The Basic Income Guarantee and Tautological Libertarianism


The right-libertarian journal, Cato Unbound, has published a 4-party debate on Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) this month. Matt Zwolinski started it off with a second-best or pragmatic argument for BIG. He doesn’t say outright that BIG is better than many right-libertarians most favored policy of eliminating of all redistribution of property, but he argues that BIG is far superior to the complex and inefficient system that characterizes the current welfare system.

Manzi’s response stems from standard for the property-rights-with-no-exceptions version of libertarianism. In a nutshell, BIG would probably reduce how much propertyless people work for people with property; therefore, necessarily, it is bad. He dismisses Zwolinki’s argument that work disincentives can be a good thing by labeling it “subjective” and “value-laden,” without noting that a subjective and value-laden argument can only be countered by another subjective and value-laden argument, which he does not offer. He just assumes any and all work disincentives are bad. So, he doesn’t actually lay a glove on Zwolinski’s argument.

The closest he comes to explain the values that led him to the belief that all work disincentives are bad is to say that BIG has always been unpopular in the United States. Yet, to say something is unpopular is not say whether it is a good or bad thing. It doesn’t say whether we should try to change people’s minds about it. At any time in American history up until five or maybe ten years ago, he could have made the same argument against same-sex marriage. Now it’s popular; thanks to people worked hard to change other people’s minds. Is BIG or anything else worthy of a similar effort? Manzi implies that nothing that is currently unpopular is ever worth the effort to change people’s minds.

Manzi mentions my article, “A Failure to Communicate: What (If Anything) Can we Learn From the Negative Income Tax Experiments,” but doesn’t actually engage with its arguments about work disincentives. One argument is that any decline in work effort would—by standard theory—cause an increase in wages partly counteracting the decline in work effort and further increasing the incomes of the working poor—presumably the people a BIG is supposed to help.

Another argument in that article is that the “decline” in work effort was only relative—the experimental group vs. control group. But the experiments also found whether people were in the experimental or control group was not the primary causal factor determining whether they worked or not. The macroeconomic health of the economy was more important in determining how much a person worked than whether or not they received a BIG. Therefore, the experiments indicated that if you have a strong macroeconomy, you can have both BIG and high employment. People who received a negative income tax took more time to find the right job, but in all the experiments, if good jobs were available, people took them. If you want propertyless people to work for the owners of property whether or not jobs pay decent wages or provide good working conditions, then the absence of BIG or anything like it is what you should favor. If you want all jobs to be good jobs, BIG is the policy to favor.

Cato Unbound

Cato Unbound

Another of the main arguments in my article was that, without foundation, many people responded to the evidence of a relative decline in work effort by making a subjective and value-laden assumption that all reductions in work effort are necessarily a bad thing. Manzi makes that very assumption and does not explain—much less defend—the subjecctive foundations underlying his assumption.

It’s what he leaves out, what he doesn’t call attention to, that is the real problem in Manzi’s article. Typical of some brands of right-libertarianism, it’s from a tradition of newspeak. He’s for slavery and he calls it freedom. It’s perhaps unfair to hang all of the rest of what I have to say on Manzi, but it is a common position running throughout a great deal of right-libertarian literature from Nozick and Rothbard and many, many others. Manzi’s essay, by the absence of its foundations, is a good example of how successfully this argument has become taken for granted—not just among right-libertarians but in mainstream political dialogue.

In the rights-based libertarian tradition, a situation in which one group of people has no other option but to work for another group of people is called “freedom” as long as that other group of people are called “property owners” and the working class is propertyless. I call it slavery, but to right-libertarians the opposite is slavery. Any redistribution to relieve people from forced work is supposedly reduces freedom; it’s even “on par with forced labor,” in Nozick’s words. If property owners give jobs or charity to the propertyless, that’s “voluntary” and consistent with freedom, but if the government taxes and redistributes property that’s “force,” “coercion,” and “interference” which supposedly violates negative freedom.

How did these propertyless people get into the position in which they have to work for the propertied? Over a long history, property owners use the force of the legal system to force, coerce, or interfere with other people, establishing “property rights” without the consent of or compensation for the people they thereby force into a state of propertyless. Before property rights, all were free from interference to use the resources of the Earth as they wished; under the type of property rights we have today and under the ideals envisioned by right-libertarians, “property owners” are free to interfere with any use the propertyless might make of the Earth’s resources. When everything is owned by someone else, the propertyless lose so much liberty that they’re unfree to work for themselves. They’re effectively born in debt, owning their labor to the to at least one member of the group that owns property. They face interference with anything in the world they might do for themselves unless and until they accept a subordinate position to a property owner? Doesn’t that make them unfree in the most negative sense of the term?

