Conservatives and Guaranteed Minimum Livelihood

I wrote this piece a few months back just to play out the idea of some sort of a conservative support for statism. At this point I’m still uncertain of exactly how something like my proposal here would work – UBI? Much more generous welfare state plus universal healthcare? Some sort of ramped-up distributism? My purpose in publishing it here is more to make the point that wage slavery is something conservatives need to recognize as a real check on personal liberty. What we might institute as an alternative is another question. Without further adieu, the article.


With the primary season already well underway, Democratic candidates are vying with each other to see who can strike the most appealing balance between supporting expanded social programs that appeal to their progressive base while avoiding the instinctive fear many moderate voters have of socialism. Until quite recently, advocating a more generous social safety net has been seen as an essentially progressive idea. But with Americans beginning to collectively remember a time in which things like higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy and concern for the environment were once bipartisan issues, it’s becoming more common to point out how compatible things like the welfare state and support for workers’ rights are with past Republican administrations like those of Dwight Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt. I would go a step beyond even this and argue that guaranteeing a minimum livelihood to every citizen is not only compatible with conservatism, but actually provides a strong defense of the core conservative principle of individual liberty.


By “minimum livelihood,” I am referring to health insurance and sufficient monthly income to provide for basic necessities – housing, groceries, transportation, and medical bills. In referring to a guarantee of minimum livelihood, I am not talking about any specific proposals that have been made for a stronger welfare state. My purpose in this article is not to defend universal basic income, Medicare-for-All, stronger unemployment insurance, or any other particular policy, but rather the general ideal of basic economic support for all citizens, regardless of the specific means used. Nor am I trying to argue that all things considered, the government provision of minimum livelihood to all citizens is actually a good policy (though I believe that it is), or that there are no good conservative objections to the policy. Any one of those theses would be more than enough material for separate articles in themselves. All I want to do here is to argue that there is at least a prima facie case from the conservative standpoint for guaranteed minimum livelihood.


Individual liberty is one of the principles conservatives value most, and a commonsense view of liberty would seem, at the least, to include the freedom to enter or refuse entry into contracts, freedom from being forced to obey orders from other private citizens, and the freedom to manage your private affairs without interference from other people. But while all of these freedoms I’ve described are legally guaranteed, under the wage system as it currently exists in the United States, most people functionally lack not only these liberties, but even the exercise of several of the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.


The ordinary person’s heavily restricted freedom is not usually recognized because we have become accustomed to the fallacy of conflating legal freedom, which guarantees all of the activities I have just described, and more, with practical freedom. But it takes only a moment’s thought to see that the two are not the same. If I have contrived a scheme to blackmail you, you certainly have the legal freedom to flaunt my will and do as you please; but if the content of the blackmail is damaging enough, you might well find yourself as practically constrained to obey me as if you were a prisoner in custody of the police. State-sponsored violence isn’t necessary to coerce someone. All that is necessary for coercion is to be credibly threatened with personal ruin.


But the average American finds himself in exactly that position, in that the vast majority of us work for only one employer, who can fire us at will. And with the average duration of unemployment hovering around six months in the past several years, the threat of losing one’s current income presents a strong coercion. The fact that most Americans receive health insurance through their employers only adds to the power over employees possessed by employers. If someone has the power to deprive you for months of the ability to put food on the table, keep a roof over your head, pay your debts, support your children, and access healthcare, you are not free in your relationship with that person, regardless of what your legal rights may be. This is precisely the reason why owning land was traditionally seen as the mark of a free person – if you possessed no independent means of wealth, you might be free as far as the state is concerned, but in daily affairs, you were bound to be someone else’s subject for survival.


And when your employer has this level of power over you, every one of the liberties I mentioned before is potentially under threat. Your ability to enter into or refuse the contract of employment is weakened almost to the point of non-existence, for how can you be free to refuse a contract of employment when your only alternative is destitution? Your ability to conduct your life without being under the control of another citizen is signed away, where another citizen, possessing no legal authority over you, can tell you where you have to be and what you have to do for forty or more hours a week, what you can wear during that time, who you can talk to, how often you can use the bathroom, whether you can stay home to rest if sick, and whether you can make needed personal calls. Even a quarter of this level of control over a person’s life by agents of the state would immediately be recognized by conservatives as a completely unacceptable violation of personal liberty, and yet the wage system has become so ordinary to us that we often think nothing of surrendering liberty on these points.


Some may interpret what I have said as an objection to work as such, but that misses the point entirely. People entering into contracts to work for forty hours a week is not at all problematic in itself, any more than someone choosing to take a heavy course load in college. What is objectionable from the standpoint of individual liberty is when people effectively have no choice but to enter into such a contract and be subject to whatever terms are dictated to them.


Conservatives tend to quite vocally support volunteering and community service, in keeping with their commitment to handling social problems on a local level. Suppose a retiree decided to spend 20 hours a week volunteering at a tutoring center. Most people, conservatives included, would see this as a laudable aim. If the retiree needed to take a week off to recover from a surgery or visit an ailing relative, no conservative, surely, would consider this a manifestation of laziness or a lack of desire to help the community. But imagine if the police showed up at the retiree’s home and informed her that any time taken off from volunteering, even for such necessities, would need to be approved by the local bureaucrat, and failure to get approval would result in legal penalties. Conservatives would rightly denounce this as a tyrannical interference into the retiree’s life. But if someone is justified in objecting to being forced to volunteer at the tutoring center when it isn’t convenient, and conservatives don’t consider him guilty of laziness for doing so, then why do they not apply the same standards to the workplace, where employees have to receive permission to take sick time off and may go without pay for doing so?


It may be replied that the employee isn’t having his liberty infringed upon because he is free to leave his job. But this relies, once again, on ignoring the distinction between legal and practical freedom. Without a social safety net either from the government or from friends and family, if the employee leaves his job without any other available offers, he will be effectually consigning himself to homelessness. The fallacy of conflating legal freedom with practical freedom depends upon assuming that the only real form of coercion is violence. But since that clearly isn’t the case, and the threat of destitution can be just as effective a form of coercion as violence, it follows that people who are threatened with unemployment for not cooperating are indeed in a coercive relationship.


Guaranteeing everyone a minimum livelihood would blunt the coercive force exerted by the employer over employees enough that employers could no longer threaten employees with destitution. Without that coercion, employees would have significantly greater negotiating power to insist on things like good working conditions, reasonable hours, and adequate paid maternity and sick leave. The labor market would be characterized less by a master / servant dynamic, and more by a free exchange of labor in which all parties have enough bargaining power to set mutually agreeable terms. Individual liberty isn’t just about being free from state power. It’s also about being able to enter the labor market as a free person rather than a de facto serf, and in the context of modern capitalism, a minimum livelihood is the most effective way of guaranteeing that liberty without the need for radical reconstruction of the market.

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