“Basic Income”: Sense or Nonsense?

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On June 5, Switzerland’s electorate voted 77% to 23% against a “basic income” proposal. The plan would have entitled each adult citizen to about US $2,500 per month from the Swiss government, with an additional payment per child, regardless of employment situation. Other polities, including Finland, the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and the province of Ontario in Canada, have trial runs of basic income schemes in the works.

Does the idea make sense? The identities of some who think it does — at least in principle — might surprise you. They include, among others, self-described libertarians such as Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, professor Matt Zwolinski of the University of San Diego, and Tim Worstall, Senior Fellow at the UK’s Adam Smith Institute.

These supporters of the idea are, generally speaking, utilitarians or consequentialists. They accept the modern welfare state as a given and want to make it more efficient and humane. That is, they think it should cost less and accomplish more. Guaranteed income seems to fit the bill: Huge administrative cost savings from the elimination of a hodgepodge of welfare programs (for example, food stamps), more freedom for recipients to spend as they see fit (in the same example, the money could be used to purchase shoes rather than food).

Understatement of the Month alert:  Not all libertarians support government income guarantee schemes.  In fact, the vast majority of us vociferously oppose the idea.

In order for the state to redistribute wealth, it must first steal that wealth (the thieves call it “taxation”). And before the state can steal wealth, that wealth must first be created.

Morally speaking, why should the creators of wealth — a category that includes everyone who labors to produce valuable goods and services, from the lowliest fry cook to the CEO of the company that built your car — be forced to subsidize the incomes of those who produce less, perhaps even nothing?

Practically speaking, why WOULD those wealth creators do so? I don’t know about you, but if I can make $20,000 a year cleaning toilets or $19,000 a year sitting on my couch watching Storage Wars … well, if you need me, check the couch. Stretching those numbers in either direction will produce different outcomes, but any income guarantee will to some degree constitute a disincentive to work.

As is always the case, it turns out that the immoral and the impractical coincide. “Basic income” makes no sense.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


Also published on Medium.

  • Steve Trinward

    Put it this way: I spent the first 45 years of my adult life figuring out how to keep food on the table, the rent mostly paid, and sometimes but not always a car on the road. At times that was due to a full-time day-job, which somehow never quite kept up with things; at others, it was the “gig economy” I have lived under for all but a few of the last 35 of those years. In either case, I spent as much time chasing the opportunities, or wondering how the next bill would get paid, as I did producing anything more lasting than that week’s food money. (I even tried stock market investing at one point, and found it only a tick more reliable than buying lottery tickets.)

    About two years ago, I “retired” and began collecting an SSI monthly check, supplementing the things I was still doing to make my living. (I have already written pretty extensively about “FICA floor” and other issues adjunct to this, so I won’t bother to defend my choice to take the money here.) Suddenly, the stress of keeping abreast of current bills began to disappear, and the other pursuits became investments, savings, new projects for possible income streams, and so forth. As a result, these past 18 months since I started collecting have been netting about twice what I used to make, ON TOP of the SSI checks adding another 30% or more to my take. I am also now creating long-term income streams in publishing and music, having been able to make some recording purchase and do some “free” work that has spurred both flows.

    I don’t know how such a program could exist in a free society; maybe people interested in supporting such a supplementary process might donate to a fund for the purpose. I do know that now that I get back at least a tiny scrap of what could have been a lifelong investment in my future, I am in better shape financially than I have ever been.

    • anibanib

      Welldone oldtime??????, you are one of the lucky ones…..keep it up

  • anibanib

    It will never ever work, the present system will continue across the World, Those that have and the have nots………..the USA being the prime example of how things really have hit the fans………..those that have are obscenely rich and greedy…………and treat their slaves……..AKA minimum wages workers………….just like they are slaves……..5, 6, 7, eight dollars an hour……….and all done legally,and very Little benefits if any………whereas those who get cash in hand, for a back breaking 12 hrs work on plantations….I mean farms……….some are lucky if they get 5 dollars a day……….and nobody turns a blind eye