Advocating Limits on Freedom
Cato Unbound is featuring a discussion among economists on limiting freedom in order to provide equity, in the form of a guaranteed minimum income. The discussion begins with Matt Zwolinski’s essay “The Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income Guarantee.” Other economists are posting articles both for and against the BIG.
Advocates of a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) often argue that it is a more efficient way to help the poor than the complex, overlapping, and poorly managed social service programs that city, county, state, and federal government current run. Government welfare programs have long been criticized by conservatives as costly, mismanaged, and causing dependence among the poor, and criticized by social democrats as both stingy and a means of social control.
Advocates of a guaranteed minimum income include Milton Friedman, who advocated a “negative income tax” in his books and in episode four “From Cradle to Grave,” in his 1980s Free to Choose television series.
Classical liberals and conservatives have long noted that before state and federal governments got into the welfare business with New Deal and Great Society programs, the private sector provided a diverse array of social services and social service institutions for the poor and disadvantaged.
Some advocates of welfare and minimum income programs base their arguments on utilitarian grounds (that wealth transfers make society better by advancing the greater good for the greater number). Modern rights advocates claim those better off in society are obligated to help since those worse off who have, they argue, rights to food, shelter, and other basic needs.
For an earlier debate topic on government provision of social services for the poor, this eight-page study guide offers a survey of issues and history: Social Services for those living in poverty (pdf). Through the 1920s in America a diverse array of organizations, from churches and charities to mutual aid and insurance societies, plus an amazing range of fraternal organizations, provided communities to help those in need, and also provided friendship, spiritual help, and financial guidance to those having difficulty finding work and managing their affairs.
Another way equity advocates could call for limiting freedom in the realm of economics could be forced savings programs. This approach doesn’t advocate taking people’s money to give to other people, but rather pushing people to be responsible for themselves, for their future selves.
The Washington Post reports that one-fifth of people nearing retirement have no savings at all. So federal policies that force irresponsible people to put money aside for retirement would be pushing them to act in their own best interest. Limiting people’s economic freedom to act irresponsibly when they are younger would help bring a more equitable state of affairs in old age.
Medical Savings Accounts offer a similar example. Singapore’s government encroaches on the economic freedom of it citizens to force them to put money aside into an savings-type account. They are also forced to purchase high-deductible (catastrophic) health insurance. Ideally, people would do this on their own. But some don’t, so government programs mandates medical savings and health insurance policies to protect the rest of society from people who on their own might not save and insure. John Goodman of NCPA examines Singapore’s Medisave accounts in this 2013 post.
Another approach to the topic (Resolved: In the realm of economics, freedom ought to be valued above equity.) is for the negative to frame the debate leaving government out of it entirely. Negatives can argue that we should value equity above freedom without asking the state or federal government to do anything about it. Negatives can point out that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t give the federal government power to tax the rich in order to help the poor, no matter how valuable the goal of social equity might be in the minds of legislators.
The was Davy Crockett’s argument on the floor of Congress on just this issue, as told in “Not Yours to Give.”
One day in the House of Representatives, a bill was taken up appropriating money for the benefit of a widow of a distinguished naval officer. Several beautiful speeches had been made in its support. The Speaker was just about to put the question when Crockett arose:
“Mr. Speaker–I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the sufferings of the living, if suffering there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for a part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money. Some eloquent appeals have been made to us upon the ground that it is a debt due the deceased. Mr. Speaker, the deceased lived long after the close of the war; he was in office to the day of his death, and I have never heard that the government was in arrears to him.
Every man in this House knows it is not a debt. We cannot, without the grossest corruption, appropriate this money as the payment of a debt. We have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as a charity. Mr. Speaker, I have said we have the right to give as much money of our own as we please. I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week’s pay to the object, and if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks.”
He took his seat. Nobody replied. The bill was put upon its passage, and, instead of passing unanimously, as was generally supposed, and as, no doubt, it would, but for that speech, it received but few votes, and, of course, was lost. (Essay continues here.)
There is nothing in our Constitution that authorizes Congress to engage in “charitable” expenditures, and no clearer words were spoken about that than those of the U.S. Constitution’s “father,” James Madison. In 1792 Congress had appropriated $15,000 to assist some French refugees. Madison disapprovingly said, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”
So students can argue that in the realm of economics we should value equity equally or above freedom, and we should accept the obligation to help those disadvantaged by bad luck or bad behavior. But this is a personal and social obligation that should be kept beyond the reach of coercive government programs and agencies, for reasons ethical, Constitutional, and empirical.