A Critical Review of “Should Libertarians Support a Universal Basic Income?”

The 2017 International Students for Liberty Conference hosted a debate on the Universal Basic Income. (Photo credit: Avens O’Brien)

Introduction

This is another one of my “debate reviews”, I’ve done one before for Bryan Caplan debating Robin Hanson on automation.

If you’re curious about that, check it out here.

Basically, I’m going to offer some critical comments on both Bryan Caplan and Will Wilkinson’s points about a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Caplan is arguing for the negative and Wilkinson is arguing for the positive, they both made great points and they both made some points I found less than persuasive.

For this debate I actually had the privilege of being there so in re-watching this debate so I could write this post it wasn’t something I was unfamiliar with. It was just a simple exercise of listening carefully and writing some notes down. That said, I didn’t really write good notes when I was there (my pen fell apart and I forgot a spare) and even under much better conditions I sometimes couldn’t hear what was said.

So all statements should be read as my imperfect interpretations, albeit done as accurately as possible and as faithful as possible to the original subject matter. If Caplan or Wilkinson have any comments, questions or corrections for me, I welcome them. It’s very possible I could have misheard while listening back to the recording of it, so let me know if so.

A few perfunctory remarks before I start:

  • I think Caplan justly (spoilers?) won this debate but the debate in of itself had many frustrating arguments on Caplan’s part that were either unnecessary or reveal the weaknesses of the anarcho-capitalist position. I mentioned this to Caplan at ISFLC and he was curious what better points I’d have made. As such, this article is partially in exercise in giving better arguing against but also for the UBI.
  • Wilkinson lost, partially I think, because his presentation wasn’t as confident as Bryan’s. Whether it was because he was feeling “meh” about the debate itself (source) or because he’s only “tentatively” an advocate of the UBI (source), Caplan came across as a smooth and confident individual (friendly joke: something I’m unsure Caplan is used to being called) and Wilkinson often came off as unsure and had many moments of slight pauses and “ums”.
  • Overall I found this debate “frustratingly interesting”. I am not sure where my expectations were exactly, but this debate met them and proved much food for thought, even if some of the food could’ve been better prepared.

First we started with 10 minute introductions from Wilkinson and then Brian, then 4 minute rebuttals in that same order, 5 minutes of the “hot seat” where each of them (in the same order as before) ask each other pointed questions and lastly the Q&A which was around 15 minutes and featured questions to either Wilkinson alone or both of them.

10 Minute Introductions

Wilkinson:

Wilkinson starts off with a rather obvious (but important) point: Some UBI proposals are better than others.

He says that on “the left” are ideals about lumping the UBI on top of current welfare programs (though I haven’t ever heard such proposals, could be selection bias) and “libertarian” proposals like Charles Murray. Murray’s idea is to have a UBI in place of the existing welfare programs to remove much of the bureaucratic overhead, etc.

To my mind, this placing of the political wings is exactly backwards.

I ten to see folks on the left as skeptical of big institutions, hierarchy and wanting more “people power”.

Now, some leftists are better than others. I think anarchists are better than Occupy Wall St leftists who think to limit corporations we need the government, etc. But it’s still a range of views and although I know Wilkinson is just giving extreme examples on “both” sides, I can’t help but quibble with a framing that I find problematic.

Also, libertarianism, rightly conceived, shouldn’t be right-wing.

But these are nitpicking sorts of points and not the main topic.

Wilkinson clarifies that his vision of a UBI is a sort of “minimum income insurance” and not a literal paycheck that goes to everyone once a month. He wants the limit to be at $5,000 a year which he claims to be a “modest cushion” and a bulwark against the “creative destruction” and “disruptive innovation” that happen within a laissez faire capitalist system.

Again though, I must question the framing: Do we have a laissez faire system?

I’m not sure if Wilkinson was trying to claim we do or don’t, maybe he’s just saying in the ideal system that libertarians (though not all libertarians I’d qualify) support. If so, okay. But if not, then how could we possibly have this kind of system when corporations have all sorts of subsidies and are regulated by many different agencies?

Regardless, I could be misunderstanding Wilkinson and apologize if so.

To help fund this Wilkinson wants to remove many of the ABC alphabet soup government agencies involved with welfare currently. Namely programs like food stamps, SNAP, school lunch programs and so forth but leave the huge entitlement programs like medicare and social security alone. Wilkinson clarifies later he does want to eliminate these programs as well, but he just doesn’t think the UBI is a good way to do it.

Notably, Wilkinson says nothing about how any of these things could happen. I’ve labored constantly about the political (im)practicalities of the UBI and so I won’t spend too much time here. I just want to remark that it strikes me as odd, in retrospect, that Caplan made no criticisms of trying to implement such a radical change in policy.

