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IEET > Security > Eco-gov > Life > Access > Health > Vision > Philosophy > Technoprogressivism > Affiliate Scholar > John Danaher

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Libertarianism and the Basic Income (Part One)

John Danaher
By John Danaher
Philosophical Disquisitions

Posted: Dec 18, 2013

I have recently become interested in the case for an unconditional basic income (UBI). In large part, this has been prompted by an increasing fascination with the phenomenon of technological unemployment and its future progression. Some argue that increasing levels of technological unemployment, and the associated capital-labour income inequality that comes with this, would be best solved by something like the UBI. This strikes me as a prima facie plausible argument.

In addition to this recent interest, I also have a long-standing fascination with libertarian political theory. I would not consider myself to be a libertarian — I don’t really have any strong political convictions of which I am consciously aware. I am, however, attracted to certain aspects of it, in particular its concern for non-coercion and its presumption in favour of decriminalisation.

On the face of it, proposals for the UBI would seem to be deeply incompatible with libertarian political theory. If there is one thing libertarians agree on, it is that forcible redistribution of income is unjust and impermissible. To the extent that the UBI requires this — and it certainly seems to require this — it cannot be grounded in a libertarian political theory.

Or so it would seem. But in a recent(ish) edition of the journal Basic Income Studies some well-known libertarians argued that it might be possible to reconcile libertarianism with the UBI. The arguments require some careful elaboration and outside-the-box thinking, to be sure, but it is still possible. Over the next few posts, I want to share some of these arguments. As it happens, I don’t actually have access to the journal, so I’m working solely from contributions that I could find in the public domain. Furthermore, several of the contributors to the journal critiqued the UBI from a libertarian perspective. I’m not going to focus on those contributions here; I am only focusing on those who think the UBI might be compatible with libertarianism.

I am going to break the series down into three parts. In the remainder of this part, I’ll look at three things. First, I’ll look at the UBI proposal itself. Second, I’ll describe some of the different forms of libertarianism and outline the different moral grounds on which they can be defended. And third, I’ll explain in more detail why UBI and libertarianism seem to be so incompatible.

In subsequent entries, I’ll look at two libertarian arguments in favour of the UBI. The first, coming from Matt Zwolinski, works from a classical liberal foundation; the second, coming from Peter Vallentyne, adopts a predominantly left-libertarian slant. (Note: I did also read Dan Moseley’s article from the same journal, which makes a Lockean case for the UBI, but decided not to include it in this series. Moseley’s piece seemed a little disjointed to me, and many of his most important insights are repeated by Vallentyne, hence my reason for focusing solely on the latter.)

1. What is a Universal Basic Income?
The UBI is a (somewhat) radical proposal for reforming the way in which welfare payments are made. Following the work of Daniel Raventos we can characterise the proposal in the following manner:

Unconditional Basic Income: An income that is unconditionally granted to all members of a social group on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement. It is a form of minimum income guarantee that differs from those that now exist in three important ways:
It is paid to individuals rather than households;
It is paid irrespective of income from other sources
It is paid without requiring the performance of any work or the willingness to accept a job if offered.

This is a general characterisation. There are a number of key desiderata that we will need to settle before a UBI like this can be implemented in practice. We will need to decide exactly who is entitled to the payment. The general characterisation says “all members of a social group”, but this will typically exclude children and may exclude (though this is more controversial) non-citizens. We will need to decide who pays the income. The obvious candidate would be the state, but technically any public institution could do the job. We will also need to decide how often the income is paid.

One of the main differences between the UBI and the stakeholder grant proposal is that the former is paid at semi-regular intervals, whereas the latter is a one-off payment at a certain point in an individual’s life. Proponents of the UBI will need to decide on the payment schedule. Finally, we will need to decide how it will be funded. Some kind of tax-and-transfer scheme would be the most obvious, but what exactly should be taxed? As we shall see, the answer to this final question is particularly important to libertarians.

Many people view the UBI as an unrealistic and impractical proposal, particularly when they first come across it. But quite a bit of work has been done on how it could be work, how its negative incentive effects may be less than you might think, and on its lower administrative and bureaucratic burdens when compared to traditional selective forms of welfare payment.

A UBI currently exists in the state of Alaska. It has been paid since 1982 to all residents of the state (with certain restrictions). The fund through which it is paid was established in 1976 and derives most of its income from the state’s oil industry. The amount paid per annum is quite low, hovering between $800 and $2000 for the past 25 years. A more radical UBI will be put before the Swiss people in the near future. It proposes that $2800 dollars be paid to each citizen per month. This amounts to approximately 42% of the GDP per capita in that country.

