmed by past unjust policies – be it the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, or the unjust discrimination by the federal government against Jews, Chinese, Irish, and so on. Whatever the status of “methodological individualism,” groups exist and they matter. As I have written elsewhere:

Individuals belong to families that transmit economic, cultural, and other advantages (and disadvantages) from one generation to the next. Individuals have racial, religious, and ethnic identities, and those identities shape the way they are treated by other individuals and institutions both consciously and subconsciously, intentionally and unintentionally. Put these two kinds of identity together and it’s easy enough to see that injustices against an individual in one generation can negatively affect other individuals in later generations. And that systematic injustices against certain groups of individuals can have systematic effects on other members of those groups in later generations.

Friedman seems to think that this claim is problematized if we draw a distinction between wealth due to past rights violations and wealth inherited from such violations. But the strongest claim for compensation is based not on the claim that present Americans have benefitted from past injustices, but that current Americans have been harmed by them. After all, slavery might have been, on net, harmful to all Americans – once we take into account the costs of enforcing it, the costs of the Civil War, the consequent growth in power of the federal government, and so on. Suppose slavery really was grossly inefficient – suppose we had paid slaves merely to roll rocks from one side of a field to another (an example I borrow from David Boonin’s excellent book, Should Race Matter?). Even if this slavery had made us all poorer, it’s hard to see how this fact would undermine the claim that slaves (or their descendants) are owed compensation for the harms unjustly imposed on them.    

Second, many of these injustices were perpetrated by the government of the United States, or at the very least allowed to occur when it should have been doing something to prevent them. So the question of whether individual Americans are culpable is beside the point. No doubt the individual perpetrators of injustice would be at least partially responsible, if they were still alive. But claims against a corporate entity such as the federal government do not disappear simply because the individual members of that corporation have died or retired. The U.S. government was responsible for perpetrating or tolerating the violation of individual rights, and so it is the U.S. government that owes compensation for that wrong today, whether or not other individual agents should also be held responsible.

A quick rejoinder to a likely objection: libertarians are likely to be skeptical of this claim, noting that government has no resources of its own and so must take from others to repay its debts. I will respond only by noting that this argument applies equally well to all government debts, including not just controversial debts of reparation but relatively uncontroversial ones like paying its employees for work done, sending out tax refunds, etc. Perhaps it’s true that government shouldn’t exist at all, and so none of these debts should ever have been incurred. But it does, and they were.

Third, even if nothing we can do now will put everything back exactly as it should have been, we at the very least have a very strong moral obligation to ensure that nobody is so harmed by past injustice that they lack the resources needed to live a decent life. It’s morally bad that anyone should be harmed to any degree by injustice. But it is morally intolerable that they are so harmed by such injustice that they lack the material and social resources needed to develop their basic capabilities as human beings.

Putting these together, it seems that we have a very good case for endorsing a Basic Income Guarantee as a kind of “moral insurance policy” – a way for our government to meet the obligation that it incurred by its direct violation of or complicity in the violation of individuals’ rights, at least in the minimal sense of avoiding the morally intolerable result of leaving individuals below the threshold of minimal capability because of those violations.

Such a policy will not be perfect. But if it satisfies a relatively urgent moral demand, at a relatively acceptable moral cost, then there is a good case to be made on its behalf as the best imperfect alternative we’ve got.

But I think that we can say even more on behalf of a BIG than this. If the BIG is necessary, not only to rectify for past injustice, but in order to defend the freedom of currently existing citizens, then we will have an argument on its behalf that libertarians, of all people, will be under especially strong pressure to take seriously. Such an argument, I will show in my next essay, is precisely what we find in the work of Friedrich Hayek.