Why would the government allow for such radical change? What would they get out of it? And if Caplan is so familiar with public choice theory then why not bring it up here? It’s not clear to me if the context of the debate was, “Presume the UBI can be implemented then what are you problems with it?” If that was the context then Caplan’s silence makes sense.

As I said though, that’s not clear to me from watching the debate (twice).

Clarifying further, Wilkinson adds that the way the UBI would work is that it’d be a change in the tax code. It would increase your standard deduction and attempts to do so without increasing government spending.

I’m not an economist or an expert on the tax code so I don’t think I’ll spend much time on this part of his argument. I think it suffices to say that the tax code is what it is for very purposeful reasons, reasons that likely will not be undermined by trying to implement a UBI that removes much of the government’s abilities to be paternalistic over the populace.

Lastly, Wilkinson points out that the debate isn’t about whether to have a welfare state or not but, while we have one, which one would work best. Wilkinson believes the UBI to be superior to the status quo and I’m inclined to agree.

Here’s the reasoning he lays out (paraphrased):

1) Means-tested programs trap people in poverty by reducing their incentive to work more so they can continue to receive benefits.

2) Means-testing is paternalistic, requires bureaucracy and invasive questioning as well as conditional and gives us bad cultural standards about what we can expect from governments.

3) Capitalism and the rule of law are ideals for libertarians and the UBI best embodies these systems.

The first point is spot on. In fact, I have way more of an incentive to work 15 hours than 20 (even though I recently accepted 20 hours) because my medicaid stops covering me a little under $1400. As is, I made around $900 (rounding up) and am good for another year, but if I took a second job or got way more money from dog sitting (a possibility), I might lose my medicaid, even though I’m still poor and need it.

The second point is great too but Wilkinson expects government(s) to change if we had a UBI which, as an anarchist, I think is unrealistic. Governments have historically been paternalistic, invasive (domestically or otherwise) and require a large amount of bureaucracy to function. Having a UBI or not having a UBI isn’t the point at which a government is going to change in some fundamental sense.

Lastly, “the rule of law” is a myth and capitalism isn’t necessarily desired by all libertarians as I’ve already pointed out. Even some anarcho-capitalists are skeptical of the way modern capitalism plays out to the extent it benefits corporations at the expense of individuals. Wilkinson seems to be treating “libertarianism” and “classical liberalism” as either the same thing or ideas that are very close to each other, but I’m not convinced that’s right.

Libertarianism has many roots, some of which are even radically socialist in theory and practice.

At the end of this section, Wilkinson makes a nod to the fact that the UBI is a way to ensure better mass stability and economic sameness. He doesn’t quite word it like this, but I take his point to be that the UBI is a great way to placate a populace hungry for change and make them more complacent with something looking like social democracy.

And as much as I might prefer social democracy over fascism, it’s still a boot on my neck.

Caplan:

As per the last debate, Caplan has laid out his opening statement on his website.

I reached out to Wilkinson before writing this to see if he had any writings on the UBI by himself that he’d recommend I read but as of typing (and now editing) this, I’ve not heard back from him.

Maybe I’ll add an addendum if he gets back to me.

I don’t envy Caplan’s position. It consists of not only (half-heartedly) defending the status quo but also claiming that the UBI is worse than the status quo, which I don’t agree with. Nevertheless throughout Caplan’s case he makes convincing arguments and solid points at times, I just don’t think they bring us to the conclusion(s) he wants.

Caplan starts with four libertarian criticisms of the welfare state:

  1. Forced charity is unjust. Individuals have a moral right to decide if and when they want to help others.
  2. Forced charity is unnecessary. In a free market, voluntary donations are enough to provide for the truly poor.
  3. Forced charity gives recipients bad incentives. If the government takes care of you, you’re less likely to take care of yourself by work and saving.
  4. The cost of forced charity is high and growing rapidly, leading to a future of exhorbitant taxes or financial crisis.

Even though Caplan thinks this logically leads to a radical conclusion (abolish the welfare state) he recognizes that’s a very unpopular view. So it makes sense that libertarians might want to moderate their views and have something more appealing to a broader base, when looking at meaningful reform to government.

But Caplan suggests that all of these critiques actually apply more to the UBI than the status quo.

Just to be clear, I agree with all of Caplan’s criticisms here. Maybe I’d quibble here and there with 3 and 4 but overall I don’t find anything notably objectionable. But Caplan’s examples of 1. seems unnecessarily extreme as he specifies using forced charity in some cases is more just in some cases (orphans, elderly) than others (everyone).

