The concern that haunted the economist Friedrich Hayek, and should be the driving force behind the Republican Party, is the stifling impact of an ever-growing, ever more powerful regulatory state. The current Republican obsession with an imaginary 47% who are sucking the blood of good, hard-working white people may help energize an aging, frightened political base, but it is crippling any effort to fight this trend. The Republican Party is drowning in the sick notion that the poor (and in particular minorities) are pulling off some sort of grift in the form of the Welfare State. This delusion is destroying the center-right majority coalition the party built late in the last century behind the campaign to streamline government.
Republicans’ insensitive statements about the poor and minorities are a gift to the Democrats. The biggest rhetorical obstacle to limiting the size and scope of government is the fear that such an effort conceals a secret plan to destroy the protections against poverty that the country built in the fifty years after the Great Depression.We have helped to convince the public that a permanently expanding central state is necessary to guarantee a minimum standard of living for all.
Taking food stamps away from the working poor is not a plan. It does nothing to address the problem of expanding government or to increase personal liberty. Along the way, it creates a lasting tie in the public mind between those who talk about liberty and selfish jerks who resent the less fortunate. The social safety net is not a problem that needs to be fixed. The long-term problem grinding away liberty is the permanent, incremental expansion of the central state. The social safety net is merely a screen that protects those who would keep that expansion rolling. Attacking the screen means abetting the problem.
Looking back at Hayek’s support for a minimum income sheds light on this problem and helps explain why Libertarians have generally favored the idea. From Mark Zwolinski at Libertarianism.org:
A slave is unfree because his every decision is subject to interference at the will of his master. To be free, in contrast, is to be able to act according to one’s own decisions and plans, without having to seek the approval of any higher authority (CL p. 59).
A basic income gives people an option – to exit the labor market, to relocate to a more competitive market, to invest in training, to take an entrepreneurial risk, and so on. And the existence of that option allows them to escape subjection to the will of others. It enables them to say “no” to proposals that only extreme desperation would ever drive them to accept. It allows them to govern their lives according to their own plans, their own goals, and their own desires. It enables them to be free.
Of course, a basic income would need to be funded by taxation (or would it?), and so would seem to involve the imposition its own kind of coercion. Hayek recognized this fact, but like most in the classical liberal tradition, Hayek did not believe that all taxation was incompatible with freedom. What makes the coercion of the slavemaster, or the monopolist, so worrisome for Hayek is that it involves the arbitrary imposition of one person’s will on another. By contrast, a tax system that is clearly and publicly defined in advance, that imposes only reasonable rates for genuinely public purposes, that is imposed equally upon all, and that is constrained by democratic procedures and the rule of law, might still be constitute interference, but not arbitrary interference.
If Republicans could shake loose from the bounds of the culture wars and start thinking about practical solutions, we could pick up where we left off politically in the ’90’s. A minimum income offers the opportunity to take the subject of the safety net completely off the table when talking about efforts to roll back central government power. No one should be able to claim that endless government expansion into personal decision-making is necessary to protect the poor.
If we could overcome our strange envy for those who depend on food stamps to feed their families, Republicans could eliminate that line of argument overnight. A bit of of political jujitsu could improve everyone’s lives and change the playing field in the battle over personal liberty. Republicans should stop fighting the trim the scraps handed out by the welfare state and start looking for creative ways to replace it with something better.