Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Challenge to Milquetoast Libertarians

By Bionic Mosquito

Another day, another suck-the-joy-of-liberty-out-of-the-joy-of-liberty article.  This one, from Reason, is entitled “Time for a Guaranteed Income?”  And sadly, it isn’t followed by a simple one-word, two-letter response. 

The author is Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.  Get any clues from this position and title?  I will give you another clue, in case you still haven’t caught on: The subtitle of the article is “The pros and cons of a welfare idea championed by liberals and libertarians alike.”

Raise your hands if you already know where this is headed.

OK, for the rest of you….

Switzerland will soon hold a nationwide referendum on granting a guaranteed and unconditional minimum monthly income of $2,800 for each Swiss adult. In America, where Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty just celebrated its 50th anniversary of failing to achieve victory, liberals jumped on the Swiss news to reconsider the un-American-sounding idea of a universal basic income.

Surprisingly to some, they were joined by many libertarians. The list of intellectuals who have made cases for a guaranteed minimum income over the years includes such laissez-faire luminaries as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Charles Murray.

Let’s see, who are these libertarians?  A Chicago School Keynesian monetarist central planner (but I repeat myself), an Austrian economist who, unfortunately, supported many interventions in the market, and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.  Hear no libertarianism; see no libertarianism; speak no libertarianism.

And what libertarian cred do these three bring to the discussion?

Friedman favored a negative income tax (NIT), in which taxpayers who earn less than the established minimum taxable income level would receive a subsidy equal to some fraction of that difference. (A watered-down version of this became the Earned Income Tax Credit.) Hayek defended a minimum income floor, in which the government provides a conditional income to each adult. Murray's 2006 book In Our Hands argued for an unconditional $10,000 annual cash payment to all adult Americans, coupled with a repeal of all other welfare transfer programs.

A negative income tax…a minimum income floor…and $10,000 cash on the barrel-head.

Paid for by whom?  Enforced how?  Wait, sorry.  I am getting a bit too extreme in my libertarian thinking.

The author goes on to a long discourse about the pragmatic and utilitarian possibilities of such proposals.  Don’t get me started (and gpond, don’t be so eager to point out my logical flaws!).  She finds less and less reason to support any of the existing proposals, because they really don’t seem to help much.  Not because they require theft to implement, but because they don’t work very well.

But even this is not her main cause for objection.  Oh no:

But my main objection to a guaranteed minimum income is rooted in the wisdom of public choice: The poor structure of government incentives ensures that good intentions and elegant theories rarely equal expected results in public policy. The biggest risk in implementing a guaranteed income is that it won't completely-or even partly-replace existing welfare programs, but instead simply add a new layer of spending on top of the old.

Her main objection is not the violation of the non-aggression principle, or the breakdown of property rights; her main objection is that government is just not very efficient at doing what it publicly claims it wants to do.  If only government was more efficient.  Then, of course, they could violate liberty better than ever before.

So what are libertarians to support?

Here it is; the money line.  Please, Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, drop some libertarian wisdom on us.  What should we support?

If nothing else, more research: We could use a new series of voluntary, dispersed trials aimed at finding ways to avoid work disincentives while delivering payouts more efficiently and tying the hands of special interests and politicians.

More research (funded by whom?); more trials (conducted by whom?); tying the hands of politicians (tied by whom?).

Can’t we support something much simpler, and – dare I say it – libertarian?  Can’t we support the end to the legalized initiation of aggression?

The author closes with a statement that indicates at least a germ of awareness regarding the proper answer:

But more importantly, as economists Peter Boettke of George Mason University and Adam G. Martin of Kings College in London remind us in a recent paper, libertarians shouldn't forget that "the most robust protection against poverty comes from institutions that generate a harmony of interests rather than those that foment distributional conflicts."

The single-best institution that generates a harmony of interests is the free-market.  I challenge any milquetoast libertarian to explain how it can be otherwise.  Try initiating aggression and otherwise violating property rights and see if expanded harmony is the result.

How is it possible to claim libertarianism through violations of the non-aggression principle – no matter how efficient one might hope to make the violations?

It isn’t.



  1. Thanks BM, for doing the hard honest work of reading these Reason articles so that we don't have to!

    I had a friend who at one time was chairman of the Libertarian Party for my county. Through repeated reading of Reason magazine and constantly listening to NPR, the poor guy died a Democrat. True story.

  2. Reason magazine should change its name.

  3. "Through repeated reading of Reason magazine and constantly listening to NPR, the poor guy died a Democrat."

    He wasn't intellectually strong enough to use logic in testing what he was reading/hearing.

    Sad, but it's a lesson that could/should be considered within the ancap & minarchist communities as well.

  4. in a recent article by RW - february 04 - "Will Walter Block be on a firm libertarian principle to sue NYT" I commented that many risk to be milquetoast libertarians not having perhaps enough intellectual skills to argument about ...anyway I resolved to make clear to the other commenters challanged by me that my intentions it is just to promote a clear cut definition of the true libertarian which means in my view the definition given by Rothbard of the radical libertarian: my initial challenged comments said this : "to Anonymous February 03 08.57 pm (and also JT out of Barrow): WB is not an anarchist of any sort, he is like all of us a limited government costitutionalist and you - when use this anarchist qualification - make me fear are not a true libertarian but the usual Jerry Wolfang of this post comments: so really please don't mix meanings, you are only risking being a Milquetoast Libertarian (see bionic mosquito on epj january 28)."; having used myself your definition, Mr. BM, I would like to see you explain how much is possible use this terminology to explain one it is not a libertarian in the radical libertarian sense given by Rothbard in 1997 helping this way promote some clearness about libertarianism knowing that anyway every fifty years this critical definitions are completely changed - maliciously - in their usual meaning (consider for istance Liberalismus liberals and so on, Raico explains).

