Tom Woods has interviewed Matt Zwolinski, a leading theoretician of libertarian justifications for a basic income guarantee (BIG).
I have blogged against this idea and Zwolinski’s version of it in particular before, concluding that there is little libertarian or even sensible about it.
Let’s see what new things Zwolinski has come up with since.
His main claim is that many (he does not know how many or exactly which ones) existing property titles have been unjustly acquired. Looting the looters in the form of a BIG, despite ignoring the distinctions between the guilty and innocent, still increases justice overall. It is better to loot every non-poor person than to abstain from looting them, because the latter would acquiesce in more injustice than the former would create.
To evaluate this idea it is necessary to distinguish between (1) the system of claiming and transferring property rights vs. (2) the existing set of property titles. Suppose for the sake of argument that most of (2) are unjustly held. Very well, a justice-utilitarian BIG should continue until the injustices have been rectified. But only if it goes along with a libertarian reform of (1); otherwise it’s irrational, to sin again and again and do penance and recover again and again. Once justice has been restored, all compensations should cease and a libertarian (1) should from then on govern the formation of (2).
The claims of the oppressed are not infinite and in perpetuity throughout the universe.
Moreover, I think that the “real serious privilege and injustice that we ought to recognize from the libertarian perspective” will be resolved automatically as the (fully freed and enabled) market process proceeds. If Smith stole a million bucks, then even if he keeps the dough, he is probably a bad businessman and will lose the money posthaste in the market competition. Crime does not pay even in this widest of senses. If, on the contrary, Smith becomes still richer off his ill-gotten gains, then his wealth-creating for other people activities will work as partial atonement. Either way, justice will be served.
Zwolinski has a second argument close at hand. At least some of the poor today, he says, despite the fact that almost everyone has benefitted from the regime of private property and free market, are poor precisely because they are not in a position to be original appropriators. They would have been successful pioneers, exploring the New World, say, but the present society where most land is privately owned has handicapped them. I find this to be particularly implausible, because the pioneers were precisely the rugged individualists who could survive and prosper anywhere, both in a primitive and developed economy. A decisive counter-point, however, is that Zwolinski’s BIG is universal, applying to everybody, irrespective of income, net worth, employment status, etc. Compensating the would-be “pioneers” is not, as he himself points out; besides, how many of them can there be, and how would we identify and find them?
David Gordon objects as follows: Zwolinski says that “people did not create natural resources. How then can people claim absolute property rights to these resources? I wonder why Zwolinski thinks that this question may be asked of individual claimants to property, but not of the people in a society taken collectively. ‘Society’ did not create natural resources either. Why then does ‘society’ get to decide what the proper distribution of these resources ought to be?” Our author has to prove two propositions, (a) that a Georgist tax is just; (b) that the revenues collected from this tax ought to be used on a BIG as opposed to, say, on building roads.
I think that by insisting on his Georgist argument Zwolinski has indeed painted himself into a corner. There is no indication that he is rejecting the idea that there are natural rights to property for either individuals or society. He is grasping at this peculiar straw — that compensation is allegedly due to latecomers to homesteading of land as per David Schmidtz’s theory — to convince himself that there is nothing sacred about the existing ownership status quo, and as a result, property titles can be reconfigured via monthly paroxysms of theft at a moment’s notice and at the philosopher’s will.
Here Zwolinski is again confusing (1) and (2). Even assuming there is nothing sacred about (2) which admittedly is subject in the market process to constant re-adjustment anyway, there is something holy about libertarian (1). Such a (1) would make compensations otiose or would at least significantly limit them, such as perhaps to a one-time lump-sum payment, as Woods suggests to Zwolinski, as well. I think Zwolinski will proceed by arguing that if people refuse to accept a reform of (1), maybe they can be persuaded to adopt one of (2) which will be more libertarian than neither. I say that this is far more trouble than it’s worth. Listen to the interview for Woods’ numerous “pragmatic” objections.
Is it the case that present landowners should be subject to a Georgist land tax which should be used to guarantee basic income to all non-landowners? Quite frankly, I fail to see the required connections. Owning land does not entail either high net worth or high income; nor failing to own land, low net worth or low income. (Think of all the people who are “house poor.”) Most land is for sale, anyway; anyone can become or cease to be a landowner. Land owners are not feudal autocrats but act within the market and are compelled to use their properties in the best interests of the consumers who include non-land owners. And as Zwolinski himself trenchantly explains in the interview, land and capital owners are the main force responsible for our present civilization and prosperity. Why then shouldn’t the far less meritorious landless masses compensate them for their troubles?
Lockean proviso, that when appropriating unowned land one ought to leave “as much and as good” for others, is an olden way of referring to moderate scarcity: it is certainly true that a world of neither super-abundance nor extreme dearth will serve up the right incentives for social cooperation. As Gordon points out, its practical utility is minimal.
Finally, a quote like “we’ve obviously committed severe injustices against many of the world’s peoples both through our military imperialistic adventures; I believe we commit further injustices against them by means of suppressing their freedom of movement with immigration restrictions…” makes one wonder whether Zwolinski knows what he is talking about. Who’re these “we”? Why does he conflate the people with the government? As Gene Callahan has taught us, the employees of the US federal government, such as soldiers, are part of an enterprise organization devoted to a common purpose; whereas the people living in the US are part of a civil association, united only by adherence to a common system of law. None of us in this conversation here therefore personally committed any injustices against any person or people. As a result, since we know that we are innocent, we can be immediately excluded from financing any compensation scheme that is based, as Zwolinski’s scheme is, on minimization of overall injustice.