I think that makes sense from an intuitive standpoint but we can also think of lots of niche case. What about unemployed lower class workers? There’s unemployment but that’s usually temporary and can sometimes be troublesome to get access to without a job financing transportation, etc. There’s also folks who are discriminated against like trans folks, people of color and there’s a large segment of the population that are unjustly labeled as felons.

The current welfare system either does nothing or doesn’t do nearly enough for any of these folks. While a UBI would at least attempt to (implicitly if nothing else) address them in great ways.

Caplan also (frustratingly) uses a pro-work argument against the UBI. Wouldn’t people who got the UBI be able to live off of it forever and ride the gravy train? Unlikely. People enjoy using their time productively and the studies I’ve seen about the UBI (source) don’t suggest that there’s a large drop off in people working or not.

In his second point Caplan points out how private charities would never operate like the government would under the UBI, e.g. giving large amounts of money to people whether they need it or not. But I think Caplan is mistaken in thinking that we should think about the government like some sort of private charity. Why would it act like one anyways?

That said, I don’t disagree with Caplan that the UBI would be incredibly wasteful. But I think, if you could actually cut all of the programs like (for instance) Ed Dolan wants to, you would have a much more efficient system as Wilkinson wants.

Caplan himself points that out and refers to Dolan’s work several times throughout the debate as a much more workable form of a UBI proposal than Wilkinson’s.

Lastly, Caplan talks about austerity and freedom in a “socialist sense” for what the UBI does. Austerity, to Caplan, is an actual increase in the meaningful amount of freedom people have given it restricts benefits and cuts taxes. I don’t have any hard-lined opinion on it though my knee-jerk emotive response is to think this is a bizarre response.

It doesn’t strike me as any more politically viable to say austerity as an alternative to the status quo. Especially when so many status quos have already considered it around the world (Greece notably). And even in the way Caplan says the word austerity (a jokingly creepy tone) I think he knows it isn’t popular either. So what gives?

And then Caplan cedes the rest of his time, which is 3 minutes.

Upon which the moderator asks what they can do with all of this time and Wilkinson snarkily replies (paraphrasing):

Well we could distribute the time evenly among the audience. We could call it something like the universal basic second and everyone would get half a second.

While this was funny in of itself, Caplan makes a rejoinder that time is a “non-rivalrous good” to which the moderator (hilariously) responds:

It’s…it’s just a joke, Bryan.

It was hilarious both seeing it in person and watching it back. Hilarious enough that no one (apparently as he later clarified to me in person) heard that Caplan qualified that he was joking too.

Rebuttal

Wilkinson:

Here, Wilkinson gets 4 minutes to return (rhetorical) fire on Caplan and…the results are mixed, to say the least.

First, Wilkinson explains that the UBI (as he imagines it) would (if I’m understanding him correctly) only be for folks who fall below a certain rate of income. But doesn’t this make the universality of the basic income…diminished? Doesn’t this qualifier defeat the point of a UBI? Perhaps I’m missing something here.

It’s then added that the universality comes from the standard deduction not everyone getting money. But then shouldn’t it be called a universal…tax benefit? I’m failing to see how this makes a UBI more attractive. And in fact Wilkinson starts saying how this wouldn’t be too terribly different from how the status quo operates.

…But then why support a new proposal if it’s just the status quo only slightly different?

Wilkinson tries to make the point that everyone has a “parental basic income” and it’s a semi-funny point given how on-point it intuitively seems. But thinking about this a little deeper I don’t think the relationship between parents and children is completely analogous to the ones between taxpayers and governments.

Further, I’d posit that thinking about these relationships as the same things sounds like a dangerous idea to me. I don’t want people to think the government is like their parent. …I mean, unless their parents are war criminals, thieves and (broadly speaking) liars?

Sorry, I had a libertarian moment there.

Still working the kinks out.

Wilkinson makes a few other points but mostly I want to focus on his response to Caplan’s idea about austerity. Impressively, he uses CATO and Frasier institutes to make the point that the level of government spending and freedom are not very high or in any case that personal freedom doesn’t depend on the size of government (more here).

This is a bit too tangential to the main debate but it’s a good rejoinder.

Caplan:

Caplan thinks that even in the best proposal he has seen (Ed Dolan’s proposal referenced earlier) it would still lead to huge increases in taxes, though he doesn’t specify why. Otherwise, there’d be a lack of funds, which seems to be the case for Wilkinson’s plan and I agree with this criticism.

