The Universal Basic Income: Newly Contentious

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) was the topic of my other “Contentious Issues in Classical Liberalism” presentation.  Here, at least, I can see the superficial appeal for the typical member of the Mont Pelerin Society.  Unlike the conventional welfare state, the UBI doesn’t try to micro-manage human behavior.  It doesn’t claim to know how anyone – no matter how poor – should live their lives.  It gives bureaucrats near-zero discretion.  And it preserves recipients’ marginal incentives to work.  The UBI gives money to everyone, then lets the free market work.

What do these arguments overlook?  For starters, since taxpayers have to support the UBI whether they like it or not, the moral presumption in favor of recipients’ “choice” is more than a little muddy.  Voluntary donors get to decide how their money gets spent; why shouldn’t involuntary donors have the same right?

On reflection, moreover, there are strong reasons for taxpayers to exercise this right.  Most obviously, because their first priority is to take care of children.  “You can’t use food stamps for alcohol” need not be paternalistic; maybe it’s just a pragmatic way to feed the hungry children of alcoholic parents.

Poor parenting aside, the very fact that an adult needs government help is good reason to question their personal responsibility.  If you want to sleep on my couch while you search for a job, I refuse to “just trust your best judgment” about how to get your life in order.  Anyone who wants my help has to strive to find a job, not sit around drinking my wine.  It’s hard to see why taxpayers should be more relaxed (though due to the tragedy of the fiscal commons, they almost always are).

The main reason why classical liberals smile upon the UBI, I fear, is its elegant simplicity.  If we adopt one straightforward poverty program, we can rid ourselves of all the rest.  Unfortunately, as my presentation explains, the UBI’s cost is exorbitant, the side effects are awful, and the moral justification is ultimately flimsy.  The right moderate reform for classical liberals to push is not the UBI, but Austerity for Liberty.

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Why is Immigration a “Contentious Issue in Classical Liberalism”?

“Contentious Issues in Classical Liberalism” was the theme of this year’s Mont Pelerin Society.  This gave me a chance to explore a major puzzle: Sociologically, immigration clearly deserves to be on the agenda.  After all, many people otherwise sympathetic to human freedom and free markets support even more immigration restrictions than we already have.  Intellectually, however, it’s hard to see why.

The plot thickens when you notice that pro-freedom immigration skeptics routinely use arguments that almost never use in any other context, starting with:

1. Collective ownership.  Yes, if countries are the collective property of their citizens, then they have a right to regulate immigration.  But this also implies nations’ right to regulate everything else, too!  You can’t live on my land without my consent, but neither can you open a store on my land without my consent, or even hire someone to work on my land for less than the minimum wage without my consent.

2. Collective guilt.  Yes, if e.g. foreign Muslims are collectively guilty for whatever wrongs foreign Muslims have done in the past, then immigration restrictions against Muslims would be justified.  But this also implies that other people can legitimately hold us collectively guilty for whatever wrongs “we’ve” done in the past.  So affirmative action, reparations for slavery and colonialism, returning land to American Indians, and much more are suddenly on the agenda.

3. Shocking anecdotes.  Yes, if we ought to take shocking anecdotes seriously, then any awful immigrant action on CNN justifies a major policy response.  But this also implies that shocking anecdotes about poverty, health care, worker safety, and the environment on CNN also justify major policy responses.

4. Popular support.  Yes, if “This is what citizens want, and they’re entitled to get their way,” then immigration restrictions easily pass muster.  But so do virtually all the policies classical liberals traditionally oppose, starting with protectionism and a bunch of price controls.

Unless you’re going to abandon the whole classical liberal framework, basic intellectual hygiene requires you to excise any argument along these lines.  What remains?  Only arguments claiming that the consequences of immigration are awful enough to overcome the standard classical liberal presumption against government action.

How does that approach fare?  See my full presentation to find out.  Bonus: A bunch of Zach Weinersmith cartoons!

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Keeping Score

Nobody asked but …

Big Six Henderson was a Revenuer, and remains a folk legend in Kentucky — here is a good article.  In later life, he served also as the timekeeper for the Western Kentucky Teachers College basketball team.  Truth and Big Six’s stories sometimes aligned, but I cannot attest here.  It is related that Big Six once said, after WK won on a last (or perhaps beyond last) second shot, “There’s no reason to lose if you’re the one keeping score.”  Whether he said it, or not, the thing itself seems true.

Remember when POTUS took credit for the commercial airline safety record?  POTUS is an instinctive storyteller.  The process is called controlling the narrative.  It consists of cherry picking the factoids, and to a lesser degree, the facts — or re-arranging the frame.

Here is another article, in which POTUS seeks to abolish poverty by redefining it.  Remember that he also reports frequently on progress of the border wall, turning imagination into infrastructure.

This is nothing new. LBJ, FDR, WW, TR, and Honest Abe (sic) were past masters.

