Can Libertarians Advocate for Universal Basic Income?


Welcome to another edition of The Lowdown on Liberty, where each week we take questions submitted from our readers as we attempt to clarify the inner-workings of libertarian principles. This week, we cover a universal basic income, the non-aggression principle, non-interventionism, and the infamous Antifa!

  1. Our first question is from Lucas, who writes “With increasing automation, most people won’t be any use to employers. Without regulation, AI could lead to unprecedented wealth inequality. When this inevitably happens, is a universal basic income endorsed by libertarians?”

To answer the first part of your question Lucas, while people have always had a fear of automation rendering human labor obsolete, that type of scenario has yet to happen, and most likely never will. Automation doesn’t actually destroy jobs, it displaces them – usually the lowest skilled jobs. A popular example is: If we imagine the job market as a ladder with jobs being the rungs, and the lowest skilled being at the bottom, moving up in skill as we climb, then automation simply kicks out the bottom rung of the ladder and places a new, higher-skilled rung near the top.

As technology advances, the least skilled jobs, often repetitive, menial tasks are automated first. Causing the immediate job loss for a person in that position, but creating a more skilled position somewhere else. Whether it’s building the robot that does their previous job, installing it, maintaining it, programming it, or improving its design, these are all new, more skilled jobs that are added to the market in exchange for the less skilled job being automated. We’ve seen this over time as first-world nations either automate or outsource low-skilled jobs and acquire more high-skilled, technical ones. People have always speculated that jobs would run out once automation began, but population has only grown and even though automation has become more prevalent, there are more jobs today than ever. We may theorize that automation will eventually get to a point where human labor is no longer useful, but it’s much more likely that higher-skilled labor that doesn’t yet exist will continue to enter the market, as people continue improving and inventing. Half the skilled jobs being done today didn’t exist 100 years ago, and there is no reason to think the next 100 will be any different.

Now, the second part of your question is a bit easier to predict. Universal basic income has been a hot topic lately, with people such as Mark Zuckerberg coming out clearly in support of it. However, libertarianism’s core value of non-aggression is incompatible with the idea. A program that implicitly states that each person should receive according to their need, while others pay into it according to their ability (which is what it boils down to), sounds like the antithesis of libertarianism, and more in line with what a communist would endorse. Seeing as automation is unlikely to render us all suddenly unemployed, we should stick to fighting the welfare state, not endorsing it.

  1. Our next question is from Scott, who writes: “What is the relationship between negligence and non-aggression? Suppose my neighbor goes out in his yard and fires 30 rounds into the air for fun. No harm comes of it. Should he be subjected to penalty for his actions?”

Great question, Scott. This example points out the obvious need for pre-determined rules in these situations. In current cases regarding these matters, most cities have laws telling citizens when excessive noise can be punishable as a citable offense. As Murray Rothbard noted, we should have clearly defined and enforceable property rights because we all partake in activities with unavoidable consequences that affect more than just our own property (smells, light and sound pollution, etc.). In a privatized society, we may resolve these with contracts voluntarily signed between neighbors, by-laws within a homeowner’s association, or a myriad of other ways to ensure that rules are agreed upon beforehand to ensure peaceful resolutions.

  1. Stephen writes “What’s the libertarian stance on keeping terror out and promoting a non-interventionist foreign policy at the same time?”

The ideas of non-intervention and keeping terror out go hand-in-hand. Our recent history in the Middle East has shown quite convincingly that there is no resolution to be had from nation-building and constant foreign occupation. While you could make the argument that simply pulling out of there would not solve all our current issues with terrorism, it’s important to point out the Dave Smith argument, which is: “when you murder people’s children, they tend to fucking hate you.” Our current strategy, Operation Enduring Freedom, is now the longest conflict in US history, outlasting the Civil War, WWI, and WWII combined. And it’s clearly failing, so there is no harm in trying non-intervention, because at least it would be a change, and the worst-case scenario would only be a return to the status quo. Although, there is quite a case to be made that it is our decades-long intervention and attempts at regime change that have resulted in our current predicament more than anything else. Why is it that we see swarms of terrorist groups in countries around Africa, yet the US and Europe experience almost no problems from them compared to the attacks coming from the Middle East? Non-intervention may not guarantee the total end of terrorism, but ongoing foreign intervention and attempts at nation building will certainly guarantee its persistence.