2. What is libertarianism and how can it be justified?
This is a tricky question. As with any long-standing political philosophy, “libertarianism” has come to denote a broad, often fractious, group of political theories. To make things more manageable, we’re going to have to indulge some stipulation and strategic indifference in this series (for example, the libertarian-socialist school of thought will not be addressed at all). This can be done by following Zwolinski’s lead.

Zwolinski argues that libertarianism is a family of theories, generally committed to four things: (i) the primary importance of negative liberty rights (i.e. right to be left alone); (ii) the existence of strong property rights; (iii) the efficacy of free markets; and (iv) the dangers of a paternalistic state. There are two major branches of contemporary libertarian theory:

Right Libertarianism: Acknowledges the importance of negative liberty rights and property rights, promotes free market exchanges, tries to minimise the role of the state, and has no deep concerns about equality/egalitarianism. (Note: Zwolinski prefers the term “market libertarianism” as he thinks libertarianism has little to do with traditional right wing political theories.)
Left Libertarianism: Acknowledges the importance of all the same things as right libertarianism but adds in a concern for equality/egalitarianism.

Extreme versions of right libertarianism, such as those defended by Michael Huemer (LINK), would completely reject the existence of the state and all its associated forms of coercion (taxation, imprisonment etc.). Since the UBI would seem to require coercive policies of some sort, it would be ruled out by all such theories (unless, per impossibile, everyone voluntarily consented to a UBI). Hence, in the remainder of this series the focus will be on the more moderate forms of libertarianism, i.e. the ones that accept some type of coercive state.

Libertarianism can be defended in a number of ways. These include:

The Deontological Defence: This is probably the most common philosophical defence of libertarianism. It presumes the existence of strong negative liberty and property rights, and argues that any coercive policy must be justified in relation to these rights. This results in a limited role for the state, perhaps only in ensuring these rights are protected. The theoretical grounding for the rights themselves can vary, from natural law to contractarianism.
The Consequentialist Defence: This is the most popular defence of libertarianism among economists. It argues that a libertarian political framework, including property rights and a robust free market, is justified on the grounds that it achieves the best consequences for all. This is usually cashed out in terms of overall levels of well-being or economic efficiency.
The Common Sense Defence: I hesitate to include this here since its pedigree is less well-established than the other two defences. This is, however, the defence adopted by Michael Huemer in his recent book The Problem of Political Authority. It does not presuppose any overarching normative theory. Instead, it adopts a range of common sense moral principles (often a blend of consequentialism and deontologism) and argues that these principles lead us to libertarianism.

The consequentialist defence of libertarianism is probably most comfortable with the UBI proposal. This is not surprising given that consequentialist theories prioritise ends over means. Nevertheless, the deontological defence may also have a place for the UBI proposal. We’re going to exploring this possibility in later entries.

3. Why is it difficult to reconcile libertarianism with the UBI?
As mentioned in the introduction, at first glance libertarianism and UBI would seem to be deeply incompatible. Now that we understand both the UBI and libertarianism a little better, we can sketch the incompatibility argument in more detail. To do this, we’ll work with the now-classic Nozickian defence of libertarianism.

The Nozickian defence is deontological in nature. It works from the presumption that individuals have property rights in themselves and in the fruits of their own labour. This entitles them to use, transfer or destroy their property as they see fit, provided that doing so does not violate anyone else’s negative and property rights. Prima facie, this means that any coercive policy — i.e. any policy that restricts and individual’s negative and property rights — is unjustified unless it is necessary to protect those rights. From this foundation only a minimal (“nightwatchman”) state can legitimately grow.

The only form of taxation that can be legitimately raised by such a state is that which is necessary to enforce everybody’s property rights. The problem with the UBI is that it would seem to require a coercive tax-and-transfer policy that goes beyond what is strictly necessary for the enforcement of property rights.

​This gives us the following Nozickian argument against the UBI:

  • (1) The state is only legitimately entitled to coercively tax individuals to the extent that is necessary to protect their negative and property rights.
  • (2) The UBI proposal would require a significant, coercive tax-and-transfer policy that would go beyond what is strictly necessary to protect negative and property rights.
  • (3) Therefore, the UBI is an illegitimate exercise of state power.

