A Basic Income
really care about freedom, give people an unconditional income.
Philippe Van Parijs
Entering the new millennium, I submit for discussion a proposal for
the improvement of the human condition: namely, that everyone should
be paid a universal basic income (UBI), at a level sufficient
In a world in which a child under five dies of malnutrition every two
seconds, and close to a third of the planets population lives
in a state of "extreme poverty" that often proves fatal, the
global enactment of such a basic income proposal may seem wildly utopian.
Readers may suspect it to be impossible even in the wealthiest of OECD
Yet, in those nations, productivity, wealth, and national incomes have
advanced sufficiently far to support an adequate UBI. And if enacted,
a basic income would serve as a powerful instrument of social justice:
it would promote real freedom for all by providing the material resources
that people need to pursue their aims. At the same time, it would help
to solve the policy dilemmas of poverty and unemployment, and serve
ideals associated with both the feminist and green movements. So I will
I am convinced, along with many
others in Europe, thatfar from being utopiana UBI makes
common sense in the current context of the European Union.1
As Brazilian senator Eduardo Suplicy has argued, it is also relevant
to less-developed countriesnot only because it helps keep alive
the remote promise of a high level of social solidarity without the
perversity of high unemployment, but also because it can inspire and
guide more modest immediate reforms.2
And if a UBI makes sense in Europe and in less developed countries,
why should it not make equally good (or perhaps better) sense in North
After all, the United States is the only country in the world in which
a UBI is already in place: in 1999, the Alaska Permanent Fund paid each
person of whatever age who had been living in Alaska for at least one
year an annual UBI of $1,680. This payment admittedly falls far short
of subsistence, but it has nonetheless become far from negligible two
decades after its inception. Moreover, there was a public debate about
UBI in the United States long before it started in Europe. In 1967,
Nobel economist James Tobin published the first technical article on
the subject, and a few years later, he convinced George McGovern to
promote a UBI, then called "demogrant," in his 1972 presidential
To be sure, after this short public life the UBI has sunk into near-oblivion
in North America. For good reasons? I believe not. There are many relevant
differences between the United States and the European Union in terms
of labor markets, educational systems, and ethnic make-up. But none
of them makes the UBI intrinsically less appropriate for the United
States than for the European Union. More important are the significant
differences in the balance of political forces. In the United States,
far more than in Europe, the political viability of a proposal is deeply
affected by how much it caters to the tastes of wealthy campaign donors.
This is bound to be a serious additional handicap for any proposal that
aims to expand options for, and empower, the least wealthy. But lets
not turn necessity into virtue, and sacrifice justice in the name of
increased political feasibility. When fighting to reduce the impact
of economic inequalities on the political agenda, it is essential, in
the United States as elsewhere, to propose, explore, and advocate ideas
that are ethically compelling and make economic sense, even when their
political feasibility remains uncertain. Sobered, cautioned, and strengthened
by Europes debate of the last two decades, here is my modest contribution
to this task.
By universal basic
income I mean an income paid by a government, at a uniform level
and at regular intervals, to each adult member of society. The grant
is paid, and its level is fixed, irrespective of whether the person
is rich or poor, lives alone or with others, is willing to work or not.
In most versionscertainly in mineit is granted not only
to citizens, but to all permanent residents.
The UBI is called "basic" because it is something on which
a person can safely count, a material foundation on which a life can
firmly rest. Any other incomewhether in cash or in kind, from
work or savings, from the market or the statecan lawfully be added
to it. On the other hand, nothing in the definition of UBI, as it is
here understood, connects it to some notion of "basic needs."
A UBI, as defined, can fall short of or exceed what is regarded as necessary
to a decent existence.
I favor the highest sustainable such income, and believe that all the
richer countries can now afford to pay a basic income above subsistence.
But advocates of a UBI do not need to press for a basic income at this
level right away. In fact, the easiest and safest way forward, though
details may differ considerably from one country to another, is likely
to consist of enacting a UBI first at a level below subsistence, and
then increasing it over time.