The fact that most people are not eligible for the current welfare programs is a good thing to Caplan and extending those bad incentives to everyone seems like a bad idea to him. But again, there’s no real evidence (at least that I’ve seen) that the UBI would reinforce perverse working incentives to people. Caplan’s argumentation seems to presume it’d just be widening the current perverse incentives of the current system, but I’m not sure why he thinks that.

And for some reason (this is one of the most baffling parts to me) Caplan doesn’t think means-testing is paternalistic.

This is actually a point I think Wilkinson is (broadly speaking) correct on and Caplan is not. The level of loopholes, circumstances and so on that the government can make you go through just to qualify is ridiculous and arbitrary.

Caplan’s way to get around this point is compare it to if someone is trying to “sponge” off of you and your house, etc. you’d want them to get a job, not do drugs all of the time, etc. But the comparison is inept for a few reasons.

  1. The “sponging” going on under the government is not comparable to a one-to-one relationship. The funds are dependent on millions and it’s unclear me that it would be really contingent on your individual money. Unless you’re really rich or some sort of architect for the system. But that is a rare scenario, not the norm.
  2. The money the government has isn’t yours anymore. It couldn’t be returned to its proper owners once it’s been taken by the government and there’s almost no way to redistribute it fairly. So as far as I’m concerned, you may as well take whatever you can from the government. The people whose money was stolen from them are unlikely to get it back so you may as well make as good of a use as you can over it. The money will be taken either way.

And god help me for referencing him, but I’m not the only libertarian to think this.

Walter Block agrees with this as well.

Caplan adds that basic reciprocity should be expected in an individual system like the state but this seems like an erroneous assumption to me. Why would (or should) we presume the state would act like individuals trading voluntarily since the states system is inherently based on coercive force? That doesn’t make it just, but it also (again) makes the comparison seem like an inept one.

A further concern from Caplan is that being at the arbitrary disposal of folks who just want to depend on taxes for the rest of their lives.But again, this is unlikely given the evidence we have about what folks do with a UBI or something like it. At best (for Caplan’s case) the rates of work for women drop marginally and sometimes men do as well. But these can easily be explained by women taking more time for their family and men focusing on their own pursuits.

There’s an example Caplan uses a few times in this debate and it bugs me.

He talks about a group of individuals getting together and renting out a beach house and living off of taxpayer money, forever. But with Wilkinson’s qualification of income and the data we have on what people tend to actually do with the money they get, it seems unlikely anything like this would happen.

And I agree with Wilkinson that arguments like this seem bizarre given the libertarian attitude of leaving people alone and letting them live their lives. But on the other hand, this is usually when those people aren’t living off the expense of other people and I’m surprised Caplan never raises that counterpoint, it seems like an easy one to make.

All things being equal libertarians shouldn’t care what someone does with their body or their property. But if those people are living off libertarian’s money through the state’s money, it seems more prudent to be concerned about how that money is spent. This is likely part of Caplan’s argument for why means-testing isn’t paternalistic but as I argued earlier I don’t think the argument holds up under the current welfare state.

Under a UBI system does this argument hold more weight? I’m not sure as it depends entirely on how the system actually operates, but I would be skeptical that it would. People would likely know beforehand that paying into the system means inevitably that some folks may abuse it and this is no different than under the current system.

Basically, Caplan has to give us some evidence that people are more likely to abuse a UBI system than the current welfare system and I don’t think he can give us that evidence. So this is another point in favor of the UBI being an improvement over the current system in my book.

Caplan makes some final points about inequality vs. perceived inequality and Ed Dolan but they are either tangential to the debate or been discussed before. So I’ll move on to the hot seat section of the debate.

The Hot Seat

Wilkinson:

(All of the following questions and answers are paraphrased)

Wilkinson asks:

Q: Who decides who the deserving poor are? And what’s the criteria you have to have to get support?

A: The government, which doesn’t fill me with any confidence. But at least there’s criteria instead of simply giving the money to anyone, regardless of their situation.

Caplan then proceeds to criticize the current means-testing saying it’s actually too lax:

Q: The freedom to be left alone is important, but isn’t adding all of these strings to public benefits undermining this?
A: People are free to turn down government benefits and then [garbled]. The rules are actually way too lax! Merely getting old is not enough, you should have planned ahead.

I swear, I tried three times to figure out what Caplan says here but I couldn’t make sense of it.

So I’ll address the second part instead.

He blames the elderly saying that they should prepare for retirement and know that it’s coming. After all, old age is not a surprise to anyone, so we should people be bailed out for simply being older? If you didn’t take personal responsibility for yourself why should that be anyone’s problem but your own?

The problem with an argument like this (besides coming off as extremely callous) is that many things happen throughout life that you cannot prepare for. Loved ones may pass away unexpectedly and you want to give them a proper burial or maybe a family emergency demands your funds. Perhaps the government decides to increase taxes by starting a war.