This Nozickian argument is far from perfect. Premise (2), in particular, would seem vulnerable to empirical refutation. Maybe the UBI would be less coercive than existing policies, and maybe it is necessary in order to protect rights? Nevertheless, one can see the appeal of the argument to the libertarian mindset: UBI is an expansive and radical form of tax-and-transfer, which is anathema to any negative rights fetishist.

The strategy of the two authors I am going to look at is to reject the Nozickian argument. This is on the grounds that it doesn’t give us the full picture: there are other versions of libertarianism out there that are more open to the UBI. In particular, there are classical liberal and left libertarian versions that might provide fertile grounds for a defence of the UBI. We’ll consider these possibilities over the next two posts, starting with classical liberalism in part two. 

John Danaher holds a PhD from University College Cork (Ireland) and is currently a lecturer in law at NUI Galway (Ireland). His research interests are eclectic, ranging broadly from philosophy of religion to legal theory, with particular interests in human enhancement and neuroethics. John blogs at You can follow him on twitter @JohnDanaher.
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I consider myself quite libertarian, but at the same time, I understand that technology will make most “jobs” redundant over time as we become more efficient in utilizing our tech. 
My concern with pure libertarianism is that, unfortunately, a lot of people will fall through the cracks, not just those who are lazy, but also the uneducated, the handicapped, and the immature.

I think a UBI for food, water, and shelter will allow those people (including the lazy) to not get completely left at such a disadvantage, even if it is a slight drain on society overall.  The alternative, of course, is that we can fight for pure libertarianism but get saddled with the well-meaning but imperfect and often gamed welfare drain we have now (unless we can magically convince everyone to come onboard at once) that encourages the bureaucracy to infringe on all our other liberties in the name of welfare.

The other aspect of UBI, that I like, is that it’ll free up society to focus on innovation, self improvement, and the future rather than the day to day worry of feeding and clothing their family.

I have a hard time reconciling where this UBI will be funded from, so I’m very excited to follow your three part series here and see your conclusion.

FYI, we are going to soon be changing the paradigm from a shortage based economy to an economy of abundance due to technological advances.  For instance, both LENR and hot fusion will be available by the end of the decade, both of which offer clean energy too cheap to meter.  Furthermore, in the next couple of decades we can expect to set up exponential production facilities outside the Earth’s gravity well, and have cosmopolitan space travel/settlements.  Technological progress is exponential, and the Law of Accelerating Returns promise one innovation will foster many more faster.

I think you will see that an abundance economy will change the philosophical framework of your arguments quite significantly.

Great article!

re “I would not consider myself to be a libertarian… I am, however, attracted to certain aspects of [libertarianism], in particular its concern for non-coercion and its presumption in favour of decriminalisation.”

Totally agree. This is my position on libertarianism as well. However, I recently decided to “suspend disbelief in naive libertarianism” because I fear the consequences of the current trends toward centralization and erosion of personal freedom.

re “As mentioned in the introduction, at first glance libertarianism and UBI would seem to be deeply incompatible.”

Not so, in my opinion. Libertarianism is (or perhaps should be) first and foremost about self-ownership and personal freedom. It seems evident that freedom should include the freedom to eat. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors were free to eat whatever they could find or kill, but in today’s world the freedom to do whatever doesn’t cost money is not of great practical value.

Also, pragmatically, we know that automation is reducing the need for blue collar workers and starting to reduce the need for white collar workers as well. Like it or not, the age of the 9-to-5 job is over, and we are heading toward a jobless economy where only a small fraction of the population will be “employed” in the traditional sense. What to do with the rest of the people? Eliminating them is not an option (I hope), and therefore UBI/BIG is the only solution that I can see.

Eliminating them is not an option (I hope)

Problem is, it is an option, not a moral option- but an option nonetheless. Shooting *illegals* who enter a nation is not a moral option, yet it is an expedient option: shoot the undocumenteds and word gets back to the emigrant countries. Then *aliens* don’t cross borders illegally anymore.
Using tactical nukes is immoral, however drop a nuke on a city such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Bam.. the war is over. Limited use of WMDs is not unthinkable; it is—again—immoral.

The above keeps hotheads busy writing inflammatory articles and screeching on the radio and TV about getting rid of people who get in their way. You know, the undesirables who do not fit into the framework and must be eliminated with merciless harshness. “Because the flotsam and the jetsam must be washed away in the cleansing.”

@Intomorrow re ““Eliminating them is not an option (I hope)” - Problem is, it is an option, not a moral option- but an option nonetheless.”

