A Response to the Basic Income FAQ – In Five Parts (2/5)

(Nick’s Notes: For part one, click here!)

Most libertarians, honestly.

In the last part I went over why, at the very least, I’m highly skeptical of a universal basic income (UBI) distributed by the government. This time around I want to talk about the moral problems for the UBI. And I know that in the previous post I said that most of my problems around the UBI don’t have to do with morality. And while that’s true, that doesn’t mean I don’t have any moral issues or couldn’t stand to mention at least a few.

So in that spirit, I’m going to address Santens post Wouldn’t a basic income just be stealing from those who earned their money? and take it from the top:

This kind of question is built on the assumption that all money earned is earned fairly and justly, and all money taxed is both unfair and unjust.

Well, maybe.

I could certainly see some folks who ask this (i.e. right-leaning libertarians) thinking that private accumulation is inherently just and therefore any money taken from them is thus unfair. But I’m more of a left-libertarian and so I tend to disagree with assumptions like those and agree that at least some money is unfairly earned in society.

Namely corporations that rely on subsidies from the state are earning income to subsidize their businesses that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get in a freed market. There are corporate executives who use intellectual property to make sure they retain more money than they otherwise would if information was free and abundant. And of course, some people earn their money through murder, theft, exploitation of others, etc. So sure, I’ll cede this assumption isn’t fair.

But none of that means taxing those folks is either moral or practical. So do we need to agree with this assumption to maintain the original question is valid? I don’t think that we do.

Here’s the thing, that idea of private property we take for granted as the foundation of just about everything? Perhaps we shouldn’t just take it for granted. Now, by not taking it for granted, I’m not suggesting the idea of private property shouldn’t exist or that it shouldn’t be enforced. But I am suggesting that by enforcing it as we do, we create a situation that wouldn’t exist naturally, and therefore perhaps ethically requires that we compensate for it in some way.

I’m curious if Santens is aware of Georgism. It seems likely to me that he is but if he isn’t, he should take a look. I’m not a Georgist myself and won’t pretend enough to think I could comprehensively explain it. But a lot of his criticisms here reminds me of Georgism and their critique of the ways we take property for granted.

None of which is to say I agree with Georgism. I probably agree with it more than I agree with communism because at least Georgism admits the need for private property. But I think they’re trying to have it both ways in terms of making property more common while also keeping it private. I think there are ways to do that, but it’s not Georgism.

Regardless, what counts as a “natural” situation at this point in civilization? It could be easily argued civilization itself isn’t “natural” (and some people do indeed argue that) but does that mean we are wrong to value it as much as we do? Not necessarily or at least nothing is proved by invoking the “natural-ness” of a given thing, that’s a fallacy.

So I question the premise here. I don’t know that it particularly matters whether the results or consequences of a given action are”natural” or not. Heck, is typing on my keyboard and printing off letters onto a screen, “natural”? Even if it isn’t, I don’t see why that matters or why it would mean anything for the morality of my actions.

On the other hand, I admit that there are different kinds of “natural” and perhaps Santens is using it in a way I’m not accounting for. That’s certainly possible and I’m open to correction on this point though I think my mention of the “appeal to nature” fallacy holds in any case, at least from what I can make of his argumentation here.

Think of it this way. 3… 2… 1… I own everything.

This is fair, because I called dibs, just like our ancestors did long ago. Because I control access to all resources on Earth, you are no longer allowed to live on it without my permission. Oh sure, if I didn’t own everything, you could just pick an apple off a tree, or plant some vegetables, or hunt some deer, or even eat food out of trash cans, but too bad. I own everything.

You aren’t allowed to live without my permission.

I don’t know that our ancestors (who, exactly?) called “dibs” so much as they tilled a given space, occupied it and then used it as they saw fit. I’m not going to argue it’s the best standard of property rights but it doesn’t boil down to a simple case of “dibs!” because it takes actual effort and labor and so forth. It also isn’t like “dibs” because we don’t respect people’s claims to things they cannot actually mix their labor with, generally speaking.

For example, if your neighbor told you that they “owned” the Sahara desert you would probably laugh at them. It’d be next to impossible to make use of the Sahara Desert and any sort of binding legal contract would be unenforceable over such a wide terrain. Now think about that within the context of controlling access to all resources on Earth and the claim becomes even more ridiculous to most people. Obviously I’m relying on folks intuitions here and they could be wrong but I’d like to see argumentation for why folks intuitions (at least the ones I’ve observed) are wrong.

Santens argument not only comes from a highly implausible scenario but also a highly uncharitable one. Even most hardcore right-wing libertarians aren’t arguing for a world in which one person owns all of the Earth. Even the folks who think we should “privatize” everything typically allow for either small common spaces or different individuals owning different things. Otherwise it may as well be some sort of strange dictatorship or one-man world government, which libertarians (as bad as they can be, especially these days) don’t usually advocate for.

In the real world and historically speaking property didn’t really work like this. I’m not saying it was entirely peaceful (it wasn’t) or that the history of property and the institution of it in particular was perfect (it wasn’t). But it’s also not really related to the example that Santens is posing here. Unless we’re talking about governments or corporations who tend to claim a geographic monopoly over large tracts of land and back that up through threats of violence and imprisonment.

But I doubt Santens is going in that direction.

In order to live, you will need to prove your worth to me. Don’t worry, as long as you pull your weight according to my eyes, I will give you enough access to my resources to survive.

What’s that? It’s not fair that I own everything? Why not? I called dibs. That’s totally fair.