— Kilgore Forelle

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War for Poverty

When a country is mired in poverty, violent revolution is the most emotionally appealing remedy.  So cinematic.  Since the powers that be almost never agree, any call for violent revolution is, in practice, a call for civil war.  But how well does the “remedy” of civil war actually work?  So far, the very best treatment I’ve found is contained within Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion:

Civil war is development in reverse.  It damages both the country itself and its neighbors.  Let’s start with the country itself.  Civil war tends to reduce growth by around 2.3% per year, so the typical seven-year war leaves a country around 15 percent poorer than it would have been…

Both economic losses and disease are highly persistent: they do not stop once the fighting stops.  Most of the costs of civil war, perhaps as much as half, accrue after the war is over.  Of course, sometimes the rebellion is worth it, with rebel victories ushering in an age of social justice, but this does not happen often.  Usually the political legacy is about as bad as the economic legacy – a deterioration in political rights.  A rebellion is an extremely unreliable way of bringing about positive change.  Rebel leaders who claim to have launched a civil war for the good of their country are usually deceiving themselves, others, or both.

Furthermore, civil war breeds civil war:

Civil wars are highly persistent.  The average international war, which is nasty enough, lasts about six months.  You can do a lot of damage in six months.  But the average civil war lasts more than ten times as long, even longer if you start off poor…

Having looked at why civil wars started and how long they lasted, we then looked at what happened when they were over.  As previously noted, the end of a war often is not the end of the conflict; once over, a conflict is alarmingly likely to restart.  Furthermore, the experience of having been through a civil war roughly doubles the risk of another conflict.  Only around half of the countries in which a conflict has ended manage to make it through a decade without relapsing into war.

Along the way, Collier also heaps amusing scorn on the Third World’s indigenous war-mongers and their credulous First World apologists:

Our work has proved controversial.  In part this is because the people attracted to the academic study of conflict tend to be politically engaged and are sympathetic to the acute grievances enunciated by various rebel movements, who often adopt extreme measures to oppose governments that may indeed be unsavory.  To such academics, the whole idea of investigating statistically whether there is a relationship between objective measures of grievance and a propensity to rebel is taken to be more or less an insult, since they know there is one.

And:

[T]he rebel groups generate a discourse of grievance that feeds these concerns, in effect inviting fellow travelers to imagine themselves wearing bandoliers on the barricades.  Unfortunately, you simply can’t trust the rebel discourse of concern for social justice; what else do you expect them to say?

A calm look at the data shows that this skepticism is well-justified:

Genuine grievances should be addressed whether or not they provoke rebellion, yet all too often they are not redressed.  But the sad reality seems to be that grievances are pretty common.  Rebels usually have something to complain about, and if they don’t they make it up.  All too often the really disadvantaged are in no position to rebel; they just suffer quietly.

Peace lacks the romance of war, just as appeasement lacks the romance of rebellion.  Yet if you really want desperate countries to escape poverty, you should hew to the path of peace.  If appeasement is the price of peace, you should probably pay it.  Civil war is a viable – though high-risk – strategy for power-hungry leaders.  For countries, however, it is a path to wretched ruin.

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Statism = Nihilism = Statism

I am not a nihilist. I don’t want to watch the world burn, and I certainly don’t want to be the one to set it on fire.

Yes, I hate and oppose negative things like governments and other archators, but I don’t hate and oppose everything. I don’t want to destroy society (that’s why I don’t support political governments). I don’t want to destroy most people. I don’t want to break windows and loot and flip over cars. Well, at least not those owned by people rather than governments. I hate and oppose those things which are most destructive– things which nihilists should love. It’s why I can’t be a statist.

However, I understand the frustration which drives some to a nihilistic world-view. I can’t even really blame them for feeling that way, even if I would blame them if they carried it out.

I’m a personal pessimist, but a long-term optimist. My own life may never be what I wish, but in the long term– maybe longer than several human lifespans– I think things will keep getting better. I am sad when I think how much horror and tyranny will probably have to pass between now and then.

I do what I can to give people the chance to avoid it, but my voice is small and unimportant. I wish I could get through to people to save them the pain, but most people (including myself) don’t learn without pain. It’s bad enough when people cause themselves pain, but so much worse when their bad choices cause pain to others.

And make no mistake: statism is a bad, bad choice. No matter how many believe it is normal. No matter how few can see another path. It’s a really dumb thing to cling to. Yet, cling they do. They will make the nihilists “happy” with the inevitable results of statism: death, destruction, poverty, slavery, and just about all other bad outcomes. Outcomes guaranteed by people claiming to want to help… by doing the opposite of the right thing.

And yet, even with all that, I’m not a nihilist and could never be one.

