By Steven Shafarman
Libertarians, classical liberals, and people who describe themselves as apolitical or anti-political may get excited by something in the 2004 Green Party platform:
“We call for a universal basic income (sometimes called a guaranteed income, negative income tax, citizen’s income, or citizen dividend). This would go to every adult regardless of health, employment, or marital status, in order to minimize government bureaucracy and intrusiveness into people’s lives. The amount should be sufficient so that anyone who is unemployed can afford basic food and shelter. State or local governments should supplement that amount from local revenues where the cost of living is high.”
Yes, that would be one huge government program, giving every adult $600 to $800 a month. Yet it would eliminate the perceived need and stated reasons for dozens of existing welfare and corporate welfare programs, which we could eliminate.
Everyone talks about cutting government, of course, but elected officials seem to be powerless to deliver on those promises. The special interests that profit from big government are focused, organized, and determined to protect their privileges and profits. Along with the basic income, however, everyone would be getting a monthly reminder that we’re all stakeholders with a direct interest in making government smaller and more efficient. We the People are much stronger than any special interest. Cutting programs will be relatively easy. We can afford the basic income without raising taxes.
A basic income would guarantee economic security for everyone while preserving private property and the free market. It would at the same time create a baseline of economic justice and equality. And it would leave intact the incentives to work, earn, save, and invest. Few people, after all, would be content to live on just the basic income. Why would we, when we would be free to work as hard as we want and earn as much as we can? What’s more, the few who lack ambition to better themselves would have enough money for basic food and shelter, and consequently no basis for claiming additional public resources.
Something like this was envisioned by F. A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom. “[T]here can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody.” That is “no privilege but a legitimate object of desire … [that] can be provided for all outside of and supplementary to the market system.”
Another champion of entrepreneurship, Peter Drucker, called for a “predictable income and employment plan” in The New Society as a way to “banish the uncertainty, the dread of the unknown and the deep feeling of insecurity under which the worker today lives” The predictable income he sought was to be minimal and variable as economic conditions change. He contrasted that with - and opposed - efforts to guarantee jobs or wages because such programs subsidize obsolescent industries, freeze technological progress, and fail during economic setbacks when workers need them most.
The term “negative income tax” was coined by Milton Friedman, who called for it in Capitalism and Freedom as the best and most efficient way to help the poor; he has regularly reaffirmed his support. Robert Theobald, in Free Men and Free Markets, maintained that individuals, businesses, and society as a whole would function more freely and evolve more readily if we “break the strangle hold of the job-income link.”
America almost enacted a guaranteed income in 1970, when Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan passed in the House of Representatives with two-thirds of the vote. Even though it was supported by a majority of Americans, according to public opinion polls, the moderate Democrats and Republicans who favored it were defeated in the Senate by the combined efforts of extreme conservatives who opposed any aid to the poor and extreme liberals who wanted more generous benefits.
Taking our government back from the special interests that are exploiting and abusing us, our public treasury, and our environment won’t happen until We the People demand it. Most of us, however, are busy working to earn enough money, trying to enjoy our lives, and consequently unable or unwilling to invest our time seeking political reform. Too many of us are simply turned-off by politics.
Basic income and the promise of an extra $600 or $800 a month could be the key to motivating and mobilizing ordinary Americans. Greens, Libertarians, and independent voters might unite with discontented Democrats and Republicans. We the People could soon succeed in a peaceful, democratic, second American revolution.
Steven Shafarman is President of the Citizen Policies Institute, www.citizenpolicies.org which is working to enact a basic income. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org