Atlas Nods: The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income
83 Pages Posted: 23 Oct 2017 Last revised: 3 Feb 2018
Date Written: October 21, 2017
Proposals for a universal basic income are generating interest across the globe, with pilot experiments underway or in the works in California, Canada, Finland, Italy, Kenya, and Uganda. Surprisingly, many of the most outspoken supporters of a universal basic income have been self-described libertarians — even though libertarians are generally considered to be antagonistic toward redistribution and a universal basic income is, at its core, a program of income redistribution. What explains such strong libertarian support for a policy that seems so contrary to libertarian ideals?
This Article seeks to answer that question. We first show that a basic safety net is not only consistent with, but likely required by, several strands of libertarian thought. We then explain why libertarians committed to limited redistribution and limited government might support a system of unconditional cash transfers paid periodically. Delivering benefits in cash, rather than in-kind, furthers autonomy by recognizing that all citizens — even poor ones — are the best judges of their needs. Decoupling such transfers from a work requirement acknowledges that the state lacks the ability to distinguish between work-capable and work-incapable individuals. Providing payments periodically, rather than through a once-in-a-lifetime lump sum grant, ensures that all individuals can receive a minimum level of support over lifespans of variable lengths, while also allowing individuals to adjust payment flows through financial market transactions.
Although our main objective is to assess the fit between libertarian theory and a universal basic income, we also address various design choices inherent in any basic income scheme: who should receive it?; how large should it be?; which programs might it replace?; and should it phase out as market income rises? Lastly, we consider the relationship between a basic income and the political economy of redistribution. We find that the case for a basic income as a libertarian “second-best” is surprisingly shaky: libertarians who oppose all redistribution but grudgingly accept a basic income as the least-worst form of redistribution should reconsider both aspects of their position. We conclude by drawing out lessons from our analysis for non-libertarians, regardless of whether they are supportive or skeptical of basic income arguments.
Keywords: Universal Basic Income, Libertarianism, Tax Policy
JEL Classification: K34
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation