My first reaction is one of deja vu. I remember the 1972 presidential campaign, wherein George McGovern proposed giving every a thousand bucks a year. He was slammed for being a free-spending liberal, for whom money was just something to be tossed from the back of a moving train. Now here is this arch-conservative social theorist, proposing much the same thing.
While searching for confirmation of the McGovern proposal, to see if I was remembering it correctly, I found this think-piece on health care policy in Dissent magazine. It was written before Charles Murray's proposal hit the news, but this passage might still be apposite:
Neither McGovern/Ackerman-Alstott nor a partially privatized Social Security system have gained much political traction in America. And that may be because, at the deepest level, programs like these are unable to tap into either the self-interest or altruism required to mobilize support from those who are better off. A McGovern/Ackerman-Alstott scheme would not appeal on altruistic grounds because the better-off would be getting back just as much as the worse-off would; nor would it be attractive on self-interested grounds, because the better-off would be getting back less than they gave in the progressive taxes needed to fund the program.
Anyway, the pith of Murray's idea, SFAIK, is this:
The Plan returns the stuff of life to all of us in many ways, but chiefly through its effects on the core institutions of family and community. One key to thinking about how the Plan does so is the universality of the grant. What matters is not just that a lone individual has $10,000 a year, but that everyone has $10,000 a year and everyone knows that everyone else has that resource. Strategies that are not open to an individual are open to a couple; strategies that are not open to a couple are open to an extended family or, for that matter, to half a dozen friends who pool resources; strategies not open to a small group are open to a neighborhood. The aggregate shift in resources from government to people under the Plan is massive, and possibilities for dealing with human needs through family and community are multiplied exponentially.
The Plan confers personal accountability whether the recipient wants it or not, producing cascading secondary and tertiary effects. A person who asks for help because he has frittered away his monthly check will find people and organizations who will help (America has a history of producing such people and organizations in abundance), but that help can come with expectations and demands that are hard to make of a person who has no income stream. Or contemplate the effects of a known income stream on the young man who impregnates his girlfriend. The first-order effect is that he cannot evade child support--the judge knows where his bank account is. The second-order effect is to create expectations that formerly didn't exist. I call it the Doolittle Effect, after Alfred Doolittle in "My Fair Lady." Recall why he had to get to the church on time.
Inveterate fault-finder that I am, I usually harbor some trepidation at having the nation get bit by the Law Of Unintended Consequences. For example, the proceeds from the government lottery in my state was originally pitched as being all for education. After a few years, we started hearing about non-education projects that would be funded by "surplus" lottery money. "Surplus"? It's all supposed to go to education! But the temptation to dip one's bucket in a cataract of money is great.
My main problem is simple fear of the new and unknown. But one of my specific problems with Murray's plan--and I have not read his book from which this article is distilled, so factor that in--is that it would seem to require just as huge a government bureaucracy to administer this colossal outlay as the current federal welfare patchwork. The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance is not produced in print form anymore, SFAIK, but back when it was...well, you wouldn't want to drop it on your foot! And think of all the personally identifiable data that would have to be collected on everyone in the country. We know that huge government apparatuses can be put to uses other than what was originally intended. William Butler Yeats, a century ago:
The government does not intend these things to happen, the Commision on whose report the bill was founded did not intend these things to happen, but in legislation intention is nothing, and the letter of the law is everything, and no government has the right, whether to flatter fanatics or in mere vagueness of mind, to forge an instrument of tyranny and say that it will never be used.
Another issue about which I'd like to be placated is that of political money-favoring. One of the reasons the tax code is so complicated, so some say, is that it is used to entice and reward the myriad voting blocs in society. A flat retail tax could not be used in this way. In urban areas around here, political candidates frequently campaign on increasing government entitlements to their constituents, and socking it to those eeeevil rich. It doesn't sound like a universal government bequest like Murray's could be manipulated like that. So what politicians would actually vote to enact the thing?
And then there are the standard conservative objections: just let me keep my money in the first place; you're creating a hammock not a safety net; unchaining the economy will float all the boats; this ain't no hippie commune; etc. All of which carry significant weight with me, btw. Let's see where this debate leads. I've been interested to hear them talking about it on the radio.
Your First Things tie-in, a review of Joel Schwartz's Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825–2000.