Via Economic Policy Journal

Milton Friedman

Jennifer Burns,  a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, recently wrote at The Hill:

The Republican support for emergency cash payments as a central part of CARES Act, the recently passed coronavirus relief package, surprised many. What could possibly be conservative about free money? In fact, the idea of direct government cash payments to the needy — even on a non-emergency basis — has a long lineage among conservative thinkers and policymakers. Its reappearance signifies a larger rethinking of economic policy on the right.

Today, cash grants or universal basic income (UBI) seems a classic Democratic Party idea, associated with upstart presidential contender Andrew Yang. But the first president who embraced the idea was Republican Richard Nixon. The name most associated with the reform was Milton Friedman, the face of free market economics for his generation.

Friedman came up with the idea of “a minimum income” during a crisis many liken to coronavirus: the Great Depression. As a young economist, Friedman struggled to reconcile his belief in markets with the suffering he saw all around him. A conversation with Swedish socialist Gunnar Myrdal suggested a way forward: a plan for guaranteeing “a minimum income for all.”

She is correct in that some conservatives (that is, statists of a different stripe) have been in favor of guaranteed income, such as Friedman, but it is the statist instincts of these conservatives that cause them to support a guaranteed income.

As Walter Block wrote (my highlight):

[T]here is his negative income tax (Friedman, 1962, 1963). This is not a safety net protecting the very poorest from a death or near death experience.Instead, at any level likely to be publicly acceptable (and Friedman is nothing if not a person with his ear to the ground in terms of the politically feasible) those without any other visible means of sup­port will still have color television sets, air conditioning, refrigerators, stoves, restaurant meals, a car, travel, and all the other accoutrements to which a life of “poverty” has entitled them, under our benevolent welfare state. This hardly sounds like any kind of libertarianism at all, even under the widest possible inter­pretation of that term. For under the nega­tive income tax, the poor would receive their dole as a matter of right. There is nothing in this scheme, except for the fact that the supposed arch-conservative, Mil­ton Friedman, has proposed it, that should in principle be unacceptable to the ultra liberals, for example the outright socialist Welfare Rights Now movement.

So it is odd that at the conclusion of her commentary Burns writes:

Both the coronavirus crisis and the long history of UBI show how cash grants can resonate with conservative principles of individualism, efficiency and government doing more with less. In the long recovery that lies ahead, ideas like cash that can bridge both partisan and intra-party divides should be taken out of the archive and put to work.

UBI is a socialist notion that has zero to do with “conservative principles of individualism.” It is an anti-individualist concept advocated only by conservatives who do not see the problems of state interference in the economy.

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It is not about “efficiency and government doing more with less” but about government theft and economic distortions.

The UBI concept needs to be cremated and then buried deeper in the archives.

RW