My point is that while “being old” may not sound like a super compelling reason to get money from the government it is, as Caplan said before, a plausible category for forced charity. It makes sense to have a general cutoff point where we say that a given person has done enough in their life and for society and can enjoy the rest of their life on their own terms.

Of course I’m not claiming any of this is justified but it does make a certain degree of sense.

Q: Do you accept this argument when it comes to immigration? Like, the country is a big house and we get to say who gets in and who doesn’t get in?

A: So as long as immigrants can come and not receive benefits then I see no problem. The UBI is worse because it forces citizenship on the condition of paying into the UBI without choice. Unlike the means-testing programs where you don’t have to join the programs if you don’t want to.

The UBI has this problem as well (given you advocate borders) and it’s even worse since the people on the borders deserve it more than the Americans.

This was a really fantastic moment in the debate and a great response by Caplan. No further comment.

Q: Don’t you think people would know for sure if they qualify for the UBI?

A: Myth of the Rational Voter stuff.

I know this was a bit of a glib transcription, but whether folks know they qualify it or not seems like a rather minor point and then we get into a bigger and even more tangential idea about people being rationally irrational. I think that idea is an interesting one worth discussing (see here and here) but I’ll leave it to the side in this discussion.

Caplan:

Caplan’s section is…well…

Q: What’s the marginal benefit reduction rate for the UBI? What is the tax rate per $1?
A: 0
Q: When do you start paying any taxes?
A: $15,000

Q: [Intermittent questions about the structure of taxes that seem to repeatedly cut off Wilkinson]

A: [Flummoxing a lot and resting on, “I don’t have the tax structure with me and it depends on big picture qualities I cannot predict.”]

This is just a mess. Caplan doesn’t really give any time for Wilkinson to explain his ideas more than a sentence or two and Wilkinson clearly isn’t prepared for the way Caplan wanted to ask questions. Which, to me, seemed really abrasive and much more interested in rhetorical points than actually finding anything out about Wilkinson’s ideas.

The questions come at Wilkinson way too fast and they ultimately come off as bizarre. Why would Wilkinson know all of these things off the top of his head? Perhaps Caplan’s point is that he should but I’m not convinced this is a fair assumption. Maybe if Caplan was debating Dolan, asking these kinds of questions would make more sense.

Q: [Beach house example again, is this okay?]

A: Yes.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. If that’s how they want to spend their money (as stated earlier, the money is basically the government’s and you should get as much as you can) then I don’t see any issue with it. I, personally, would have no problem living off of taxes and making it so the life they live is on their own terms.

If that means sitting around a beach house then that’s fine by me. But again, I think it’s unlikely.

I recognize though that my opinion is an unpopular one, but Caplan’s example isn’t likely to happen.

So I’m not worried either way.

Wilkinson counters to Caplan’s earlier points that a libertarian system should have reciprocity and proportionality(?) saying that these are not necessary requirement. Perhaps that is true, but should it be true? I’m not so sure.

One thing I’ll say as a quasi-defense of Caplan on this “paternalism” debate is that more than a few years ago I lived with a friend. They were letting me stay in their place without being on a lease and couldn’t sublet to me so I was basically staying there illegally as far as my friend’s lease went.

This was good in that I didn’t have to pay a lot of rent but it sucked a lot because I basically couldn’t be home by myself (what if the landlord came by?). I also had to follow my friend wherever he would go or else go to the library, etc. This became very disruptive to my routines and as an autistic person that meant we had some clashes (some physical).

Was this a paternalistic relationship?

I could see an argument for that, yes. But I also think the degree of paternalism made sense given the context of the situation. What if I got caught and made my friend get kicked out onto the street? Some measure of personal freedom would have to be lost so we could both have security and a place to stay.

At the same time, there were definitely moments where this arrangement went overboard and was too rigorous in its application, even if it had understandable reasoning for it. So I think the critiques of paternalism that Wilkinson is making holds water, I’m just (ideally) offering some nuance and perspective.

I may be mishearing it but I think Wilkinson makes a good point about means-testing: Are the children of the deserving poor not deserving even if it is no fault of their own that they inherited the traits of bad parents?

Lastly, Wilkinson says the point of a libertarian order isn’t to impose any single version of The Good but isn’t the UBI a particular vision of how a society should operate? And aren’t millions of people being coerced for it to happen?

That doesn’t seem very libertarian to me.

Q&A

Life comes at you fast and so did this Q&A, let’s take a look:

Q for Wilkinson: How about if a man asks a woman not to cheat on him? Is that paternalistic?