What’s that? I didn’t create the planet so why should I own it? I should only own the added improvements I make using the natural resources no one made?

Hmmm, actually, that’s a good point. I suppose we should adjust our rules to acknowledge that shouldn’t we?

I agree with Santens this would be an unfair situation and agree we should adjust our rules accordingly.

But…

If you build a chair out of a tree, until that moment in time that tree was available to everyone else. People could sit under it, eat apples from it. It cleaned the air by taking in carbon dioxide and putting out oxygen. It would have continued to grow and maybe in another decade it could have been more than a chair. Or maybe someone else could have used it along with other trees to build a house?

Wow, come to think of it, that tree had a lot of potential uses by a lot of potential people, all born on the same planet, none of whom made the tree. And yet, you felt that tree was yours when it wasn’t. It was all of ours. So what’s that called?

Oh right… stealing.

Or maybe it would have gotten blown away in a hurricane. Or maybe the Earth explodes and no one gets anything. Or maybe the chair could’ve helped a disabled person but you wanted everyone to have it. And because there are more able-bodied people than less able-bodied, the able-bodied get it. There are many possible outcomes but we shouldn’t devise economic systems around intangible possibilities in the future. People should decide how to use the resources in front of them with the best contemporary knowledge they have and coordinate with others as needed.

And despite the fact that no one created the Earth, I don’t see how that concludes to us not having a just claim to anything on the planet itself. If I built a computer and downloaded a bunch of apps to it, I’d still own those apps even if I didn’t make them, right? I might not own them in a proprietary sense or legal sense, but I’d still own them in the most relevant of senses, correct? I’d argue we think similarly about the planet and the grass it has produced around us.

In any case what makes that tree someone’s or not someone’s? Just because I didn’t make the tree doesn’t mean I can’t homestead it and claim it for myself. If it’s a valuable communal resource perhaps I confer with my neighbors and see what works best for all of us. But something providing a certain value for a community doesn’t make a given thing unable to be homesteaded. It might mean more careful laboring and negotiating is required (and I’d encourage it) but that’s it.

That last bit about “stealing” presumes that everyone owned the tree. But how is this possible? If we don’t individually own the tree then how can we collectively own the tree?  I’m an individualist anarchist and so I’m very skeptical of rights we have collectively but then somehow don’t have individually.

If none of us individually have the right to claim the tree then what changes when we come together? What’s different about that scenario that changes our actual rights? And who gets to decide this?

But shoot, I want a nice chair, and I want people to be able to make chairs. Don’t you? So how do we get around this moral quandary?

Well, we could compensate everyone else who lost access to the tree by your turning it into a chair, by slightly increasing their access to all remaining resources. That sounds fair doesn’t it?

I can think of lots of ways people can compensate themselves or could collectively come together to make up for the “loss” of a tree. Maybe they buy some seeds at the local store or barter for it with some neighbors. Maybe they find some of their own or ask for some seeds from the person who homesteaded the tree. Maybe they could use the internet to figure out how to plant 5 trees where that 1 tree used to be.

The point being, there are many solutions here and none of which need “compensation”. You don’t owe anyone anything for “depriving” other people of a given space. I don’t owe someone my space on the subway that I’m taking up just because they can’t have it anymore. They can either find their own space, wait for the next train or find another way to get to their destination without using the train. I realize this may come off as harsh but I also don’t see what’s unfair here.

And why would it be otherwise? Would me sacrificing some of my space for someone else (let’s presume they’re not disabled, elderly, etc.) be fair to me? One issue I’m having here is how we even define “fairness” to begin with and what it means to have a relationship with others that is somehow always fair. Is that even possible? Maybe. But I’d need some elucidation about the concept of “fairness” that Santens has in mind here.

But shoot, how do we do that?

Hmmm, maybe we could tax the chair, and acknowledge this tax as the compensation for the theft we allow in order to make trees into chairs, and split this tax among everyone? Or maybe we could charge you for the tree in the first place instead of letting you just take it for free and share that among everyone?

Either way, great idea!

Let’s call it basic income.

This doesn’t really address whether basic income is theft itself. Santens is trying to argue that the UBI isn’t theft because homesteading property is inherently theft. But I’m not seeing why taking money through the threat of force isn’t just trying to rectify theft with more theft. Even if Santens was right (and the Georgists were as well) then the solution to this “problem” wouldn’t be more theft. You don’t solve murder with more murder or theft with more theft. And any system that relies on condemning X and then using a whole more of X to fix it, is doomed to fail, c.f. the US prison system.

And besides, even some Georgists recognize that land taxes aren’t the way forward or shouldn’t be administered by the state. Which is why there are some libertarian Georgists and even anarchists who describe themselves as Georgists.

I find this response by Santens disappointing because it mostly relies on unpersuasively flipping the script on the person asking the question through idiosyncratic examples. Examples that only seem to really apply (in the real world) to governments, which is the exact institution Santens would like us to trust with our trees…er, money.

Even putting aside the examples, the reasoning on the flipped script relies on too many unstated presumptions of its own. Presumptions that, when not carefully spelled our or taken the time to be thought of and written down become harder to argue against. For example, I’m not completely clear on why Santens even believes some of what he writes here. Which can cause a frustrating situation for folks who read him and misinterpret him (as perhaps I have).

But it also must be frustrating for Santens because he obviously has some clear premises in mind for his arguments, he’s either just not taking the time to lay them out, didn’t want to or didn’t think to.

Or maybe he thought we all knew what they were.

Don’t worry Santens, I feel you on that one.


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Next time I’ll be tackling Santens water room analogy.

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