The Conservative Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income

Creating a wage floor is an effective way to fight poverty—and it would reduce government spending and intrusion.
Swiss backers of a minimum income spread out coins in Bern. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Last week, my colleague David Frum argued that conservative welfare reformers need to focus on simplification. As a young crop of conservative policymakers announce a range of proposals, there’s some movement in that direction. Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s plan would move most of America’s existing welfare funding into a single “flex-fund” to be disbursed to the states. Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, partly inspired by the “universal credit” reforms of Britain’s Conservative government, proposes allowing states to combine different forms of federal anti-poverty funding—food stamps, housing assistance, and more—into a single funding stream. In a recent speech about fighting poverty, Utah Senator Mike Lee told the Heritage Foundation, “There’s no reason the federal government should maintain 79 different means-tested programs.”

Meanwhile, the intellectual wing of reform conservatism likes these plans because they reduce government and offer citizens more control, at least in theory. Yuval Levin, one of the authors of the reform-conservatism manifesto Room to Grow, has praised Ryan’s plan, saying it would “give people more resources and authority and greater freedom to find new and more effective ways up from poverty.” Liberal wonks, on the other hand, have claimed it’s actually a paternalistic program at odds with the traditional Republican desire for less-intrusive government, since it relies on providers who make decisions for beneficiaries.

In any case, these ideas are circumscribed by traditional boundaries. Neither is a truly radical small-government idea alternative. But one idea that Frum highlighted is more radical: a guaranteed basic income, otherwise known as just giving people money.

The idea isn’t new. As Frum notes, Friederich Hayek endorsed it. In 1962, the libertarian economist Milton Friedman advocated a minimum guaranteed income via a “negative income tax.” In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” Richard Nixon unsuccessfully tried to pass a version of Friedman’s plan a few years later, and his Democratic opponent in the 1972 presidential election, George McGovern, also suggested a guaranteed annual income.

More recently, in a 2006 book, conservative intellectual Charles Murray proposed eliminating all welfare transfer programs, including Social Security and Medicare, and substituting an annual $10,000 cash grant to everyone 21 years and older. The Alaska Permanent Fund, funded by investments from state oil revenues, sends annual dividend checks to the state’s residents. Switzerland is voting on an unconditional basic income later this year. (Though the fundamental basic-income guarantee involves an unconditional grant to every citizen, no matter their wealth or age, other versions wouldn’t cut checks to those in top tax brackets or those receiving Social Security.)

Apart from lifting millions out of poverty, the plans promote efficiency and a shrinking of the federal bureaucracy. No more “79 means-tested programs.” Creating a single point of access would also make many recipients’ lives easier. If they knew they had something to fall back on, workers could negotiate better wages and conditions, or go back to school, or quit a low-paying job to care for a child or aging relative. And with an unconditional basic income, workers wouldn’t have to worry about how making more money might lead to the loss of crucial benefits. In the Financial Times, Martin Wolf has contemplated a guaranteed income’s ability to help society adjust to the disappearance of low-skill, low-wage jobs.

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Noah Gordon writes for and produces The Atlantic's Politics Channel. 

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