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Zwolinski and Woods on the Basic Income Guarantee

  • Matt Zwolinski
11/01/2015

Last week, Matt Zwolinski, a philosopher from the University of San Diego, argued on the Tom Woods show that libertarians ought to support a basic income guarantee. Woods, genial but sharp and relentless in his questions, brought out the full extent to which Zwolinski’s proposal differs from libertarianism as commonly understood. Zwolinski thinks the basic income guarantee should in ideal circumstances be extended worldwide: if the taxes needed to do this reduced the American standard of living, so be it. Further, a global agency might be needed to carry out this program.

To those libertarians who appeal to property rights in order to block the basic income guarantee, Zwolinski responded with the Georgist point 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 to 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?

Zwolinski also appealed to the Lockean proviso, a limit to property rights supported by Robert Nozick. As Nozick took the proviso, though, it would almost never act to limit property rights. It would come into effect only if people are made worse off by the existence of a system of property rights. In fact, of course, people are much better off because there are rights to private property, and Nozick suggests that only in catastrophes could one envision the proviso having any practical importance. (Zwolinski wrongly suggests that David Schmidtz first suggested this way of understanding the proviso, but Nozick advanced it, long before Schmidtz, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.) How Zwolinski gets from the proviso, thus taken, to a basic income guarantee is not immediately apparent.

Zwolinski’s best argument points to the fact that some people have acquired property unjustly. One cannot then rule out property taxes for a basic income guarantee as taking from people what is justly their own. Woods responded that one must deal with claims of injustice on an individual basis. There is no justification for a tax on all property on the grounds that unjust property titles exist “somewhere.” Zwolinski answered that Woods’ approach permits a great deal of injustice to exist. I take it that he means by this the unjust property titles that have not yet been investigated and overturned. Zwolinski, then, would allow taking away someone’s property through taxes, without showing that his claim to the property was defective. This strikes me as antithetical to libertarianism, but listeners to this broadcast should judge for themselves.

 

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David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

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