By Kevin Vallier
Phil Magness has complained, at length, on Facebook that proponents of a universal basic income (UBI) like myself have failed to grasp various “public choice” problems that would surely plague the functioning of the UBI. Presumably people would distort the use of the UBI in ways that are counterproductive. I’ve seen other libertarians raise worries that the UBI involves “handouts” and something for nothing. I think these objections are mistaken and I can demonstrate as much if you distinguish between two reasons libertarians might endorse a UBI: in ideal theory and non-ideal theory.
Without delving too much into this complex distinction, for my purposes, supporting a UBI in ideal theory involves saying that it is a destination policy, one that is appropriately for a good and fully just society. Once we have a UBI, we should stop there, for we have justice. In contrast, supporting a UBI in non-ideal theory involves saying that it is a transitional policy, one that we should pass through in transitioning from our present institutions to ideal institutions.
I don’t think the concerns raised by Magness and others are especially problematic for a destination UBI, but they’re not worrisome at all for a transitional UBI (which I defend). That’s because justifying a transitional UBI just involves comparing all the problems with our present welfare-state (and welfare-states like it in close possible worlds) with how we expect a UBI to function in the present world. So there’s no “unicorn fallacy” here. To satisfy Phil, let’s assume that UBI would face all kinds of institutional problems. The important question is whether it would face worse problems than the present welfare-state that the UBI would replace (or some similar welfare-states to what we have now). And I see no reason to think it will fare any worse than the current welfare state, with its many, many problems. We should expect less waste, less rent-seeking, and so on, just as UBI advocates claim.
Second, while the UBI is a “handout” of a sort, it’s not really significantly more of a handout than other forms of social insurance. I suppose you could get upset about the fact that the UBI is unconditional, but the justification for that is largely consequentialist – it’s just cheaper to do it that way. It’s not because the non-needy people who receive it somehow deserve it or are entitled to it.
Note that since the UBI is transitional, once we got to it, we’d try to get rid of it in order to achieve more liberty, other circumstances permitting. For instance, if we replaced the welfare state with a UBI, I’d push for states to run their own UBIs, and then localities, making the UBI more and more voluntary, given the lower costs of exit characteristic of smaller governmental jurisdictions. And if we actually have freed markets for the poor and low enough taxes and high enough growth that private charity could do what the UBI does, then I’d support getting rid of the UBI.
The best counter arguments to a transitional UBI is that if we transition to a UBI we are less likely to ever get to liberty. That is, it’s a bad path from our present circumstances to liberty. I’m not sure why that would be, so I await an argument to that effect from someone else.
Kevin Vallier is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His main areas of work are within political philosophy and ethics, and he is the author of Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation.
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