Are Conditional Transfers Paternalistic?

Jessica Flanigan defends an unconditional basic income (UBI) against standard strings-attached welfare transfers on the grounds that the strings, such as work requirements, are paternalistic. Brink Lindsey defends conditional, strings-attached transfers against Flanigan’s paternalism charge:

I don’t think the paternalism charge really gets us anywhere. After all, the purpose of both a UBI and wage subsidies is to help people who are failing to support themselves adequately. In one sense, then, both policies are paternalistic, since in both cases the state is assuming a paternal role of providing for dependents. Viewed from another angle, though, neither policy is properly considered paternalistic. Paternalism, after all, is about reducing people’s choices for their own good. But either a UBI or wage subsidies would expand the choices of their intended beneficiaries relative to what they would be in the absence of any government provision at all.

I’m not sure Brink has fully engaged Flanigan’s argument here. I take it that Flanigan is arguing that work requirements do reduce people’s choices by taking off the table the option of having an adequate income without working. Brink argues persuasively that, ceterus paribus, unemployment makes us unhappy and so it’s better for people to work. However, unless he can establish that it is not the case that a certain threshold-level of income without working is an option to which people are generally entitled–unless he can establish that people don’t have some sort of right to an unconditional income–his argument does look like classic paternalism. You might prefer to surf all day and get a check from the government, but we’re not going to leave that option open, because not working is bad for you. In order to defend against the paternalism charge, Brink needs to take the right to an unconditional income head on. It’s not paternalism to close off that option because it’s not an option we’re due.

This argument is simple for a standard libertarian. To be entitled to a work-free income is to be entitled to other people’s money. But people are entitled to dispose of their legitimately acquired property as they see fit. To make good on a putative entitlement to an unconditional income would require violating property rights–would require something tantamount to theft.

However, matters are not so simple for bleeding-heart libertarians who have conceded the justice of redistribution. I think what Brink needs is something like a standard liberal contractualist argument against unconditional transfers.

The rules governing our institutions need to embody ideals of reciprocity and mutual respect. Welfare transfers are required to ensure that the system works more or less to the benefit of everyone. But those who are able but unwilling to contribute to the commonweal have limited claims to the product of the system. The same principles of reciprocity and mutual respect that underwrite the safety net prohibit taking out without putting in. Reciprocity is essentially conditional. I’ll be good to you if you’ll be good to me. So it would seem that an unconditional claim on some portion of a society’s resources necessarily violates principles of mutual respect based on fair reciprocity. Therefore people cannot be entitled to an unconditional income. Furthermore, because having an income without working is not an option people are generally due as a matter of right, taking that option off the table cannot be paternalistic.