Zwolinski's Weak Case for a Guaranteed Minimum Income
By David Henderson
Philosophy professor Matt Zwolinski has written an article making the case for a guaranteed minimum income, guaranteed, that is, by the government. That, in itself, is not surprising. What makes it somewhat surprising is that Matt is a libertarian and that he claims that there is a libertarian case for this forced transfer from taxpayers in general to low-income people.
What is that case? You need to read the whole piece, but here’s the gist:
One of libertarianism’s most distinctive commitments is its belief in the near-inviolability of private property rights. But it does not follow from this commitment that the existing distribution of property rights ought to be regarded as inviolable, because the existing distribution is in many ways the product of past acts of uncompensated theft and violence. However attractive libertarianism might be in theory, “Libertarianism…Starting Now!” has the ring of special pleading, especially when it comes from the mouths of people who have by and large emerged at the top of the bloody and murderous mess that is our collective history.
I get the first part of that paragraph. I think, though, that the last sentence is not particularly accurate. When I think of people who have emerged “at the top,” I think more of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and, unless I’ve missed it, they haven’t been chanting “Libertarianism…Starting Now!” More’s the pity.
Also the last sentence is distracting. What if Gates and Buffett were the ones chanting the libertarian slogan? Wouldn’t you have to judge the argument independently of who is chanting it? Isn’t that one of the standard principles that is taught in the kind of philosophy courses taught by, say, Matt Zwolinski?
My guess is that Matt has a wider view of those at the top, a view that would include, say, the top 20 percent of the wealth distribution. But if we really widen it, we realize that pretty much everyone alive in the United States is at or near the top, historically speaking. Someone in the bottom 20% in the United States today will typically have better housing, food, medical care, and travel options, for example, than Louis XVI had.
But let us continue. I think we can all agree that many people have what they have at least in part due to previous rights violations. It doesn’t seem clear to me that they are on top in what I take to be Matt’s narrower sense rather than my wider sense. I think, for example, of people who paid into Medicare and Social Security only a fraction, even in present value terms, of what they get back from taxes on the current young and middle-aged people. Sure, many of them are on top, but many are not. I don’t see how a basic income guarantee redresses that rights violation.
How does Matt reach his conclusion? He writes:
In a world in which all property was acquired by peaceful processes of labor-mixing and voluntary trade, a tax-funded Basic Income Guarantee might plausibly be held to violate libertarian rights. But our world is not that world. And since we do not have the information that would be necessary to engage in a precise rectification of past injustices, and since simply ignoring those injustices seems unfair, perhaps something like a Basic Income Guarantee can be justified as an approximate rectification?
His question mark at the end is perplexing. Is Matt saying that it can be justified or is he asking whether it can be justified. In the context of the whole article, I think it’s the former, but the question mark throws me off.
Again, though, go back to my Social Security and Medicare example above. Social Security and Medicare are huge systemic attacks on people’s rights and I don’t see a guaranteed minimum income as even an approximate rectification.
David Friedman has pointed out two other problem’s with Zwolinski’s libertarian case. David writes:
If I justly owe you forty cents, taking a dollar from me and giving it to you makes the resulting distribution less just, not more. Unless most inequalities are inherited from past rights violations, a claim I think few libertarians would support, the logic of the argument breaks down.
Moreover, writes David:
A further problem with Matt’s argument is that, even if you believe that a guaranteed basic income reduces net injustice, it is hard to argue that it is the best rule of thumb for the purpose. Consider the case of Afro-Americans. Almost nobody whose ancestors immigrated to the U.S. after the Civil War is the heir of benefits created by violation of the rights of their ancestors by his ancestors. On the other hand, the ancestors of present-day Afro-Americans were enslaved by Africans to be sold to European slave traders. The present inhabitants of Africa, at least sizable parts of it, are more likely than the present inhabitants of North America to be descendants of people who owe, and did not pay, reparation to slaves and their descendants.
It follows that Matt’s second argument implies that the (very poor) present inhabitants of Africa owe compensation to the (relatively rich) present American blacks. I do not think Matt would accept that argument, whether or not he could rebut it. If so, he does not really believe in his second argument.