The idea of the UBI is at least
150 years old. Its two earliest known formulations were inspired by
Charles Fourier, the prolific French utopian socialist. In 1848, while
Karl Marx was finishing off the Communist Manifesto around the corner,
the Brussels-based Fourierist author Joseph Charlier published Solution
of the Social Problem, in which he argued for a "territorial
dividend" owed to each citizen by virtue of our equal ownership
of the nations territory. The following year, John Stuart Mill
published a new edition of his Principles of Political Economy,
which contains a sympathetic presentation of Fourierism ("the most
skillfully combined, and with the greatest foresight of objections,
of all the forms of Socialism") rephrased so as to yield an unambiguous
UBI proposal: "In the distribution, a certain minimum is first
assigned for the subsistence of every member of the community, whether
capable or not of labour. The remainder of the produce is shared in
certain proportions, to be determined beforehand, among the three elements,
Labour, Capital, and Talent."5
Under various labels"state
bonus," "national dividend," "social dividend,"
"citizens wage," "citizens income,"
"universal grant," "basic income," etc.the
idea of a UBI was repeatedly taken up in intellectual circles throughout
the twentieth century. It was seriously discussed by left-wing academics
such as G. D. H. Cole and James Meade in England between the World Wars
and, via Abba Lerner, it seems to have inspired Milton Friedmans
proposal for a "negative income tax."6
But only since the late-1970s has the idea gained real political currency
in a number of European countries, starting with the Netherlands and
Denmark. A number of political parties, usually green or "left-liberal"
(in the European sense), have now made it part of their official party
UBI and Existing Programs
To appreciate the significance
of this interest and support, it is important to understand how a UBI
differs from existing benefit schemes. It obviously differs from traditional
social-insurance based income-maintenance institutions (such as Social
Security), whose benefits are restricted to wage workers who have contributed
enough out of their past earnings to become eligible. But it also differs
from Western European or North American conditional minimum-income schemes
(such as welfare).
Many, indeed most West European
countries introduced some form of guaranteed minimum-income scheme at
some point after World War II.7
But these schemes remain conditional: to receive an income grant a beneficiary
must meet more or less stringent variants of the following three requirements:
if she is able to work, she must be willing to accept a suitable job,
or to undergo suitable training, if offered; she must pass a means test,
in the sense that she is only entitled to the benefit if there are grounds
to believe that she has no access to a sufficient income from other
sources; and her household situation must meet certain criteriait
matters, for example, whether she lives on her own, with a person who
has a job, with a jobless person, etc. By contrast, a UBI does not require
satisfaction of any of these conditions.
Advocates of a UBI may, but generally do not, propose it as a full
substitute for existing conditional transfers. Most supporters want
to keeppossibly in simplified forms and necessarily at reduced
levelspublicly organized social insurance and disability compensation
schemes that would supplement the unconditional income while remaining
subjected to the usual conditions. Indeed, if a government implemented
an unconditional income that was too small to cover basic needswhich,
as I previously noted, would almost certainly be the case at firstUBI
advocates would not want to eliminate the existing conditional minimum-income
schemes, but only to readjust their levels.
In the context of Europes most developed welfare states, for
example, one might imagine the immediate introduction of universal child
benefits and a strictly individual, noncontributory basic pension as
full substitutes for existing means-tested benefit schemes for the young
and the elderly. Indeed, some of these countries already have such age-
restricted UBIs for the young and the elderly. Contributory retirement
insurance schemes, whether obligatory or optional, would top up the
As for the working-age population, advocates of a universal minimum
income could, in the short term, settle for a "partial" (less-than-subsistence)
but strictly individual UBI, initially pitched at, say, half the current
guaranteed minimum income for a single person. In US terms, that would
be about $250 per month, or $3,000 a year. For households whose net
earnings are insufficient to reach the socially defined subsistence
level, this unconditional and individual floor would be supplemented
by means-tested benefits, differentiated according to household size
and subjected, as they are now, to some work requirements.
UBI and Some Alternatives
While the UBI is different
from traditional income maintenance schemes, it also differs from a
number of other innovative proposals that have attracted recent attention.
Perhaps closest to a UBI are various negative income tax (NIT) proposals.8
Though the details vary, the basic idea of a negative income tax is
to grant each citizen a basic income, but in the form of a refundable
tax credit. From the personal tax liability of each household, one subtracts
the sum of the basic incomes of its members. If the difference is positive,
a tax needs to be paid. If it is negative, a benefit (or negative tax)
is paid by the government to the household. In principle, one can achieve
exactly the same distribution of post-tax-and-transfer income among
households with a UBI or with an NIT. Indeed, the NIT might be cheaper
to run, since it avoids the to-and-fro that results from paying a basic
income to those with a substantial income and then taxing it back.