A: Decisions free people make in private relationships are not analogous to the public relationships we establish through the government and in society.

This question came (tonally) out of nowhere and seemed rather unnecessary and rude, but Wilkinson handled it well.

Q for W: How much access to money?
A: Depends.

Makes sense to me. Who knows? It depends on how the system is set up. Wilkinson is at least enough of a libertarian to know that you probably cannot predict what that’ll end up looking like.

Q for Both: How would the UBI affect bureaucratic overhead?
A (Wilkinson): The system would be slightly automated but savings are not massive.
A (Caplan): There’s not a huge overhead as is because there’s not enough monitoring.

There’s also an interesting side discussion about the incentives for those under the welfare system and whether they would be motivated to lie to get benefits. Wilkinson makes the solid point that under the UBI there’d be a lot less likely reason (you’ll get the money no matter what,so why lie?). Caplan agrees this is a benefit of the UBI but says that the former issue is a small price to pay, as opposed to opening up to 13x more individuals.

Hard to disagree.

Q for both: How would addicts be dealt with?
A (Wilkinson): Says nothing about the UBI. Giving money to them shouldbe  done and just because they’ll misuse it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have it.
A (Caplan): Now imagine the beach house – but with drugs!

In countries like Portugal where they’ve legalized drugs, drug use has not increased and it may be imagined that alongside the UBI, you can expect a liberalization on drug laws too. So I don’t see this as a realistic expectation from Caplan, it misses the mark of likely effects of the UBI on society even more than his previous attempts.

Wilkinson is right here, insofar as we accept the UBI, addicts should get it, like anyone else.

Interestingly, Wilkinson doesn’t drop this point and accuses Caplan of perpetuating the ideas behind the drug war. Wilkinson’s argument runs something like: Means-testing welfare and the drug war both rely on judging people’s use of their own bodies and properties which Caplan is doing.

And while has some truth to it, I think it’s a little overplayed. In any case, Caplan’s response of an intermediate world where taxpayers are left alone and so are drug users inarguably seems like a more libertarian world.

Q for both: We shouldn’t presume parents would do what is best for the children and cutting food stamps, lunch programs, etc. may give way more power to parents. As such, wouldn’t a UBI (as Will proposes) put children more at the mercy of their parents?
A (Wilkinson): Children deserve a special kind of consideration. You have to trust parents otherwise you’re telling people how to raise their children.
A (CAplan): I feel strange defending status quo but there are restrictions on how they can use food stamps, et. al. and this at least provides some kind of safeguard against tyrannical parents.

I have to agree with Caplan here. There’s a lot more to protect against parents mismanaging their child’s lives and it seems minor to complain about telling people how to raise their children…when you’re telling society how to operate.

I don’t think blind trust in parents is OK and I think throughout this debate Wilkinson has too thin of an idea concerning libertarianism. Libertarianism doesn’t commit us to just accepting whatever cultural norms happen under a society or accepting whatever version of the good people want. Some versions of the good and some norms are better than other.

To me, being a libertarian doesn’t mean embracing some sort of freedom oriented moral relativism.

That said, Wilkinson’s snarky remark about Caplan saying that invasive and paternalistic government programs work was pretty funny and somewhat on point.

To be honest…I didn’t understand the last question and I’m just impressed Caplan did.

Conclusion

At the start of the debate 65% said no and 30% said yes.

At the end of the debate 70% said no and 29% said yes with the rest undecided.

Thus, Caplan is the winner.

As I said before, I think this is a logical result and I’d add, that my own personal split between the UBI (as shown in this post) is something along the lines of 75% to 25%, no and yes, respectively. So the average of libertarians at ISFLC wasn’t too far off from how I individually feel, which is interesting.

Overall, a frustratingly great time was had and I’d love to see more debated within the libertarian community about the UBI. I think Caplan was correct overall but could’ve made stronger points to show that and Wilkinson was incorrect on the central question but made many solid tangential points along the way that we should consider.

My thanks to Professor Caplan and Mr. WIlkinson for their time and energy, it was a great debate!


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11 thoughts on “A Critical Review of “Should Libertarians Support a Universal Basic Income?”

    • Thanks for your comment though I think your disappointment is odd as most libertarians tend to disfavor your idea of equality across the board. They tend to think equality in authority rather than in values is important.