  1. Our final question is from Nandan, who writes “What are your thoughts on Antifa?”

The Antifa movement seems to be bad joke that simply won’t go away. The idea that you could fight fascism by forcibly shutting down the free speech of those you disagree with is so repugnant that it’s hard to take them seriously. Yet, we see from their actions that they are quite serious in their approach.

This is troublesome for libertarians for two reasons.

First, the ideas they represent fly directly in the face of libertarian ideals. Our strict adherence to property rights and non-aggression are the two foundations Antifa fights most adamantly against.

Second, they are providing the media with the opportunity to damage our image. For those who may not know, true anarchists, those who identify as “anarcho-capitalist,” fall under the larger umbrella of libertarianism. However, the media, as well as Antifa themselves, call themselves anarchists too. Now, we in the liberty movement can distinguish their “anarcho-communism” from what actual anarchy is, but most average Americans cannot. To the uninformed, these people fall into the category relating to anyone who is anti-government; that’s us. With that in mind, we must fight the ideas of Antifa at every point possible if we hope to distinguish ourselves from them. They are truly a hypocritical scourge in our society, but if we aren’t careful, they may cause serious damage to our image and our credibility.

Alright, that’s it for this week. Thank you to everyone who wrote in, and make sure you submit your questions each week on our The Lowdown on Liberty post, and the top questions will be answered the following week!

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Thomas J. Eckert

Thomas J. Eckert is the Managing Editor of Think Liberty and Copy Editor for Being Libertarian. With a passion for politics, he studies economics and history and writes in his spare time on political and economic current events. He is a self-described voluntarist.


  1. Rather than hand waving the first question how about actually answering it?

    First of all, when automation “kicks a rung from the bottom of the ladder and adds one to the top”, the replacement rung tends to support far fewer actual positions. You don’t need a 1000 engineers to design, use, or maintain the machines that do the work of 1000 factory workers. If you did, you’d be replacing less expensive employees with an equal number of more expensive employees, which obviously wouldn’t make any business sense at all.

    In fact, any of those “less than a hundred year old jobs” you claim are the answer employ orders of magnitude less people than older jobs like construction, factories, or truck driving… Even with all of the jobs in those fields that have been lost in the last century. You also are ignoring the fact that AI is now strongly threatening to take away even the highly skilled jobs you’re hanging your hat on. So if you can automate both low and high skilled jobs, where will these newer, better jobs come from then?

    Second, you use the first hand wave to justify simply ignoring the hypothetical. You claim that automation devastating the job market is unlikely… But the likelihood isn’t the question. The question is “If it comes to pass, then what do Libertarians have to offer as a solution?”… I’m sure that your answer won’t be UBI. But how do solve a hypothetical situation in which some large portion of the population (say 20% at minimum) simply cannot be employed because they’re too expensive compared to machines/computers? We cannot know if this will come to pass, but you can certainly tell us the “libertarian” solution if it did.

  2. If Mark Zuckerberg likes the idea of a universal basic income, he can whip out his checkbook. Unlike me, he can afford to give a substantial yearly income to God only knows how many families. In some ways, I can empathize with workers whose jobs are displaced by automation. It’s a very real threat in my current profession, and I’m not considered to be a highly- skilled professional. I work multiple jobs and try to keep my feet in multiple doors in case I need to bail from one of my current jobs. It’s a sucky way to live, and it doesn’t seem fair. But, then again, life isn’t fair. It seems a little less fair, however, to collect a government check while someone else busts their ass to pay my bills.

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