Still, a UBI has three major advantages over an NIT. First, any NIT
scheme would have the desired effects on poverty only if it was supplemented
by a system of advance payments sufficient to keep people from starving
before their tax forms are examined at the end of the fiscal year. But
from what we know of social welfare programs, ignorance or confusion
is bound to prevent some people from getting access to such advance
payments. The higher rate of take-up that is bound to be associated
with a UBI scheme matters greatly to anyone who wants to fight poverty.
Second, although an NIT could in principle be individualized, it operates
most naturally and is usually proposed at the household level. As a
result, even if the inter-household distribution of income were exactly
the same under an NIT and the corresponding UBI, the intra-household
distribution will be far less unequal under the UBI. In particular,
under current circumstances, the income that directly accrues to women
will be considerably higher under the UBI than the NIT, since the latter
tends to ascribe to the households higher earner at least part
of the tax credit of the low- or non-earning partner.
Third, a UBI can be expected to deal far better than an NIT with an
important aspect of the "unemployment trap" that is stressed
by social workers but generally overlooked by economists. Whether it
makes any sense for an unemployed person to look for or accept a job
does not only depend on the difference between income at work and out
of work. What deters people from getting out to work is often the reasonable
fear of uncertainty. While they try a new job, or just after they lose
one, the regular flow of benefits is often interrupted. The risk of
administrative time lags especially among people who may have
a limited knowledge of their entitlements and the fear of going into
debt, or for people who are likely to have no savings to fall back onmay
make sticking to benefits the wisest option. Unlike an NIT, a UBI provides
a firm basis of income that keeps flowing whether one is in or out of
work. And it is therefore far better suited to handle this aspect of
the poverty trap.
The Stakeholder Society
UBI also differs from the lump-sum grant, or "stake,"
that Thomas Paine and Orestes Brownsonand, more recently, Bruce
Ackerman and Anne Alstotthave suggested be universally awarded
to citizens at their maturity in a refashioned "stakeholder society."9
Ackerman and Alstott propose that, upon reaching age 21, every citizen,
rich or poor, should be awarded a lump-sum stake of $80,000. This money
can be used in any way its recipient wishesfrom investing in the
stock market or paying for college fees to blowing it all in a wild
night of gambling. The stake is not conditioned on recipients being
"deserving," or having shown any interest in contributing
to society. Funding would be provided by a 2 percent wealth tax, which
could be gradually replaced over time (assuming a fair proportion of
recipients ended their lives with enough assets) by a lump-sum estate
tax of $80,000 (in effect requiring the recipient to pay back the stake).
I am not opposed to a wealth or estate tax, nor do I think it is a
bad idea to give everyone a little stake to get going with their adult
life. Moreover, giving a large stake at the beginning of adult life
might be regarded as formally equivalentwith some freedom addedto
giving an equivalent amount as a life-long unconditional income. After
all, if the stake is assumed to be paid back at the end of a persons
life, as it is in the Ackerman/Alstott proposal, the equivalent annual
amount is simply the stake multiplied by the real rate of interest,
say an amount in the (very modest) order of $2,000 annually, or hardly
more than Alaskas dividend. If instead people are entitled to
consume their stake through lifeand who would stop them?the
equivalent annual income would be significantly higher.
Whatever the level, given the choice between an initial endowment and
an equivalent life-long UBI, we should go for the latter. Endowments
are rife with opportunities for waste, especially among those less well
equipped by birth and background to make use of the opportunity the
stake supplies. To achieve, on an ongoing basis, the goal of some baseline
income maintenance, it would therefore be necessary to keep a means-tested
welfare system, and we would be essentially back to our starting pointthe
need and desirability of a UBI as an alternative to current provisions.
Why a UBI?
So much for definitions
and distinctions. Let us now turn to the central case for a UBI.