      • As I see it, to fulfil equality in authority within the context of our system of property rights today, it is an essential point to fulfil the Lockean Proviso (to leave as much and as good behind for others). You cannot have equality in authority if some people had different, at times clearly superior access to something, and others do not. It’s a different circumstance that people are exposed to, in their legal relation with nature and other non-human made property, that if left unchecked, naturally results in the formation of aristocracies, due to the preferable substance of such property, over human labor. (e.g. You straight up starve without the land. You don’t do that without other people. You straight up cant use some ideas without idea rights. You can use ideas, even if it takes longer to arrive at em, without idea rights. Though I have no reason to believe that less idea rights wouldn’t accelerate the conceiving of ideas, as more people would gain from the ideas being conceived, so more people trying. See research on the genome today. People who could research on it do hate the laws about owning it. These laws get in the way, if just one group decides to call dibs on stuff. Just saying it’s hard to do worse than what we have today for idea rights, unless intentionally seeking to come up with something worse.)

        There’s some ways around this that don’t involve compensatory payments, surely. But they do seem to involve dissolution of property rights as we know em to a significant extent. We must remove other people from the relationship of the individual and nature and ideas, to the extent that some people in the past were free in their relationship with nature and ideas, if we want to go this way. Now the anarchist approach of people somehow nonviolently agreeing who gets to use what, is more ‘true’ to this, if it is possible to create enough accountability, to provide enough information to people, to make this work. As much as I don’t see it work out in all relations till we have a lot smarter technology.

        Now I’m not so sure what this has to do with equality in values? People not wanting to be exposed to a different kind of authority in their relationship with nature and ideas, than other people, that’s a lot about equality in authority, right? It doesn’t really say what people would or could be doing with nature and ideas, it’s just about ensuring people have similar access pathways, that people experience a similar kind of authority in their relationship with something or someone. Maybe the compensatory part is a little more on the ‘values’ side, but if we are careful, we can create clear pathways that mimic the access structure that prior people had, using the market process and taxes to enable such an interaction.

        Surely, it’s not a straightforward task to make property rights governing things of non-labor substance not an act of injust domination through unequal authority over the individual, but might as well consider it relevant in that context.

        • Equality in values meaning economic values, specifically. If libertarians value something it is the moral equality and not economic. People are always going to have more materials, better access, etc. etc. and there’s no way to perfectly equalize this except through a use of force and that just leads to disaster.

          These differences in access and conclusions can be fought and always have been fought. I disagree that these differences lead to authoritarian regimes. They can certainly aide it in some ways but they are not central to it. Authoritarian regimes most depend on the belief by the people under them that the regime is actually necessary.

          Without this belief, the regime would crumble.

          • “Equality in values meaning economic values, specifically. If libertarians value something it is the moral equality and not economic. People are always going to have more materials, better access, etc. etc. and there’s no way to perfectly equalize this except through a use of force and that just leads to disaster.”

            Ah sounds good. I write on the principle that I believe that I can share a more clear picture of reality, that builds towards the realization of more justice for everyone, a moral imperative, so definitely appreciating that perspective.

            “These differences in access and conclusions can be fought and always have been fought. I disagree that these differences lead to authoritarian regimes. They can certainly aide it in some ways but they are not central to it. Authoritarian regimes most depend on the belief by the people under them that the regime is actually necessary.”

            “Without this belief, the regime would crumble.”

            Interesting perspective, but I see a worrying trend going with regard to racism, nationalism, gene supremacy, where people increasingly chose to believe in a narration along those lines, for a kind of benefit to some technocratic elite that realisitically does not come with superior genes, but with the luck of having been at the right time at the right place with the right support structure, if we’re lucky, for the benefit of dictators and warmongers, if we’re unlucky. So I’m not so sure about this not going bad places.

            I mean consider the intrinsic value of hoarding non-labor property to extract rent from others, the more everyone is doing it, in the system of property as we have it. You can’t tell me that you want to throw your kid into a world where labor is increasingly worth nothing, rent generating property is increasingly worth everything. And more desperation in the people fuels people’s desire to draw tribal lines more narrowly, and to take the truth a lot more liberally. Just how the brain works.

            Also, I think it is deeply injust to deify those most monetarily accomplished today who happen to run tech companies, as we condemn em to stressful experiences, for seemingly not so good reasons, as there’s plenty equally or more capable and suited people for those roles around as far as I’m aware. I want justice for those on top too, via providing more opportunities to let em do something else. This could be done by taking a good part of their income that is chance based, not labor based, and making it part of an unconditional income for everyone, so to reduce the difference between on the job income and not on the job income. More choice where it is deserved and probably still practical enough. Though I guess the higher we go on unconditional incomes, the more we might run into pragmatic points of reduced productivity. But then again, an individual obtaining the value of their labor from their job, no more no less, that might just be the most fair thing for all people involved.

            Outside of compensatory payments/dividends, I don’t see a solution but to go with an anarchist approach to property in important aspects, to not invite people onto a trip into the world of monopoly without going over start.

