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What About Reciprocity?

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

William A. Galston

Philippe Van Parijs is to be congratulated for making a bold and challenging proposal. It is, in the literal sense of an overused phrase, thought provoking. It is not equally likely to provoke agreement, however, and I find myself unpersuaded. Everything that is morally and practically sound in the UBI can be achieved by other policies, and the ends that are peculiar to the UBI lack moral and practical force.

Setting aside my suspicion that a significant UBI would be unaffordable and would have labor-supply effects that even its advocates would deem perverse, here are my core objections to this proposal.

1. If implemented in some nations but not others (as it almost surely would be), the UBI could well spark an international crisis and devastating domestic backlash. Imagine, for example, that the United States adopted this idea but Mexico did not. The incentives to leave Mexico and enter the United States, already powerful, would intensify dramatically. At the same time, it would no longer be possible for those of us who favor a relatively open immigration policy to defend it by invoking the contributions that immigrants will make. Just imagine the political power of the counterarguments that Pat Buchanan (or, in the European context, Le Pen and Haider) would make. One may restrict the UBI, as Van Parijs does, to permanent residents, but this will only increase the propensity of receiving nations to favor temporary workers over new permanent residents.

2. Van Parijs justifies the UBI in part as a way out of the unpleasant choice between Europe’s low poverty/high unemployment and America’s low unemployment/widespread poverty. My counterargument is that the UBI is not needed to solve either of these problems. Europe’s high unemployment is the predictable consequence of its rigid labor market policies, but greater flexibility need not immiserate European workers. In fact, many European nations have begun to adjust, and their rates of unemployment are declining, in many cases quite sharply. In the United States, a sustained tight labor market is lifting real wages for workers at the end of the queue, and, as Rebecca Blank has shown, the massive increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit enacted by the Clinton administration in 1993 has significantly reduced the incidence of working poverty in the United States. Increases in the minimum wage have also helped, and many of us believe that it would be a good idea to index the minimum wage for inflation to eliminate the possibility of repeating past episodes of neglect that have eroded its real value.

3. I agree with Van Parijs that it would be desirable to bolster support for socially useful activities–such as caregiving and participating in public-spirited voluntary associations–that are not adequately included in the current wage system. But this goal, too, can be promoted through policies other than the UBI. Since 1994, more than 100,000 Americans have had the opportunity through AmeriCorps to engage in compensated national and community service. I believe that this opportunity should be made available to everyone who wishes to serve. More recently, we have begun to use the tax code to compensate family members and others who find themselves spending substantial portions of their days caring for children or for aging or dependents relatives. These social supports can and should be broadened. But none of these strategies requires anything like a UBI.

4. Van Parijs’s thesis advances, and to some extent rests upon, various animadversions concerning work. He invokes the familiar categories of meaninglessness and alienation; he denounces "work fetishism" and the spectre of an "overworked, hyperactive society." In the process, he systematically overlooks the positive dimensions of work. As William Julius Wilson has pointed out, work is an important way of organizing our lives, of giving structure and meaning to what can otherwise become a formless and purposeless existence. Work helps young people make the transition to psychological adulthood and in many cases serves as a source of economic and social mobility. It is also the case (some regard this as a sad fact, others as happy) that much of what we value comes into being as the result of work, and would not exist otherwise. As has been observed at least since the Bible, work has a negative dimension, an element of compulsion. But surveys indicate that, at least in the United States, attitudes toward work are surprisingly positive. Perhaps Van Parijs’s negative tone has more resonance in Europe.

5. My most fundamental objection to the UBI is moral. I incline toward the principle that Van Parijs downplays: reciprocity, the simple but profound idea that people who receive benefits should make contributions–if they are able. The qualification suffices to show why reciprocity cannot be a complete theory of social justice. But while reciprocity is not sufficient for such a theory, it is, I believe, necessary.

Van Parijs offers two responses, neither very compelling. The first is that even under a UBI most people would want to make a contribution, so that violations of reciprocity would be de minimis. I doubt it. But even if he is right about this, it is a claim that accepts reciprocity as a basis of moral justification. (In fairness, he is aware of this.)

Van Parijs’s second response is that while the UBI is undeserved good news for the idle Malibu surfer, existing arrangements also massively reflect undeserved luck. While we can argue about the definition of desert and the extent of undeserved distributions in different societies, Van Parijs is surely right about this factual claim. But how does it follow morally that we should replace the current system of distribution with a UBI? One could say with equal (indeed greater) plausibility that we should search for mechanisms that better reflect the principle of contribution. And without getting mired in the theoretical details, I would point out that while John Rawls also takes the critique of undeserved luck as a point of departure, he arrives at conclusions very different from Van Parijs’s. These differences, which may owe in part to empirical assumptions (Van Parijs recognizes this), seem also to reflect a deeper normative disagreement. Rawls presents his conception of political community as a system of social cooperation, and he understands social justice as the fair organization of such a cooperative venture and fair allocation of its joint products. Despite my many disagreements with Rawls, I think this point of departure is clearly preferable to Van Parijs’s "real libertarianism," however sophisticated. To be sure, this bald statement of differences between my approach to these matters and that of Van Parijs doesn’t settle anything, but I believe it frames the disagreement in the right way.

William A. Galston is director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland—College Park. He is author of Liberal Purposes.

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

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