    1. Milquetoast is too kind a word for types like these.

      I would call them FRAUDS, plain and simple. Fauxbertarians
      After all, they aren't gradualist like some.
      They are actively seeing potentially positive aspects about state force and property theft.

      And what's worse is they actually have the balls to pretend they are speaking for other libertarians (e.g.: "So what are libertarians to support?")

    2. Luigilamour February 20, 2014 at 10:49 AM

      To the extent I understand what you are asking of me….

      I am not much of a political theorist or philosopher, however: the non-aggression principle, with its necessary compliment of absolute property rights, is to be inviolable.

      Of course, stating it as a principle is relatively straightforward. Applying it to various circumstances sometimes gets tricky. Even within our circles, we vigorously debate things like abortion, intellectual property, and fractional reserve banking – how does the NAP apply in these situations? Given how unsettled these are even within some of the staunchest libertarian circles, that a libertarian might hold one side or another on these issues is somewhat understandable – even if I disagree (I have mellowed a bit in this regard).

      But modifying state policy on taxes, welfare, whatever? There is no logic possible to make this fit within the meaning of the NAP.

      This is the role of the milquetoasts – or whatever you want to call them. We know the organizations. Their basic message: on the economy, we promise to be even more republican than the republicans; on social issues we promise to be more democrat than the democrats; on military / defense / war – it’s a grab bag.

      They work the left right spectrum – they just mix it up in a different formula.

    3. "I would call them FRAUDS, plain and simple. Fauxbertarians"

      Again, Tony's posted thoughts mirror my own.

  5. I read articles at the Reason Magazine website regularly. Despite garbage like the article reviewed here I will still do so. But I don't kid myself about the kind of libertarians who work for Reason, and I wouldn't donate so much as a dime to the Reason Foundation. It is a Koch Bros. operation, just like the Mercatus Center. These are fair weather libertarians, not hard core anarcho-capitalists. They don't believe in the Non-Aggression Principle. You will never even see Murray Rothbard's name mentioned in these tentacles of what Murray called "The Kochtopus". Or Von Mises for that matter. Both of these libertarian giants have fallen down the Koch Bros. memory hole. What a shame.

  6. If you want to know why Veronique de Rugy supports a policy, the question to always ask is "how does this benefit the Koch Bros.?"

  7. I've paraphrased your challenge to read: "How is it possible to claim libertarianism in the process of providing for the welfare of others who are not capable of supporting themselves?" I did so because your challenge was triggered by the notion of a guaranteed income for that purpose, and its wording seems to assume that that goal would or could be accomplished only through violations of the NAP.

    I accept that challenge but in doing so I disavow any allegiance with any political philosophy other than no-government libertarianism.

    The apparent dichotomy in the world view held by those who self-identify as libertarians and those who do not causes a blockade in the process of gaining the necessary understanding that can lead to mutually beneficial results.

    The goal of non-libertarians is neither to legitimize theft nor to become thieves. Lacking any other means to achieve their ends, coupled with the deep and abiding feelings of goodness they possess, it's a small step for them to ignore the cognitive dissonance they create when they adopt the means of the thief.

    The stark planks of libertarianism appear to offer not the slightest hint of a helping hand, only the impersonal "invisible hand". I hold that it is conceptually possible to, figuratively, extend that missing helping hand and to do so in an environment of anarchy.

    Do not mis-understand what I am saying. I am not proposing any changes to the libertarian positions of laissez-faire and non-aggression. Nothing I put forth requires any change be made. These ideas are in the form of a novel about a fictional future that I wrote a few years ago. I present what many will view as ridiculous proposals. One notion, that money can be created out of nothing, is indeed ridiculous but that's not one of mine. I do use it in a novel way though.

    Please excuse the length and form as it was not written to be concise. It is available at the web site below as a free pdf download.

  8. There is some value of a Guaranteed Minimum Income in the Fabian sense of moving towards greater Libertarianism.

    The optimum result for a libertarian is no income redistribution at all. But how? The people running state welfare programs protect those programs. There is a whole state funded apparatus that is very powerful, and this apparatus cannot be fought unless it is de-funded. A Guaranteed Minimum Income is one way of defunding the enemies of libertarianism.

    How so? Because the bureaucrats and and other hangers-on running these programs will be out of jobs. They will have been de-funded and their political beliefs no longer subsidized by the state.

    While the redistribution of wealth is objectionable for obvious reasons, at least most people will retain a greater part of their earned money under Guaranteed Minimum Income than under the current regime of the parasite political class. For most people that means an effective tax cut. That is a categorical boon under any form of libertarian thinking.

    It is a great flaw in the libertarian movement that few libertarians have given thought to overthrowing the current ruling class - Sean Gabb's "Cultural Revolution, Culture War" being an honorable exception.

    How does a nation go from cultural marxist statism to libertarianism in a single bound? It doesn't seem possible. Libertarians (and I am one) don't seem cut out for revolution, so evolution is the only way forward. Defunding statist entities is a crucial step in this evolution and must not be ignored.