A response to "A
Basic Income for All"by Philippe van Parijs.
Philippe Van Parijs advocates the provision of the maximum sustainable
unconditional basic income. His defense rests on a political philosophy
that he calls "real libertarianism." I shall argue that Van
Parijss real libertarianism cannot justify a UBI, but that a UBI
may have some promise as a supplementary part of a larger social welfare
package that is justified on other grounds.
A policy to enact and maximize
a UBI, conceived as a means to real libertarianism, suffers from three
defects. First, it favors distributing income over direct in-kind provision
of, or vouchers for, particular goods, such as health care or education.
The preference for income rather than in-kind transfers reflects the
commitment of real libertarianism to promoting freedom, conceived as
a generic good; the real libertarian urges that we provide people with
the resources they need to achieve their aims, whatever those aims are.
Thus it gives no special priority to freedom from disease over the freedom
to idle: freedom is freedom. As an account of what we owe to one another,
that seems misguided. What we owe are not the means to generic freedom
but the social conditions of the particular, concrete freedoms that
are instrumental to life in relations of equality with others. We owe
each other the rights, institutions, social norms, public goods, and
private resources that people need to avoid oppression (social exclusion,
violence, exploitation, and so forth) and to exercise the capabilities
necessary for functioning as equal citizens in a democratic state.1
From a social point of view, then, we should grant higher priority to
securing certain goods, such as education, over others, such as surfing
opportunities, even if some individuals prefer surfing to schooling.
A maximal UBI risks overproviding optional freedoms at a substantial
sacrificelarge enough to compromise social equalityto the
particular freedoms we owe one another.
Second, in providing equal levels
of income to all, the UBI does not adjust for the fact that, due to
variations in internal traits, social roles, and other circumstances,
some people are better able to convert income to freedoms than others.2
Disabled people typically require more resources to achieve equivalent
freedomsto move around, to get access to information, and so forththan
those who are not disabled. People who engage in unpaid dependent care
work also require more resources to achieve equivalent freedoms to those
who do not take care of dependents. (For example, to be free to participate
in the realm of paid labor, they need access to alternative sources
of care for their dependents while they work.) The UBI therefore best
serves the interests of healthy adults who care for no one beside themselves.
In taking income, rather than capabilities, to be the relevant space
in which equality is to be pursued, the UBI assumes as the norm for
human beings the perspective of the healthy, egoistic adult.
Third, in granting a basic income that is not conditioned on the willingness
of the able to work, the UBI promotes freedom without responsibility,
and thereby both offends and undermines the ideal of social obligation
that undergirds the welfare state. A UBI would not only inspire a segment
of the able populationlargely young, healthy, unattached adultsto
abjure work for a life of idle fun. It would also depress the willingness
to produce and pay taxes of those who resent having to support them.
To deal with the first two problems, Van Parijs could argue that the
UBI should be maximized only after the social provision of particularly
important freedoms, such as public education and medical care, was secured,
and that supplementary programs could give extra help to people with
"special" needs. In the US context, at least, this contrast
between universal and "special" programs has typically led
to underfinanced, stigmatizing support for those regarded as "special"
(for example, contrast Medicare with Medicaid). But this contrast is
simply an artifact of an accounting system that measures equality in
terms of income rather than particular capabilities. From the standpoint
of the particular capabilities people need to avoid oppression and stand
as equals in societythings such as literacy, mobility, and health
everyone has the same needs.
The social insurance programs that form the foundation of modern welfare
states constitute the terms of a great social contract. Like any insurance,
they purchase a right to provision from others conditional on a willingness
to provide for others, if one is able. Like any insurance, its recipients
have an obligation to mitigate damages in recognition of the burdens
they place on others. The social-democratic contract recognizes that
over the course of a whole life, we are all dependent on caretaking
by others for long periods in childhood, sickness, and old age, and
some are dependent for their whole lives. This intergenerational contract
is sustained and legitimated only by a recognition on the part of the
able of an obligation to work and provide for the dependent and those
who care for them. It is hard to see how such a contract can be sustained
by a system that advertises as one of its virtues that it would free
the able to live in idleness.
Suppose, however, we detached the UBI from its real libertarian rationale.
Could a UBI play a supplemental role in a welfare state founded on social
insurance principles? Here we face a set of tradeoffs, with respect
both to administrability and legitimacy. A UBI would not target expenditures
to those who need them most, and would therefore both underprovide benefits
and waste public expenditures on those who dont need them. Given
high resistance to additional tax burdens, especially in North America,
the risk is that such waste comes at the cost of other programs that
could do more for the disadvantaged, the disabled, dependents, and those
who care for them.
On the other hand, a UBI saves on the substantial administrative costs
of targeting expenditures to these groups, and avoids the temptation
to add demeaning and intrusive conditions on receipt of public funds
to ensure that the needy are "deserving." A UBI would have
the advantage of being universal, and therefore undercut resentment
of needy recipients, but the disadvantage of being unconditional, thereby
inspiring resentment of undeserving recipients. It is telling that the
only current example of a UBI is based on the distribution of Alaskan
royalties: Americans, at least, dont resent unearned income, as
long as it is attached to property ownership. This suggests that the
legitimation problem in the United States could be solved by funding
the UBI through revenues collected from the use of public property:
the leasing of national forests and rangeland, oil and mining royalties,
the periodic auction of temporary broadcasting licenses, and pollution
taxes. Such a strategy would, however, ground the UBI on a principle
of ownership rather than need, and also create public incentives to
permit increased despoilment of public goods for the sake of private,
if evenly distributed, gains. The main question is whether programs
more carefully tailored to the needs of the disabled, the disadvantaged,
dependents, and their caretakersand to the particular freedoms
we owe one anotherwould be more effective in delivering the promised
goods, and win greater acceptance, than a UBI. I am not persuaded that
the costs to the goals of social democracy would be worth the gains
provided by a UBI, but I am open to empirical evidence to the contrary.
is professor of philosophy, womens studies, and law at the University
of Michigan. She is author of Value
in Ethics and Economics.
for other New Democracy Forum articles.
1 In defense of this thesis, see my "What is the Point of Equality?"
Ethics 109 (1999): 287-337.
2 Amartya Sen has consistently made this point in opposition to egalitarian
views that regard resources as the relevant space of equality. See,
for example, Inequality Reexamined (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1992).
Originally published in the October/
November 2000 issue of Boston Review