            What sort of non-authoritarian regime of property rights would you propose?

          • “Interesting perspective, but I see a worrying trend going with regard to racism, nationalism, gene supremacy, where people increasingly chose to believe in a narration along those lines, for a kind of benefit to some technocratic elite that realisitically does not come with superior genes, but with the luck of having been at the right time at the right place with the right support structure, if we’re lucky, for the benefit of dictators and warmongers, if we’re unlucky. So I’m not so sure about this not going bad places.”

            I don’t see how this counters my point. It’s still people’s belief that is upholding the system. Undermine their belief through education and action and my theory would still hold.

            “I mean consider the intrinsic value of hoarding non-labor property to extract rent from others, the more everyone is doing it, in the system of property as we have it. You can’t tell me that you want to throw your kid…”

            I don’t want kids and am very happy without them. Partially *because* of how unjust this world currently is.

            “Also, I think it is deeply injust to deify those most monetarily accomplished today who happen to run tech companies, as we condemn em to stressful experiences, for seemingly not so good reasons, as there’s plenty equally or more capable and suited people for those roles around as far as I’m aware. I want justice for those on top too, via providing more opportunities to let em do something else.”

            Sure.

            “This could be done by taking a good part of their income that is chance based, not labor based, and making it part of an unconditional income for everyone, so to reduce the difference between on the job income and not on the job income.”

            I don’t think we should take people’s income “for the greater good” and also don’t think we could get some actually clean results about what constitutes chance and what doesn’t.

            “What sort of non-authoritarian regime of property rights would you propose?”

            Use and occupancy as I said in my other post. We should probably just stick to one comment thread cause this stuff is going to start overlapping. 😛

          • “I don’t want kids and am very happy without them. Partially *because* of how unjust this world currently is.”

            It’s not just about kids. As long as you love someone for prior recognition or personal features, that you could love in any other person just as much (were he in that position by chance), but you simply don’t know all the other people well enough, you’re going to run into issues of increasingly injust distribution, as long as property can be maintained remotely and indefinitely, in some way. However, you seem to have your own idea on how property should work, so fair point that in your property system, this might not be an issue.

            “I don’t think we should take people’s income “for the greater good” and also don’t think we could get some actually clean results about what constitutes chance and what doesn’t.”

            Agreed. We should only consider taking income of people for matters of justice, for matters of what they earned or didn’t earn, to sometimes enable more freedom and of course establish more justice that someone who reflects on the nature of our interactions and reality would see, and considering practicality is important of course. So even if we know the world is round, if everyone says it’s flat, it might not be so practical to progress the conversation of astronomy in that direction for the time being.

            “What sort of non-authoritarian regime of property rights would you propose?”

            “Use and occupancy as I said in my other post. We should probably just stick to one comment thread cause this stuff is going to start overlapping. 😛”

            Sure!

  1. As a geolibertarian, I think this debate was somewhat troubled, as it didn’t go much into the justice considerations of UBI when it comes to providing a useful method to better distribute non-labor components of incomes. Taxes are not a bad thing, to the extent that they burden non-labor aspects of income and distribute em more fairly.

    Further, in a world where human labor is increasingly about creativity and chance taking for not so easy to connect to customers, and questions of distribution and reproduction of any single item/service that is known to customers are increasingly solved, we might really want to have a conversation about who owns not just the land, but who owns the market itself, that is customer awareness.

    And we might want to have the conversation about why idea rights have to be this favorable for owners. Owners who often aren’t the people driven to investigate how reality looks like more precisely, how things could be done better for one another and for sustainability. As there’s just a lot more people who want to do that, than there are owners.

    For a more fleshed out version about the argument from the land perspective only, I think this is a pretty solid read: https://medium.com/basic-income/why-land-value-tax-and-universal-basic-income-need-each-other-42ba999f7322

  2. Also note that I do think that just a LVT wouldn’t be enough to account for the vast range of (in part) non-labor income streams that people enjoy today.

    To the extent that we’re willed to let people put up fences around material and immaterial things, having others participate in the returns of those fences, while they’re up, is also legitimate. Owning your mind is good and well, but pretending that you’re unique in your ability to conceive a scientific or artistic insight, that’s doing a disservice to both the intellectual community that you’re part of, and to all the people who could do so a second later, or if given the same environment. Not a fan of first-come first-serve as the only justice in the world.

    And as long as we live in a growth capitalism with guartanteed currency supply expansion backed by pure printing at worst, we might want to consider something like sovereign wealth funds to have all the people participate in returns from currency creation/GDP growth.

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