The main argument for UBI is founded on a view of justice. Social
justice, I believe, requires that our institutions be designed to best
secure real freedom to all.10
Such a real-libertarian conception of justice combines two ideas. First,
the members of society should be formally free, with a well-enforced
structure of property rights that includes the ownership of each by
herself. What matters to a real libertarian, however, is not only the
protection of individual rights, but assurances of the real value of
those rights: we need to be concerned not only with liberty, but, in
John Rawlss phrase, with the "worth of liberty." At
first approximation, the worth or real value of a persons liberty
depends on the resources the person has at her command to make use of
her liberty. So it is therefore necessary that the distribution of opportunityunderstood
as access to the means that people need for doing what they might want
to dobe designed to offer the greatest possible real opportunity
to those with least opportunities, subject to everyones formal
freedom being respected.
This notion of a just, free
society needs to be specified and clarified in many respects.11
But in the eyes of anyone who finds it attractive, there cannot but
be a strong presumption in favor of UBI. A cash grant to all, no questions
asked, no strings attached, at the highest sustainable level, can hardly
fail to advance that ideal. Or if it does not, the burden of argument
lies squarely on the side of the challengers.
Jobs and Growth
A second way to make the case for UBI is more policy-oriented. A
UBI might be seen as a way to solve the apparent dilemma between a European-style
combination of limited poverty and high unemployment and an American-style
combination of low unemployment and widespread poverty. The argument
can be spelled out, very schematically, as follows.
For over two decades, most West European countries have been experiencing
massive unemployment. Even at the peak of the jobs cycle, millions of
Europeans are vainly seeking work. How can this problem be tackled?
For a while, the received wisdom was to deal with massive unemployment
by speeding up the rate of growth. But considering the speed with which
technological progress was eliminating jobs, it became apparent that
a fantastic rate of growth would be necessary even to keep employment
stable, let alone to reduce the number of unemployed. For environmental
and other reasons, such a rate of growth would not be desirable. An
alternative strategy was to consider a substantial reduction in workers
earnings. By reducing the relative cost of labor, technology could be
redirected in such a way that fewer jobs were sacrificed. A more modest
and therefore sustainable growth rate might then be able to stabilize
and gradually reduce present levels of unemployment. But this could
only be achieved at the cost of imposing an unacceptable standard of
living on a large part of the population, all the more so because a
reduction in wages would require a parallel reduction in unemployment
benefits and other replacement incomes, so as to preserve work incentives.
If we reject both accelerated growth and reduced earnings, must we
also give up on full employment? Yes, if by full employment we mean
a situation in which virtually everyone who wants a full-time job
can obtain one that is both affordable for the employer without any
subsidy and affordable for the worker without any additional
benefit. But perhaps not, if we are willing to redefine full employment
by either shortening the working week, paying subsidies to employers,
or paying subsidies to employees.
A first option, particularly fashionable in France at the moment, consists
in a social redefinition of "full time"that is, a reduction
in maximum working time, typically in the form of a reduction in the
standard length of the working week. The underlying idea is to ration
jobs: because there are not enough jobs for everyone who would like
one, let us not allow a subset to appropriate them all.
On closer scrutiny, however, this strategy is less helpful than it
might seem. If the aim is to reduce unemployment, the reduction in the
work week must be dramatic enough to more than offset the rate of productivity
growth. If this dramatic reduction is matched by a proportional fall
in earnings, the lowest wages will then fallunacceptablybelow
the social minimum. If, instead, total earnings are maintained at the
same level, if only for the less well paid, labor costs will rise. The
effect on unemployment will then be reduced, if not reversed, as the
pressure to eliminate the less skilled jobs through mechanization is
stepped up. In other words, a dramatic reduction in working time looks
bound to be detrimental to the least qualified jobseither because
it kills the supply (they pay less than replacement incomes) or because
it kills the demand (they cost firms a lot more per hour than they used
It does not follow that the reduction of the standard working week
can play no role in a strategy for reducing unemployment without increasing
poverty. But to avoid the dilemma thus sketched, it needs to be coupled
with explicit or implicit subsidies to low-paid jobs. For example, a
reduction of the standard working week did play a role in the so-called
"Dutch miracle"the fact that, in the last decade or
so, jobs expanded much faster in the Netherlands than elsewhere in Europe.
But this was mainly as a result of the standard working week falling
below firms usual operating time and thereby triggering a restructuring
of work organization that involved far more part-time jobs. But these
jobs could not have developed without the large implicit subsidies they
enjoy, in the Netherlands, by virtue of a universal basic pension, universal
child benefits, and a universal health care system.
