This week marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," and as the joke goes, "Poverty won." Five decades after a blizzard of programs began descending on the American people, the poverty rate remains essentially unchanged.
That's a little unfair. What counts as poverty today would not have seemed so impoverished 50 years ago, when many of the poor lived without electricity and were no strangers to hunger. Today, the biggest health problems of the poor are more likely to stem from obesity than anything approaching starvation. Defenders of the war on poverty -- and the massive bureaucracy that has built up around it -- insist that underfunding is to blame.
That's a tough sell. The Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector estimates that we've spent $20 trillion on these programs -- not counting Medicare and Social Security. We spend $1 trillion to $2 trillion more every year, depending on how you do the math. But apparently for liberals, that's still too stingy. Perhaps the problem isn't how much we're spending, but how we're spending it.
If you drew a Venn diagram of where the hard left and the libertarian right agreed, the overlapping shaded part would include a bunch of social issues -- gay marriage, drug legalization, etc. -- but almost no economic issues. Save one: the Universal Basic Income.
The UBI is a pretty simple idea. Everyone gets a check from the government. (Actually, it's a little more complicated than that depending on how you implement it, but you get the idea.)
Charles Murray, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute and a legendary libertarian social scientist, wrote a wonderful book a few years ago, "In Our Hands," in which he proposed an annual grant from the federal government of $10,000 for every American over 21 who stayed out of jail and still had a pulse. He was building on arguments made by two titans of libertarianism, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who also supported some version of a UBI.
On the left, the idea has been popular for generations as a way to instantaneously alleviate poverty and to defeat the ol' devil of income inequality.
So what's the catch? Why aren't we getting a fat check from Uncle Sam every month? Some cite the cost, which obviously would be hefty. But that's a secondary problem. The real sticking point is that the libertarian argument is largely an either/or proposition, while the left-wing version is a both/and deal. The libertarians want to liquidate much of the welfare state and convert it into cash payments. The left's version is that the money would, for the most part, augment the welfare state.