Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
15Feb/121

For the Welfare of All

A reader responds to my post on The Great Cultural Divide and reminds me that perhaps Charles Murray's most interesting suggestion in his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, is for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) or what used to be called a "negative income tax." The post, by a reader named Murfmensch, reads:

Murray also calls for a Basic Income Guarantee to replace all other government provisions. I think his particular proposal would harm the wrong people. He thinks provisions for “widows and orphans” have wrought harms that I don’t see.  However, I think a Basic Income Guarantee, funded by a tax on pollution and/or income past twice the median, would increase the number of people conducting civic, cultural, entrepreneurial, and political work. Alaska has a small BIG and it seems to help out in this way.

 One point Murray made at a conference was interesting. With a BIG, not only would people receive money they need, others would [not] know you are receiving money.

While I don’t know what amount would “do the trick” I think a BIG would offer a corrective to problems that Hannah Arendt diagnoses as stemming from a “job-holder” society.

The Basic Income Guarantee is basically a refashioning of the proposal for a negative income tax (NIT), which is commonly thought to have originated with economist Milton Friedman, who advocated it in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. I have long been an advocate of a negative income tax, for many of the reasons Murfmensch mentions.

A negative income tax, as Friedman wrote in 1968 in Newsweek,

is to use the mechanism by which we now collect tax revenue from people with incomes above some minimum level to provide financial assistance to people with incomes below that level.

The point is to replace the overlapping and bureaucratic welfare programs in society (welfare, food stamps, unemployment, etc.) with a simple cash payment to every citizen.

Let's imagine that every person would receive—to take just one number often used—$8,000/year. Whatever the number, it is one we determine is necessary to live with some dignity in contemporary society.  If you make $0 in a year, you receive $8,000 from the IRS—in essence a negative income tax. If you make $5,000, you'd receive $3,000. Anyone making more than $8,000 pays no taxes on that first $8,000 and begins paying the "positive" income tax on all extra income that supports those who make nothing. A family of four with no income would receive $32,000/year. With your base income you can do whatever you want. You can freeload or work, your choice. You can be an artist or a father. These are your choices.

The advantage of the negative income tax is that it offers a guaranteed minimal cash payment to every person and yet does away with the dehumanizing and costly apparatus of the welfare state. We could still offer Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. But all other bureaucracies go. Everyone, rich and poor, fills out the same tax forms. Those who choose not to work (let's stop calling them poor) simply get a check. They don't have to use food stamps or live in a shelter or apply for welfare. They can share apartments or group houses with others. There is no long-term unemployment insurance. They can simply use their money to live as they will.

Obviously some people will benefit pretty well doing nothing. Some will game the system and freeload. But the real advantage is that for those who don't care about making lots of money, for those who choose professions with inconsistent and often low remuneration, and even for those who simply prefer raising a family or doing community service to working, there is another option. You can basically choose to drop out of the jobholders society and the rat race with the security that you will have enough money to survive. Sure, you won't be buying fancy clothes or driving a big car. You won't be able to send your kids to fancy schools. But you can take years off work to take care of a dying relative or choose to be an artist, craftsperson, or thinker and know that in those years when you don't make enough to live on you will have a guaranteed income every year that you need it.

What the negative income tax or the Basic Income Guarantee does is make it possible to choose to opt out of the economy without stigma or danger to one's health and ability to live.

Political thinkers and economists on the left and right have embraced these proposals since Friedman originated them. There have been two major sticking points.

On the right, the fear of freeloaders and thus the desire to prevent people from choosing not to work—which is something I think is one of the great advantages of the program. There is a real debate about whether the negative income tax will increase laziness or free people to do what they love. It is probably some of both.

On the left, the fear is what happens when someone spends their money unwisely and then has nothing left. Once we get rid of welfare and food stamps to replace them with the negative income tax, there is always the danger that people will end up starving out in the cold. This too is a real risk and no doubt it will happen. There is of course charity, but that may not be enough for some people. And what about parents who waste their children's guaranteed income?

Questions remain about the negative income tax and there are details to be decided. But the benefits of negative income tax are worth these risks on both right and left. It seems that this is an Arendtian idea whose time has come.

Read an interview with Milton Friedman on the Negative Income Tax Here.

Read and essay in the NY Times about the Negative Income Tax Here.

-RB

 

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