Contemporary political philosophy, a.k.a. post 1971, entertains many interesting questions. Often the most interesting questions of the said subfield of Philosophy involve public policy questions. These questions, while not an exhaustive list, include issues in policy with regards to public education, the extent of police powers, and what to do with the poor and desperately needy; hard questions indeed. The purpose of this blog post is to present the argument that modern political libertarians should not immediately cringe at social minimum policies and could in fact endorse them as other libertarians have.
Issues Addressed, Issues Deferred
I want to make it clear up front that I will not be addressing the justifications of a social minimum. For that, I need more time to read, analyze and conclude my thoughts regarding that difficult question. That said, I would like to quickly mention that there have been libertarians that have endorsed a social minimum. This list includes Robert Nozick, albeit a very low social minimum, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Less traditional libertarians that have endorsed forms of social minimums include thinkers like Hillel Steiner. Of the mentioned group, two are Noble Laureates in economics. Since I stated that I am deferring these justification issues, what am I interested discussing? Well, given the fact that the government already spends massive amounts of money on ostensibly social minimum goals, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, federal student aid and similar projects; my question is whether there is a better way to spend that money.
Setting it Up
So given the fact that we have sidestepped the question of whether or not it is justified for the state to take income from wealthier citizens to poorer citizens, we can now proceed to my belief that an unconditional basic income from the state to citizens is a better, and perhaps has beneficial consequences, means to provide for desired social minimums. Current government programs in place for the purposes of social minimums are awful in terms of what they produce, vast economic inefficiencies, distortions of market incentives, an army of government bureaucrats, vastly overpowered unions, and an increase in the prices of certain markets such as healthcare and education as a result of the increase of demand as a result of government subsidizes. All too often government has interfered in the private sector with while good intentions, bad outcomes. Unfortunately, this practice has only increased dramatically with the current administration. Yet what do these programs do? These programs are created with the implicit assumption that government knows better than the consumer regarding the issue on how to spend income. This is a conceptual mistake on the part of statists and those endorsing government interventions in the private sector. In addition, these programs have broken down the door to what are now accepted in the mainstream as justified positive rights.
Most, if not nearly all, libertarians emphasize negative liberties. These rights, for the most part, mean the ability to pursue an activity that does not cause harm to other parties. Thus, the right to vote, to earn a living, to read, to pursue an education, to speak freely, to enter a contract with another agent, and other similar rights are rights that may be pursued without the enslavement of others by means of force and or coercion.
One of the most common criticisms of negative liberties is ‘so what?’ Indeed, it is easy to see the dismal of the negative right to free speech when one is hungry, poor and unemployed. Negative rights for agents in those derelict conditions mean not that much, if any bit at all. For those in the said conditions the offer of positive rights, the right to be free from hunger, to an education, to a home, and to a job are understandable preferences. So of what relevance is the libertarian with his mantra of negative rights to the person in desperate need?
Empowering Negative Rights
So then, the question is how negative liberties can be made more relevant to a greater number of persons. With a basic unconditional income from the state, the individual is then able to better utilize negative liberties in a meaningful manner. When one can afford learning materials, then he can be a more productive member of society. When one can read, he can better evaluate the rhetoric of politicians. When individuals are freed from the conditions that promote hand to mouth behavior and expenditure, they can better improve themselves because of the greater range of options made by the basic unconditional income.
Cutting Other Programs
Often the criticism of those against market-based societies is that the market may punish those that are born with deficiencies. This is intuitively plausible, as it seems inherently unfair, whatever ‘fairness’ is, to have the market punish someone not because they failed in merit of economic maximization but because of disabilities they were born with. Therefore, our society tries to compensate for this by means of disability insurance and other similar programs. I believe that endorsing, once again taking it as a given of government intervention in this arena, a basic unconditional income can satisfy all these issues of fairness and also make the government much smaller. For instance, many government agencies could be successfully eliminated. The Department of Education, of Health and Human Services, and so on and so forth could all be removed from the rolls because now consumers would best decide how to spend the unconditional income. With current systems such as Medicare and Medicaid, government bureaucrats decide where spending can occur. In my alternative, consumers would best decide how to spend the basic unconditional income thereby alleviating the market of the perverse incentives created by government intervention. The state could then return to the most basic of functions of protecting Persons, Property and Promises (PPP).
Hedging Some Bets
I do expect some familiar criticisms to arise…
…that it is immoral to take from one to give to another by means of government force
…that a basic unconditional income will increase unemployment because workers lose a level of incentive to work
…that the taxes necessary for a basic unconditional income will cause the same market perversions that I attacked
These are just three of many expected attacks.
Replying to each in order:
I said early on that I would not address the justification of a social minimum.
This empirical question requires research. Economic literature generally finds that a 10% increase in minimum wages increase unemployment for those in minimum wage jobs by 1%. That is not necessarily a bad trade-off. Furthermore, not all workers will decide to live off the basic income, some will save and work still to save even more money.
Yes, it will cause market perversions, but much less than the existing market perversions created by a hodgepodge of government programs that heavily interfere with market structures.
Am I still a libertarian, yes of course! But I merely recognize that Americans generally like their social minimum programs. So I accept the fact of government social safety net spending is probably here to stay. I just think that the current setup is much too inefficient and burdensome. Given the fact that we spend all this money anyway, why not just give it to the individual. How much should the monthly stipend be? I’m not sure, that is an empirical question outside of this discussion. But should the empirical questions devastate my argument, I do not think so.
 Anarchy, State and Utopia,1974
 “I have always said that I am in favor of a minimum income for every person in the country.” from Hayek on Hayek: An Autobiographical Dialogue by F. A. Hayek, 1994
 Capitalism and Freedom, 1962
 An Essay on Rights, 1994
 When I say government, I mean the aggregate sum of local, state and federal governments unless stated otherwise.
 Belief for the time being, I am still thinking this out.
 Again, I am not one to believe that the mere result of desirable consequences is a sufficient condition as justification in regards to the claim of state ownership over the individual which is in effect what happens when the state takes the wealth of one citizen in order to provide for social minimums. I do not wish to violate the commitment to inviolable rights of self-ownership.
 A basic unconditional income is just as it sounds. A monthly payment from the state to citizens and only citizens with funds derived from various forms of taxes and fees collected by the state.
 I can remember my dad telling me the plight of Russians in the 1990s when I brought up the benefits of free speech. His reply, ‘Who gives a shit when you’re starving and stealing just to survive!’
 I am going to ignore issues of charity.
 Thank you Professor Bell for this useful phrase.