Right-libertarians usually get around this question by definitional fiat. The interference the rich do to the poor, when they say “We own the Earth and you don’t,” simply doesn’t count. It’s not interference because it doesn’t violate your rights. You have no right to the land; therefore, you have no right to be free from laboring for the people who do, and so we don’t even call it a loss freedom when use the force of the legal system to maintain that situation. The poor are always born in debt, every generation owing their labor to the propertied group, but that doesn’t make them “unfree” because they have no right to be free from being born into debt. I hope this makes my allegation of right-libertarian “newspeak” clear.

Of course, right-libertarians tell us that they defend property rights because they believe in freedom. Now we see that they’re simply defining freedom as the defense of the property rights system they want to see. This is why I think it is fair to use to term tautological libertarianism to describe versions of it that simply define freedom as the freedom do what you have the right to do. They argue we must have libertarian property rights so we can be free, but libertarian freedom turns out to be defined as nothing but the exercise of property rights so defined. Or they argue that we must define property rights this way so that people can be free. And around and around the logical circle we go. Not all libertarians (or even all right-libertarians) take the tautological shortcut, but far too many of them do. A circular argument can appear very powerful if you don’t reveal the whole circle at once. One paper argues this: we must have the definition of property rights because freedom is important. Another paper argues this: we must have this definition of freedom because property rights are important. If you show only one argument at a time, it appears powerful. You put both arguments together, and you have no argument at all. The less of the logic you see, the more powerful the argument appears to be.

You would need a powerful argument to explain why interfering with the propertyless in such a way as to put them effectively in debt to the upper class simply doesn’t count as a violation of freedom. And such an argument could only be subjective and value laden. But if the treatment of property ownership as synonymous with freedom is pervasive enough, you never have to make that argument. You can take it for granted.

Manzi expects his readers to take that kind of argument—or some other subjective and value laden argument—for granted when he assumes that any reduction in the number of hours the propertyless are forced to work for the propertied group is necessarily a bad thing. That’s slavery caused by the application of force, interfering with negative freedom of individuals to do things for themselves. He can call it freedom if he wants, but it’s still slavery.
-Karl Widerquist, Virginia Beach, VA (revised Roanoke, VA), August, 2014

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist is a Visiting Associate Professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Theory from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in Economics from the City University of New York. He is coauthor of Economics for Social Workers and coeditor of the Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee. He has contributed to journals such as Politics, Philosophy, and Economics; Political Studies; and the Eastern Economic Journal.
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4 Responses to The Basic Income Guarantee and Tautological Libertarianism

  1. Blain Neufeld says:

    Nice point! Your argument reminds me of G. A. Cohen’s important insight that, if we assume a *non-moralized* account of negative liberty, then it cannot be denied that property rights restrict the negative liberty of the non-propertied. While Alf’s right to property P enables Alf to use P without interference (thereby securing Alf’s negative liberty with respect to P), it also necessarily limits the negative liberty of all others to use property P (at least without Alf’s permission). So if we want to justify a certain kind of property regime as that which best secures (promotes/maximizes) all persons’ negative liberty, we have to take into account the *restrictions* that regime imposes on the negative liberty of all persons (restrictions that enforcement of that regime necessarily involves).

    The problem you’re pointing out, I think, is that right libertarians often employ a *moralized* conception of negative liberty, according to which a person is negatively free only with respect to those activities that are morally permissible, viz., those that respect libertarian-defined property rights. But in doing so, libertarians *cannot* appeal to the non-moralized account of negative liberty in order to *justify* libertarian property rights (that is, they cannot claim that libertarian property rights are justified *because* they maximize negative liberty)!

      • Spill_Erix says:

        You might enjoy the following read: “The Lesson of Grab What You Can”
        http://www.demos.org/blog/6/3/14/lesson-grab-what-you-can

        Matt Bruenig argues, that if right libertarians were consistent, they would support the “Grab What You Can World”, a world without (external) property.
        “The Grab World has one basic rule: you may not act upon the bodies of others without their consent. This is the basic rule that springs from the normative ideas of self-ownership, negative liberty, and non-aggression. This is the policy conclusion that springs out of the normative principles most libertarians claim they follow.

        The Grab World has no economic rules, by which I mean rules governing the use of the material world. It leaves the economy totally unregulated and unrestricted. Everyone is free to do whatever they like with the material things of this world.”

  2. Paul Lindemeyer says:

    The elephant in the room here may be framing – not textual, but rhetorical, and indeed, the art of concealing the frame of one’s argument so that what’s taken for granted does not seem too conspicuous, and it’s easy to redirect attention from it towards points one can seem to prove.

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