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Dignity and Deprivation

A response to "A Basic Income for All"by Philippe van Parijs.

Ronald Dore

Philippe Van Parijs proposes a basic income at a level that might be politically feasible in the short term–something that, as he says, would not provide a comfortable standard of living on its own. I think, rather, of the basic income movement as preparing the ground for a future society, two or three decades hence, in which a much higher level of basic income will become possible. Let me suggest what sort of society that might be, and then say why I find it attractive.

Such a society would have to be productive enough, and would have to have sufficient consensus in favor of redistribution to devote some, say, 40 percent of GNP to giving everyone a citizen’s income, as of right. No dole, no means tests, no concept of unemployment. The market economy goes on. Those who want to work and are genetically lucky enough to be able to learn skills that the market rewards do so and have more than the basic income to spend. Those who do not work include the genetically unlucky, who would find it hard to get a job, as well as those who are capable of almost anything but prefer to write poetry or play chess. Nobody bothers much which person is which. Citizenship involves duties of community service as well as a right to the basic income. There is a wide range of voluntary choice in the form of community service, but you make an annual service return as well as an income tax return, and the safeguards against cheating are similar in both cases.

I find such a society attractive for several reasons.

1. I belong to the same generation as Mrs. Thatcher, so when she and her ministers were railing at the welfare dependent, and saying how they ought to feel ashamed of themselves, I knew exactly what she meant. Except that instead of "ought to" I would have said that "they probably do" feel ashamed of themselves–especially if they were trying to find a job, and were finding that potential employers counted them as unemployable, and that the Social Security office (suspecting them of concealing some undisclosed income or a fraudulently undeclared contributing boyfriend) treated them like dirt.

No rich society ought to inflict such a loss of personal dignity on people who, with no externally obvious disability, have come out of their families and schools with such low helpings of energy, self-confidence, beauty, brain-power, or chutzpah that they are always among the last in the competition for jobs.

A basic income would obscure the distinction between those who would find it difficult to get a job and those who simply prefer to live modestly in order to play at being shepherds in the morning and literary critics in the afternoon. That should help with the dignity problem, which in my view is at least as serious an aspect of unemployment as the poverty problem.

To be sure, I know that there are whole sub-cultures in our society that wholly reject the norms on which my dignity argument is based. There are pockets of scrounger culture in which living off welfare is taken for granted and, indeed, in which screwing the social security system with successful fraud can bring not shame but honor. I count myself extremely lucky not to have been born into such a culture, and am saddened by the breakdown in social cohesion that its spread represents. But I believe that a basic income would help to prevent that spread by giving citizenship a new meaning

2. The reason why there is a dignity deprivation/social exclusion problem is because of the strength of the work ethic. That is, having a job–making it clear to others that you are somebody who has some value in the labor market–is a precondition for first-class-citizen self-respect. And one’s earned income (labor income) is seen, provided the activity that earns it is not criminal, as deserved–because it is a measure of the value which the market (always objective, of course, and therefore fair) places on your personal qualities.

Van Parijs talks of "work fetishism," and contrasts it with wanting everyone to have a job so that they can "find recognition and accomplishment." But the work ethic is about duty, not about seeking the positive rewards of recognition and accomplishment. It is about avoiding the charge of being a free-riding layabout. And it is for real. It is what makes our current welfare-to-work programs politically acceptable. And, for a basic income to have the most benign results, it would have to change. Decoupling work–having a job–from the status of citizenship is the first step. Tying the latter to something else–like doing some form of community service–might be the second.

Finally, for the belief that the market gives everyone their just rewards, we could reasonably substitute the notion that the clever, powerful and influential, the captains of industry or the winners taking all, owe their highly enjoyable careers as much to the lucky deal they got in the genes and family environment lotteries. If that were the general perception, it would surely not be on any "getting their just desserts" grounds that they could claim to enjoy, in addition to more power and admiration and job satisfaction, thanks to the intrinsic character of their jobs, but also higher incomes. Clearly the spread of some such social perception is a precondition for the level of redistribution through taxation which would be necessary to fund a large basic income.

Is such a revolution in social perceptions possible? How can one possibly guess? But we do know that income inequalities grow most rapidly in the societies with flexible labor markets, where income structures are less tied by convention and corporatist agreement and more immediately responsive to supply and demand. And the market forces that lead to growing inequality are a consequence of the fact that as technology (social as well as material) gets more complex, the premium placed on the ability to learn to do difficult jobs grows and jobs that almost anybody could learn to do become relatively scarce. Eventually, even in societies with less flexible labor markets, technology is likely to cause pre-tax income inequalities to grow and grow, however improbably successful the efforts to improve schools.

Growing income inequality means more envy, a growth of social exclusion, and a rise in anti-social subcultures. If anti-poverty measures are all means-tested, this means a growth in benefit fraud–the estimated cost of which in Britain already produces some alarming figures. This will provide a growing argument for the abolition of means tests. And the growth of social exclusion, anti-social subcultures, at a time when the secular "decline in deference" is still in progress, means the growth of crime. "Sixteen percent increase in violent crime since last year," say the British headlines this morning. Middle-class fear of crime may prove the most potent argument for accepting the level of taxation necessary for a basic income. At that time, Van Parijs’s arguments for the social justice of a basic income, together with a "luck, not deserving effort" perception of "success," might begin to have some bite.

Ronald Dore’s latest book is Stockmarket Capitalism, Welfare Capitalism.

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Originally published in the October/ November 2000 issue of Boston Review

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