The Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income Doesn’t Add Up

By Mike Konczal |

Cato Unbound has a symposium on the “pragmatic libertarian case” for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), as argued by Matt Zwolinski. What makes it pragmatic? Because it would be a better alternative to the welfare state we now have. It would be a smaller, easier, cheaper (or at least no more expensive) version of what we already do, but have much better results.

Fair enough. But for the pragmatic case to work, it has to be founded on an accurate understanding of the current welfare state. And here I think Zwolinski is wrong in his description in three major ways.

He describes a welfare state where there are over a hundred programs, each with their own bureaucracy that overwhelms and suffocates the individual. This bureaucracy is so large and wasteful that simply removing it and replacing it with a basic income can save a ton of money. And we can get a BIG by simply shuffling around the already existing welfare state. Each of these assertions are misleading if not outright wrong.

Obviously, in an essay like this, it is normal to exaggerate various aspects of the reality in order to convince skeptics and make readers think in a new light. But these inaccuracies turn out to invalidate his argument. The case for a BIG will need to be built on a steadier footing.

Too Many Programs?

Zwolinski puts significant weight on the idea that there are, following a Cato report, 126 welfare programs spending nearly $660 billion dollars. That’s a lot of programs! Is that accurate?

Well, no. The programs Zwolinski describes can be broken down into three groups. First you have Medicaid, where the feds pay around $228 billion. Then you have the six big programs that act as “outdoor relief” welfare, providing cash, or cash-like compensation. These are the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), housing vouchers and the Child Tax Credit. Ballpark figure, that’s around $212 billion dollars.

So only 7 programs are what we properly think of as welfare, or cash payments for the poor. Perhaps we should condense those programs, but there aren’t as many as we originally thought. What about the remaining 119 programs?

These are largely small grants to local institutions of civil society to provide for the common good. Quick examples involve $2.5 billion to facilitate adoption assistance, $500 million to help with homeless shelters, $250 million to help provide food for food shelters (and whose recent cuts were felt by those trying to fight food insecurity), or $10 million for low income taxpayer clinics.

These grants go largely to nonprofits who carry out a public purpose. State funding and delegation of public purpose has always characterized this “third sector” of civil institutions in the United States. Our rich civil society has always been built alongside the state. Perhaps these are good programs or perhaps they are bad, but the sheer number of programs have nothing to do with the state degrading the individual through deadening bureaucracy. If you are just going after the number of programs, you are as likely to bulldoze our nonprofit infrastructure that undergirds civil society as you are some sort of imagined totalitarian bureaucracy.

Inefficient, out-of-control bureaucracy?

But even if there aren’t that many programs, certainly there are efficiencies to reducing the seven programs that do exist. Zwolinski writes that “[e]liminating a large chunk of the federal bureaucracy would obviously…reduce the size and scope of government” and that “the relatively low cost of a BIG comes from the reduction of bureaucracy.”

So are these programs characterized by out of control spending? No. Here they are calculated by Robert Greenstein and CBPP Staff.

The major programs have administrative costs ranging between 1 percent (EITC) and 8.7 percent (housing vouchers), each proportionate to how much observation of recipients there is. Weighted, the average administrative cost is about 5 percent. To put this in perspective, compare it with private charity. According to estimates by Givewell, their most favored charities spend 11 percent on administrative costs, significantly more than is spent on these programs.

More to the point, there isn’t a lot of fat here. If all the administrative costs were reduced to 1 percent, you’d save around $25 billion dollars. That’s not going to add enough cash to create a floor under poverty, much less a BIG, by any means.

Pays for Itself?

So there are relatively few programs and they are run at a decent administrative cost. In order to get a BIG, you’ll need some serious cash on the table. So how does Zwolinski argues that “a BIG could be considerably cheaper than the current welfare state, [or at least it] would not cost more than what we currently spend”?

Here we hit a wall with what we mean by the welfare state. Zwolinski quotes two example plans. The first is from Charles Murray. However, in addition to the seven welfare programs mentioned above, he also collapses Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and social insurance more broadly into his basic income. If I recall correctly, it actually does cost more to get to the basic income he wants when he wrote the book in 2006, but said that it was justified because Medicare spending was projected to skyrocket a decade out, much faster than the basic income.

His other example is a plan by Ed Dolan. Dolan doesn’t touch health care spending, and for our purposes doesn’t really touch Social Security. How does he get to his basic income? By wiping out tax expenditures without lowering tax rates. He zeros out tax expenditures like the mortgage interest deduction, charitable giving, and the personal exemption, and turns the increased revenue into a basic income.

We have three distinct things here. We have the seven programs above that are traditionally understood as welfare programs of outdoor relief, or cash assistance to the poor. We have social insurance, programs designed to combat the Four Horsemen of “accident, illness, old age, loss of a job” through society-wide insurance. And we have tax expenditures, the system that creates an individualized welfare state through the tax code.

Zwolinski is able to make it seem like we can get a BIG conflict-free by blurring each of these three things together. But social insurance isn’t outdoor relief. People getting Social Security don’t think that they are on welfare or a public form of charity. Voters definitely don’t like the idea of scratching Medicare and replacing it with (a lot less) cash, understanding them as two different things. And social insurance, like all insurance, is able to get a lot of bang for the buck by having everyone contribute but only take out when necessary, for example they are too old to work. Public social insurance, through its massive scale, has an efficiency that beats out private options. If Zwolinski wants to go this route, he needs to make the full case against the innovation of social insurance itself.

Removing tax expenditures, which tend to go to those at the top of the income distribution, certainly seems like a good way to fund a BIG. However we’ll be raising taxes if we go this route. Now, of course, the idea that there is no distribution of income independent of the state is common sense, so the word “redistribution” is just a question-begging exercise. However the top 20 percent of income earners will certainly believe their tax bill is going up and react accordingly.


Zwolinski is trying to make it seem like we can largely accomplish a BIG by shuffling around the things that state does, because the state does them poorly. But the numbers simply won’t add up. Or his plan will hit a wall when social insurance is on the chopping block, or when the rich revolt when their taxes go up.

The case for the BIG needs to be made from firmer ground. Perhaps it is because the effects of poverty are like a poison. Or maybe it will provide real freedom for all by ensuring people can pursue their individual goals. Maybe it is because the economy won’t produce jobs in the capital-intensive robot age of the future, and a basic income will help ensure legitimacy for this creatively destructive economy. Heck, maybe it just compensates for the private appropriation of common, natural resources.

But what won’t make the case is the idea that the government already does this, just badly. When push comes to shove, the numbers won’t be there.

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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.