An interviewer doesn't know how to handle his guest because he got something quite unexpected.

In a 1968 interview, William F. Buckley Jr. sat down with the legendary conservative economist Milton Friedman to talk about something called the negative income tax.

What is a negative income tax, you ask?


Friedman's negative income tax proposed that we eliminate poverty with one fell swoop by providing everyone with a livable income, no matter what their employment status is.

Wow, right?

Before we move forward, let's acknowledge that there's something not quite perfect about an old white guy coming in to save the "helpless poor people" (see The White Savior Industrial Complex). But Friedman's idea of a negative income tax is worth discussing not because he's such a nice guy; it's worth discussing because it's a valuable policy idea.

A variation of Friedman's plan is often referred to as a guaranteed basic income. Here's how the blog io9 describes it:

"The idea of a guaranteed basic income, also referred to as unconditional or universal basic income, is starting to gain traction in many parts of the world, both in developed and developing nations. It's actually a very simple idea: Everyone in society receives a single basic income to provide for a comfortable living whether they choose to work or not. Importantly, it's only intended to be enough for a person to survive on. The money for this social welfare scheme could come from the government or some other public institution, in addition to funds or income received from other sources. It could be taxable, or non-taxable, and divvyed (sic) up on a continual basis, monthly, or annually."

Perhaps the biggest red flag might be that when we just give people money, it could destroy their incentive to work. But as Vox explains, the effects would probably not be as detrimental as some might fear:

"As noted above, a real basic income has never been implemented across a whole country, which makes macroeconomic effects hard to predict. But we do have some experimental evidence on the question of work effort, drawn from the negative income tax experiments in the US and Canada in the 1970s. Those studies found that work effort declined when a negative income tax was imposed, as predicted, but that the effect was quite small. Moreover, most of the reduction in work effort appeared to come from people taking longer stints of unemployment. That can be a bad thing, but it can also mean that people aren't settling for second-best jobs and holding out for ones that are better fits for them. That'd actually be good, economically. Additionally, the work effect reduction for young people appeared to come entirely from increased school attendance— also a desirable outcome."

Now, Friedman was probably not predicting driverless cars, 3D printing, or a whole host of other technological advances that will increasingly replace humans in the workplace, but let's face it: We need a plan for when the robots take over everything. Again, io9:

"Advocates argue that a basic income is essential to a comprehensive strategy for reducing poverty because it offers extra income with no strings attached. But looking ahead to the future, we may have little choice but to implement it. Given the ever-increasing concentration of wealth and the frightening prospect of technological unemployment, it will be required to prevent complete social and economic collapse. It's not a question of if, but how soon."

Hard to argue with eliminating poverty and saving the world from collapse, right? I mean, you could argue with that, but I would just listen to Friedman instead.

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P.S. William F. Buckley Jr. says a few things (sigh, stereotypes) that will make you facepalm — apologies in advance.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
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