In Defense of a Universal Basic Income

How could a state simultaneously commit to individual rights and private property on the one hand, and a universal basic income on the other? On the face of it, these seem like incompatible ideas. In theory, however, they needn’t be. Let me explain some reasons why.

In its simplest form, a universal basic income is a publicly guaranteed yearly income supplement that every citizen receives. It is not means-tested, nor conditioned on work status, and the recipient is free to spend it as she pleases. The only criterion is that one is an (adult?) citizen of the state.

A UBI appears incompatible with a strict regime of private property and individual rights because it’s 1) redistributive, 2) separates income from work, and 3) exploitative. But I think these objections are mistaken. And instead, a strict regime of private property rights requires some form of UBI to compensate those harmed by it.

First, a UBI does involve confiscation and re-distribution of income. However, a UBI would not likely change the particular distribution of income in a society. Strictly speaking, a UBI only changes the holdings of those persons falling below its threshold. And a UBI is likely to be highly efficient, meaning that for those above its threshold the per person cost would be close to the per-person supplement.

Second, the UBI would change work incentives, particularly considering the size of the benefit. A modest UBI tailored to prevent utter destitution would have limited distortionary effects, mainly for the poor. But its unlikely it would change incentives for people who work to earn a discretionary income or find their work interesting and satisfying.

There is a related worry that a UBI would express the idea that one needn’t work to earn an income. This worry relies on the distinction between what A does in stating the very statement X, and what A does by or by means of X. If the UBI states that every citizen is entitled to a minimum level of income, regardless of how deserving they are, it seems that by means of a UBI the state expresses the view that work is unnecessary or unimportant. A UBI could express this view, but not necessarily. It is not necessary to describe what is going on in the enactment of a UBI as a degradation of work.

To elaborate this view further, we can turn to the third possible objection. Someone who receives a UBI but elects not to otherwise support himself by contributing to general wealth–the “surfer” figure in the literature–in one sense exploits the rest of society. He claims a share of others’ incomes to which he otherwise has no moral claim. The UBI allegedly exploits productive members of society by imposing a duty on them to provide income to individuals toward whom they have no moral duty to support.

Note that the problem remains even if we accept that no productive individual strictly speaking supports a given undeserving recipient. It remains true that under a UBI undeserving individuals make claim to a share of social wealth to which they have otherwise no claim.

What exactly is it that makes the “surfer” undeserving, though? I suggest that what makes him seem undeserving is that while he does participate in and regulate his conduct in accordance with his immediate social environment, he does not participate in society’s productive venture. He participates in a distinctly local  order. So what gives him a claim to society’s productive bounty? If society’s dominant norms actually constrain the surfer’s local order, then it would not be exploitative for participants in the dominant order to compensate the surfer.

Private property rights constrain because they distinctively include a right to exclude. The surfer’s local order uses the commons–the beach and sea–within the context of privately owned property. Surfers could make themselves better off if the commons were expanded and opportunities for initial acquisition increased, but private ownership makes that impossible.

Because dominant private property norms constrain the surfer, he can claim some form of compensation from those who benefit from private property norms. Thus, even “undeserving” citizens in the sense of non-participants in society’s distribution of productive property, should enjoy the benefits of a UBI.

There are other forms of “undeservingness” that raise worry about exploitation under a UBI–criminals, pathological behavior, etc.–that require further discussion. But the surfer does not.


Democracy in America, Vol. 1., Part 2, Ch. 6

Continuing from the reading  group, here are some thoughts on Chapter 6entitled “What are the Real Advantages that American Society Derives from the Government of Democracy”:

Chapter 6 further develops the themes I identified in Ch. 4. The “real advantages” that Tocqueville identifies may seem on the surface like backhanded compliments, but that is precisely because the virtues of democracy aren’t superficially obvious. Democracy, Tocqueville argues, bumbles and rambles along, unsure of where it is going and without a direct and clear path forward. Again, this differs from the traditional Platonic critique—Plato argued that democracy would be uniquely effective in pandering to the desires of the people. But Tocqueville writes that in contrast to democracy, “aristocracy is infinitely more skillful in the science of the legislator than democracy can be. Master of itself, it is not subject to getting carried away in passing distraction; it has long designs that it knows how to ripen until a favorable occasion presents itself” (p. 222). Democracies suffer from perpetual ADD, as it were.

The real advantages of democracy are its hidden strengths. In one of his most stunning passages, Tocqueville writes that “there is, therefore, at the base of democratic institutions, a hidden tendency that often makes men cooperate for the general prosperity despite their vices and errors…. In democratic societies [men] produce good without having any thought of doing so” (p. 224). There is a striking parallel here between Tocqueville and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—just as the idea of the market is a system in which the public interest emerges from the decidedly mixed motives of individual actions, so does democracy serve the public interest despite the messy and rowdy character of quotidian democratic life.

Tocqueville defines the “public interest” in a negative way: a democracy prevents systematic oppression of the majority, its workings prevent an “exclusive and dangerous style” of government. Democracies bear the “transient operation” of bad laws in order to benefit from the “general tendency” of laws to converge on the public interest (p. 222). One strategy that American democracy has employed is the idea of political rights—or what Tocqueville calls “the idea of virtue introduced into the political world”—which by extending to each and every citizen, give each the opportunity to develop virtue as a participant in the political process. Again, note the irony—the extension of rights to all connects rights to self-interest in the minds of democratic citizens, which serves to mitigate the dangers of popular rule. When rights are co-extensive with interests, rights acquire solidity and sanctity that they would lose were political rights reserved to an aristocratic elite.

However, Tocqueville is again careful not to overstate his case: “There is nothing more prolific in marvels than the art of being free; but there is nothing harder than the apprenticeship of freedom” (p. 229). A democracy is only possible once people have reached a sufficient level of enlightenment and understand the risks of abuse and importance of trust to a society that protects individual rights.

The advantages of democracy, Tocqueville concludes, are modest and humble but far from insubstantial. It serves the necessities of material life, it produces peaceful habits, reduces crime at the cost of vice, and mitigates enormities—both great accomplishments and great evils. In a phrase, democratic life will be unremarkable, but enjoy firmer and steadier foundations than monarchy, tyranny, and aristocracy.