Any strategy for reducing unemployment
without increasing poverty depends, then, on some variety of the active
welfare statethat is, a welfare state that does not subsidize
passivity (the unemployed, the retired, the disabled, etc.) but systematically
and permanently (if modestly) subsidizes productive activities. Such
subsidies can take many different forms. At one extreme, they can take
the form of general subsidies to employers at a level that is gradually
reduced as the hourly wage rate increases. Edmund Phelps has advocated
a scheme of this sort, restricted to full-time workers, for the United
In Europe, this approach usually takes the form of proposals to abolish
employers social security contributions on the lower earnings
while maintaining the workers entitlements to the same level of
At the other extreme we find the UBI, which can also be understood
as a subsidy, but one paid to the employee (or potential employee),
thereby giving her the option of accepting a job with a lower hourly
wage or with shorter hours than she otherwise could. In between, there
are a large number of other schemes, such as the US Earned Income Tax
Credit and various benefit programs restricted to people actually working
or actively looking for full-time work.
A general employment subsidy and a UBI are very similar in terms of
the underlying economic analysis and, in part, in what they aim to achieve.
For example, both address head-on the dilemma mentioned in connection
with reductions in work time: they make it possible for the least skilled
to be employed at a lower cost to their employer, without thereby impoverishing
The two approaches are, however, fundamentally different in one respect.
With employer subsidies, the pressure to take up employment is kept
intact, possibly even increased; with a UBI, that pressure is reduced.
This is not because permanent idleness becomes an attractive option:
even a large UBI cannot be expected to secure a comfortable standard
of living on its own. Instead, a UBI makes it easier to take a break
between two jobs, reduce working time, make room for more training,
take up self-employment, or to join a cooperative. And with a UBI, workers
will only take a job if they find it suitably attractive, while employer
subsidies make unattractive, low-productivity jobs more economically
viable. If the motive in combating unemployment is not some sort of
work fetishisman obsession with keeping everyone busybut
rather a concern to give every person the possibility of taking up gainful
employment in which she can find recognition and accomplishment, then
the UBI is to be preferred.
Feminist and Green Concerns
A third piece of the argument for a UBI takes particular note of
its contribution to realizing the promise of the feminist and green
movements. The contribution to the first should be obvious. Given the
sexist division of labor in the household and the special "caring"
functions that women disproportionately bear, their labor market participation,
and range of choice in jobs, is far more constrained than those of men.
Both in terms of direct impact on the inter-individual distribution
of income and the longer-term impact on job options, a UBI is therefore
bound to benefit women far more than men. Some of them, no doubt, will
use the greater material freedom UBI provides to reduce their paid working
time and thereby lighten the "double shift" at certain periods
of their lives. But who can sincerely believe that working subject to
the dictates of a boss for forty hours a week is a path to liberation?
Moreover, it is not only against the tyranny of bosses that a UBI supplies
some protection, but also against the tyranny of husbands and bureaucrats.
It provides a modest but secure basis on which the more vulnerable can
stand, as marriages collapse or administrative discretion is misused.
To discuss the connection between UBI and the green movement, it is
useful to view the latter as an alliance of two components. Very schematically,
the environmental components central concern is with the
pollution generated by industrial society. Its central objective
is the establishment of a society that can be sustained by its physical
environment. The green-alternative components central concern,
on the other hand, is with the alienation generated by industrial
society. Its central objective is to establish a society in which people
spend a great deal of their time on "autonomous" activities,
ruled by neither the market nor the state. For both components, there
is something very attractive in the idea of a UBI.
The environmentalists chief foe is productivism, the obsessive
pursuit of economic growth. And one of the most powerful justifications
for fast growth, in particular among the working class and its organizations,
is the fight against unemployment. The UBI, as argued above, is a coherent
strategy for tackling unemployment without relying on faster growth.
The availability of such a strategy undermines the broad productivist
coalition and thereby improves the prospects for realizing environmentalist
objectives in a world in which pollution (even in the widest sense)
is not the only thing most people care about.