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Governing Least: A Litany of Insight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least is packed with random insights and philosophic wit.  Some highlights:

Why so much political philosophy sounds desperate:

Only those already unsympathetic to utilitarianism are likely to be swayed by Rawls’s brief observations. Those who begin their political philosophy by defending the morality of rights don’t so much preach to the choir as exorcize the elect.

Why so much political philosophy sounds so blind:

The reason France does not require aid is not because some external group took pity on the French, but that they were able to generate exponential economic growth themselves. This makes it puzzling that philosophers write long books about aid without mentioning economic growth, and generally seem to imply that the path to escaping poverty lies through individual altruism. Why ignore the only mechanism that has ever succeeded in lifting millions of people out of poverty when thinking about poverty?

A great explanation of the Theory of the Second-Best:

Suppose that a company enjoys monopoly powers that we cannot immediately remove under the present regulatory regime, but that one of its upstart rivals enjoys a market- distorting state subsidy which we can remove. It is a fallacy to infer that market efficiency will be improved by at least killing the subsidy— the reverse may well be true— just as it is fallacious to reason that if our military lacks both bombs and bombers the second- best solution is at least to build the bombers.

Why predictable outcomes can co-exist with abundant opportunity:

The data on intergenerational mobility or its absence is sobering, to say the least. In the United States, sometimes this leads commentators to call into question the traditional self- conception of America as a “land of opportunity.” It’s hardly a land of opportunity if outcomes are determined at birth, runs the criticism.

Let us consider this reasoning in more detail. The critic seems to reason as follows: If there were anything like equality of opportunity, then we couldn’t predict outcomes at birth, but we can, and so the land of opportunity is a myth. Let us assume the standard to meet here isn’t exact equality of opportunity for every single citizen. Could there still be reasonably high levels of opportunity despite outcomes— including bad ones— being highly predictable from the start? The critic seems to assume the following principle:

Predictability defeats opportunity: if we are able to specify social outcomes with a high degree of accuracy in advance, then the people in question cannot enjoy much opportunity.

Why accept this principle? What is it that connects predictability and opportunity? The obvious answer is that we think we know enough about people to be confident that if they did enjoy opportunities, they wouldn’t exercise them in a way that leads to bad social outcomes. The fact that we know that Smith will end up poor in all likelihood suggests that he is powerless to avoid it, since if he were capable of influencing the outcome, then he would. This amounts to another, deeper principle:

Predictability is evidence of incapacity: the fact that we can predict poor social outcomes is evidence that those who experience them lack a capacity for avoiding them.

Another way of putting the matter is that a fixed proportion of poor outcomes might be bad, but it wouldn’t be bad for reasons of diminished opportunity, since it might be the case that there are going to be winners and losers in anything resembling a free society, and as long as everyone has a fair shot at being a winner, things aren’t so bad. (No doubt more would need to be said about what “losing” amounts to for us to feel reassured.) What is terrible about predictability is that the losers aren’t just random, but never had a chance. Because predictability is evidence of incapacity, we know that those with poor outcomes never had a chance to succeed, and a fortiori they lacked anything like an equal or reasonable opportunity for success.

The problem is that it isn’t true that predictability, in itself, is evidence of incapacity, that outcomes are beyond our control. I don’t want to deny in the end that certain forms of incapacity do play a role in social outcomes, but how much is far from settled, and by opening with the assumption that predictability implies incapacity, we go wrong from the start. The fundamental confusion is between the epistemic question of what we can say about the future and the metaphysical question of what people are able to do at a given time in given circumstances. There are various fancy examples to illustrate this in the free- will literature, but for our purposes we can stick to some everyday examples:

Rope line: at the airport, we predict with great confidence that people will walk along a particular circuitous path— the one laid out by the velvet ropes. Nevertheless, the passengers are free to step over the ropes any time they like. It’s just that hardly anyone does. Predictability here doesn’t imply incapacity, it’s just that the passengers all have reason to exercise their freedom in a certain way.
Victim-blaming is (often) question-begging:
[I]t sounds mean to claim that people generally have a capacity to influence social outcomes when thinking about the poor, a bit like victim-blaming. But such a denial would involve insisting that something like the following claims are generally true (readers are invited to imagine these in the mouths of their own children facing unfavorable social circumstances, such as a lousy school system):
• “I can’t help it that I skipped class.”
• “It wasn’t possible to do my homework.”
• “I had no control over whether I had children.”
• “There was no way I could have worked this past year.”
It is important to acknowledge that for some people, these statements will be true. Mothers have children due to rape, classes go unattended because of gunfire or violence in the school, recessions destroy employment opportunities even for those who are highly qualified and persevering and willing to accept low wages. The point isn’t that all poor social outcomes are blameworthy, but that most (not all) people can exercise an enormous amount of influence over whether they lead a decent life in the developed world, even when ignorance or other internal impediments bar the way.
Governing Least is so packed with insight that I could easily have made this post three times longer.  Read it and see for yourself!
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