Right. But then, eliminating the eliminators is also an option.

I view the UBI to be a repackaging of Milton Friedman’s negative income tax. It still may be a bit premature, but I think it is inevitable as technological advances result in increased economic inequality.
As far as immigration is concerned, if the UBI is only for citizens it seems we could open the borders and immigrants would be welcome to do all of the work (and pay taxes even) that the lay-about UBI slackers won’t be doing. Hardly seems fair at first glance, but a path to citizenship option could make it more balanced. I also could favor a minimum wage applicable to immigrant labor only. And isn’t this almost what they do in the UAE anyhow?
As a “compassionate libertarian” I relish the reduced bureaucracy and elimination of negative incentive effects of our current welfare system while insuring the people have enough to eat and won’t storm my palace gates.
It would be curious to see if there would be a resulting reduction in crime (property, domestic violence, vandalism, etc).
Eliminating social security, government interference in medical care, even public schooling (at least at the University level and probably secondary school as well - just have the UBI kick in at age 12!) - all appeal to my sense of fairness and freedom.
For me the trickiest part is how and what to tax. Property? Income? Consumption? Inheritance? “Pollution”? All of the above? I have typically favored limiting the legs on the taxing stool, as there are inherent maxima for every tax. However, if we are bleeding that much out of the economy to fund a UBI, it seems the base would need to be as broad as possible.

I think that a UBI/BIG could very easily be dovetailed with the Fair Tax proposal. Returning our economy to an actual market basis, would allow society to tap into the distributed intelligence, and would be not only the most utilitarian solution, but one that would instantly remove most of the power of politicians and corporations to coerce us.

I think the largest problem with getting there, will be overcoming people’s quite rational and identity-level beliefs about work though. Framing the discussion in terms of the mores of the last century, where work was both needed at a far higher level than today, but also lauded as a prime virtue, will not be useful, I think.

Discussing it rather, in terms of stake-holders in collective progress, would work better, IMO. Most middle or working class folks, think of Social Security and Welfare as completely different things, despite their functionalities being more similar than not. There is an emotional and perceptual difference, that is not often discussed, because such discussions usually devolve into defense of identity-level beliefs that people hold.

In our current situation, progress tends to accrue to the benefit of corporations, while in the public sector, less and less productive work gets even more finely divided into make-work jobs, just so that people can feed and shelter themselves. But, we are running out of actual productive work. And as people continue to go to unproductive jobs, because they have to, to survive, they become more firmly entrenched in an us vs them mentality.

We need to remove the shame factor, from the equation. If I go to the big box store, and elect to check out on the automated scanners….which saves said “big-box” the cost of about half of the cashiers required without them….what compensation do I get for doing that work myself? Are my purchases cheaper than at the full service lines? That’s just a small example. But, it is one tiny increment of hundreds or thousands of such benefits of automation, which I believe some percentage of, should accrue to me. Say 20%. The company still gets the majority of the benefit of investing in the technology and the educating people on how to use it. But, the other part goes into an aggregate fund, which will put that money into the hands of the consumers, who will spend it and drive the economy.

That’s what most people don’t understand. Spending is what drives economies. By issuing all stake-holders, a share of the collective prosperity we enjoy as a nation, to spend as they see fit, with no social tinkering…no means testing…no hoops to jump through….no identity based shaming…..the market will find its own natural levels of supply and demand. Wages will naturally rise to whatever level they are worth, for actual productive labor. And costs of goods and services will naturally go down in many cases, through he removal of forced costs due to governmental regulation and restriction of trade. Some things will go up, at least temporarily, to the end user, after subsidies are removed. But, those costs have always been there anyway, just buried and hidden.

Minimum Wage forces everyone who pays in bank notes to disclose information that makes central banks powerful. Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) extends compulsion to reveal this information to all people of the land, even those who recognize the central banking scam and want no part of it. A UBI law would essentially force the people it governs to be integral parts of a central banking scheme.

Is that so bad? So what if a small group of bankers get to print their own money, give it to themselves, and force us to honor it. Right?

So what if the number of bank notes in debt-based economy has to keep growing exponentially in order to keep the elite in power. Right?

So what if paying down the debt to collateralize these bank notes increasingly enslaves your children and grandchildren to a pyramid scheme that will devastate their country when it fails? Right?

These are all things too big to worry about. Be a good slave and concern yourself with making fruit for your master. He will take good care of you until the harvest.

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