Green-alternatives should also be attracted to basic income proposals,
for a UBI can be viewed as a general subsidy financed by the market
and state spheres to the benefit of the autonomous sphere. This is in
part because the UBI gives everyone some real freedomas opposed
to a sheer rightto withdraw from paid employment in order to perform
autonomous activities, such as grass-roots militancy or unpaid care
work. But part of the impact also consists in giving the least well
endowed greater power to turn down jobs that they do not find sufficiently
fulfilling, and in thereby creating incentives to design and offer less
I have said thus far is persuasive: that the UBI, if it could be instituted,
would be a natural and attractive way of ensuring a fair distribution
of real freedom, fighting unemployment without increasing poverty, and
promoting the central goals of both the feminist and the green movements.
What are the objections?
Perhaps the most common is that a UBI would cost too much. Such a statement
is of course meaningless if the amount and the scale is left unspecified.
At a level of $150 per month and per person, a UBI is obviously affordable
in some places, since this is the monthly equivalent of what every Alaskan
receives as an annual dividend. Could one afford a UBI closer to the
poverty line? By simply multiplying the poverty threshold for a one-person
household by the population of a country, one soon reaches scary amountsoften
well in excess of the current level of total government expenditure.
But these calculations are misleading. A wide range of existing benefits
can be abolished or reduced once a UBI is in place. And for most people
of working age, the basic income and the increased taxes (most likely
in the form of an abolition of exemptions and of low tax rates for the
lowest income brackets) required to pay for it will largely offset each
other. In a country such as the United States, which has developed a
reasonably effective revenue collection system, what matters is not
the gross cost but its distributive impactwhich could easily work
out the same for a UBI or an NIT.
Estimates of the net budgetary
cost of various UBI and NIT schemes have been made both in Europe and
the United States.13
Obviously, the more comprehensive and generous existing means-tested
minimum-income schemes are, the more limited the net cost of a UBI scheme
at a given level. But the net cost is also heavily affected by two other
factors. Does the scheme aim to achieve an effective rate of taxation
(and hence of disincentive to work) at the lower end of the distribution
of earnings no higher than the tax rates higher up? And does it give
the same amount to each member of a couple as to a single person? If
the answer is positive on both counts, a scheme that purports to lift
every household out of poverty has a very high net cost, and would therefore
generate major shifts in the income distribution, not only from richer
to poorer households, but also from single people to couples.14
This does not mean that it is "unaffordable," but that a gradual
approach is required if sudden sharp falls in the disposable incomes
of some households are to be avoided. A basic income or negative income
tax at the household level is one possible option. A strictly individual,
but "partial" basic income, with means-tested income supplements
for single adult households, is another.
A second frequent objection is that a UBI would have perverse labor
supply effects. (In fact, some American income maintenance experiments
in the 1970s showed such effects.) The first response should be: "So
what?" Boosting the labor supply is no aim in itself. No one can
reasonably want an overworked, hyperactive society. Give people of all
classes the opportunity to reduce their working time or even take a
complete break from work in order to look after their children or elderly
relatives. You will not only save on prisons and hospitals. You will
also improve the human capital of the next generation. A modest UBI
is a simple and effective instrument in the service of keeping a socially
and economically sound balance between the supply of paid labor and
the rest of our lives.
It is of the greatest importance that our tax-and-transfer systems
not trap the least skilled, or those whose options are limited for some
other reason, in a situation of idleness and dependency. But it is precisely
awareness of this risk that has been the most powerful factor in arousing
public interest for a UBI in those European countries in which a substantial
means-tested guaranteed minimum income had been operating for some time.
It would be absurd to deny that such schemes depress in undesirable
ways workers willingness to accept low-paid jobs and stick with
them, and therefore also employers interest in designing and offering
such jobs. But reducing the level or security of income support, on
the pattern of the United States 1996 welfare reform, is not the only
possible response. Reducing the various dimensions of the unemployment
trap by turning means-tested schemes into universal ones is another.
Between these two routes, there cannot be much doubt about what is to
be preferred by people committed to combining a sound economy and a
fair societyas opposed to boosting labor supply to the maximum.
A third objection is moral rather than simply pragmatic. A UBI, it
is often said, gives the undeserving poor something for nothing. According
to one version of this objection, a UBI conflicts with the fundamental
principle of reciprocity: the idea that people who receive benefits
should respond in kind by making contributions. Precisely because it
is unconditional, it assigns benefits even to those who make no social
contributionwho spend their mornings bickering with their partner,
surf off Malibu in the afternoon, and smoke pot all night.
