The Basic-Income Debate


Basic-income guarantees or negative income taxes have been debated for decades, but a new group of advocates—some calling themselves libertarian—has rekindled the discussion. The Independent Review’s Spring 2015 symposium offers conflicting perspectives on this controversial proposal and on government’s role in social welfare spending in general. 

First in the symposium is David R. Henderson’s article “A Philosophical Economist’s Case against a Government-Guaranteed Basic Income,” in which he responds to the standard arguments for a BIG and points out some difficulties in implementation that make the more ambitious BIG proposals implausible. Henderson also argues that a BIG is unlikely to achieve its goals and that the grander versions are simply not capable of being implemented.

The second paper, “One and One-Half Cheers for a Basic-Income Guarantee: We Could Do Worse, and Already Have” by Michael Munger, offers a much more limited and therefore more feasible conception of a BIG. Its proposal, however, would require that many programs, including existing welfare transfers, the minimum wage, and rent subsidies, be eliminated as a means of financing the BIG. Nevertheless, this program represents a useful benchmark in the debate because it would at least be technically feasible.

But that squarely raises the question of whether a BIG is politically desirable. In “Property Rights, Coercion, and the Welfare State: The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income for All,” Matt Zwolinski takes on the difficult task of justifying a BIG not as “better than nothing” or “an improvement over the existing bad policy” but as a positive good. The affirmative case for a BIG, although arguable, has not often enough been a part of the debate, at least not among classical liberals.

The final paper, “Skeptical Thoughts on a Taxpayer-Funded Basic-Income Guarantee,” is by Robert Whaples. Batting cleanup is a difficult spot in any lineup, but Whaples steps up to the plate by addressing both Munger’s pragmatic arguments and Zwolinski’s fully elaborated justification. He concedes neither Munger’s claim that “we could do worse and probably will” nor Zwolinski’s argument that a comprehensive conception of rights requires a BIG as a matter of justice. Whaples would claim that the question Munger and Zwolinski ask—How best to fight the war on poverty?—is actually moot because in important ways that war has already been fought and won by market systems.