A response to "A
Basic Income for All" by Philippe van Parijs.
For several decades there has been a major hole in traditional theories
of the structural requirements of liberty. Filling this hole is important
in its own right; doing so also offers a powerful way for progressives
to begin to challenge conservatives on what has historically been their
Conservatives have commonly argued that the principles of liberty are
necessarily linked to capitalism as a systemespecially entrepreneurial
capitalism. They argue that the institution of individual entrepreneurship
helps to disperse power away from the state; that it offers individuals
a "place to stand," a certain independence of choice and action;
and that it sustains a culture of independence rather than servility.
The notion that real freedom requires the economic independence that
comes with the ownership of property was largely taken for granted among
the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson held that dependence "begets
subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares
fit tools for the designees of ambition." For John Adams, too,
"equal liberty" required enabling "every member of society"
to acquire land "so that the multitude may be possessed of small
Throughout most of nineteenth- and much of twentieth-century America,
the entrepreneur (often a small businessman or farmer-capitalist) continued
to play a major role in the economy, and the close link between freedom
and property-ownership can be found in a wide range of nineteenth century
theories of the structural requirements of liberty. In the early twentieth
century, Louis Brandeis (along with many others) doubted that "any
man [could] be really free who is constantly in danger of becoming dependent
for mere subsistence upon somebody and something else."
For at least a century, however,
the entrepreneur has been displaced as the central factor in the political
economy. The most perceptive conservatives recognized long ago that
this displacement presents a fundamental challenge to their theories.
Joseph Schumpeter, for instance, famously judged that capitalism would
die if entrepreneurial property became marginal in the system: "The
perfectly bureaucratized giant industrial unit not only ousts the small
or medium-sized firm and expropriates its owners, but in
the end it also ousts the entrepreneur and expropriates the bourgeoisie
as a class, which in the process stands to lose not only its income
but also what is infinitely more important, its function."1
With the decline of the
entrepreneur in the corporate economy, the traditional structural basis
of liberty itself substantially disappeared.
But if the institution of widespread entrepreneurial capital no longer
provides for real dispersion of power, an individual place to stand,
and a culture of independence, what then?
Some theoristsfor, instance, Peter Druckerhave focussed
on the job, suggesting that guaranteed employment could be substituted
for entrepreneurial property: jobs are (and should be) "becoming
a nexus of rights and a species of property."
An even more powerful argument is that a guarantee of income (and we
might add, of free time) provides a new foundation for liberty.
The late Louis Kelso, a maverick conservative, endorsed this view, as
does Philippe Van Parijs. But this focus, important as it is, is still
somewhat narrow: apart from Van Parijss secondary poverty-related,
feminist, and green arguments, the main concern is with providing the
individual with structural support for what might be called "real
opportunity of choice." The broader arguments suggesting that an
absolute guarantee of income is a necessary long-term, system-wide institutional
basis for libertythat an unconditional guarantee, built into the
basic organization of the political economy, provides an essential basis
for independenceintersect with and complement this argument, but
they also transcend it. Academics understand the central issue rather
easily in their own world when they defend tenure on this ground: liberty
to speak out depends on a guarantee that ones means of livelihood
will not be undermined.
Currently the US economy produces approximately $130,000 for every
family of four; by 2100, this number will grow, on conservative estimates,
at least four-fold. It is reasonable to begin discussing a long-term
trajectory in the direction of providing an unconditional guarantee
of at least some portion of income as one way to begin to build a new
system-wide institutional basis for liberty. (To be sure, transitional
possibilitiesunderstood as transitional, and as political compromiseswill
likely include various forms of work or other requirements.)
A limitation of Van Parijs work (and that of most others writing
on these matters) concerns how resources are gathered and allocated
to achieve the various income guarantees. Van Parijs assumes the framework
of a traditional social-democratic welfare state; he assumes in particular
that sufficient political power can be mobilized by progressive groups
to use the power to tax in order to pay for a basic income. With the
decline of organized labor, and of other traditional sources of progressive
power throughout the Western world, this hope is fading.
In this connection, it is striking
to note that Van Parijs highlights the model of the Alaska Permanent
Fund, which in 1999 allocated almost $1,800 per year to each state resident
(roughly $7,000 to a family of four). Alaska Fund income does not depend
upon taxation but upon directly capturing returns from the public ownership
Experiments of this kindand
the theoretical work of writers like Kelso, on the one hand, and John
Roemer on the othersuggest a need to focus less on the tax/transfer
system, and more on various forms of public democratization of capital.
Over the coming century such a focus is likely to become a necessary
condition of income-related strategiesand, ultimately, of a new
structural basis for liberty capable of filling the gap in traditional
is author of The
Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and (with Jeff Faux) Rebuilding
reply to Jeff Gates's "Ownership Solution" appeared in the February/March
1999 issue of Boston Review.
for other New Democracy Forum articles.
1 Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy
3d ed. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1950), p. 134.
2 Individuals receive payments from the Fund derived from the public
investment of oil royalties in a wide range of assets. For further discussion
of practical institutional models involving the public and/or quasi-public
ownership of wealth, see my "Who Owns Capital?" Boston
Review, February/March 1999, pp. 40-42.