One might respond by simply asking: How many would actually choose
this life? How many, compared to the countless people who spend most
of their days doing socially useful but unpaid work? Everything we know
suggests that nearly all people seek to make some contribution. And
many of us believe that it would be positively awful to try to turn
all socially useful contributions into waged employment. On this background,
even the principle "To each according to her contribution"
justifies a modest UBI as part of its best feasible institutional implementation.
But a more fundamental reply
is available. True, a UBI is undeserved good news for the idle surfer.
But this good news is ethically indistinguishable from the undeserved
luck that massively affects the present distribution of wealth, income,
and leisure. Our race, gender, and citizenship, how educated and wealthy
we are, how gifted in math and how fluent in English, how handsome and
even how ambitious, are overwhelmingly a function of who our parents
happened to be and of other equally arbitrary contingencies. Not even
the most narcissistic self-made man could think that he fixed the parental
dice in advance of entering this world. Such gifts of luck are unavoidable
and, if they are fairly distributed, unobjectionable. A minimum condition
for a fair distribution is that everyone should be guaranteed a modest
share of these undeserved gifts.15
Nothing could achieve this more securely than a UBI.
Such a moral argument will not be sufficient in reshaping the politically
possible. But it may well prove crucial. Without needing to deny the
importance of work and the role of personal responsibility, it will
save us from being over-impressed by a fashionable political rhetoric
that justifies bending the least advantaged more firmly under the yoke.
It will make us even more confident about the rightness of a universal
basic income than about the rightness of universal suffrage. It will
make us even more comfortable about everyone being entitled to an income,
even the lazy, than about everyone being entitled to a vote, even the
Philippe Van Parijs
directs the Hoover Chair of Economic and Social Ethics at the Catholic
University of Louvain. He is author of Marxism
Recycled and Real
Freedom for All.
for 15 responses to Philippe van Parijs's article, "A Basic Income for
1 Many academics and activists who share this view have joined the
Basic Income European Network (BIEN). Founded in 1986, BIEN holds its
eighth congress in Berlin in October 2000. It publishes an electronic
newsletter (firstname.lastname@example.org), and maintains a Web site that carries
a comprehensive annotated bibliography in all EU languages (http://www.etes.ucl.ac.
be/BIEN/bien.html). For a recent set of relevant European essays, see
Loek Groot and Robert Jan van der Veen, eds., Basic Income on the
Agenda: Policy Objectives and Political Chances (Amsterdam: Amsterdam
University Press, 2000).
2 Federal senator for the huge state of Sao Paulo and member of the
opposition Workers Party (PT), Suplicy has advocated an ambitious guaranteed
minimum income scheme, a version of which was approved by Brazils
Senate in 1991.
3 Two North American UBI networks were set up earlier this year: the
United States Basic Income Guarantee Network, c/o Dr Karl Widerquist,
The Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson,
NY 12504-5000, USA (http://www.usbig.net); and Basic Income/Canada,
c/o Prof. Sally Lerner, Department of Environment and Resource Studies,
University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G1 (http://www.
4 See James Tobin, Joseph A. Pechman, and Peter M. Mieszkowski, "Is
a Negative Income Tax Practical?" Yale Law Journal 77 (1967):
1-27. See also a recent conversation with Tobin in BIENs newsletter
("James Tobin, the Demogrant and the Future of U.S. Social Policy,"
in Basic Income 29 (Spring 1998), available on BIENs web
5 See Joseph Charlier, Solution du problème social ou constitution
humanitaire (Bruxelles: Chez tous les libraires du Royaume, 1848);
John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 2nd ed. 
(New York: Augustus Kelley, 1987).
6 See the exchange between Eduardo Suplicy and Milton Friedman in Basic
Income 34 (June 2000).
7 The latest countries to introduce a guaranteed minimum income at
national level were France (in 1988) and Portugal (in 1997). Out of
the European Unions fifteen member states, only Italy and Greece
have no such scheme.
8 In the United States, one recent proposal of this type has been made
in Fred Block and Jeff Manza, "Could We End Poverty in a Postindustrial
Society? The Case for a Progressive Negative Income Tax," Politics
and Society 25 (December 1997): 473-511.
9 Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, The Stakeholder Society (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1999). Their proposal is a sophisticated
and updated version of a proposal made by Thomas Paine to the French
Directoire. See "Agrarian Justice" , in The Life
and Major Writings of Thomas Paine, P. F. Foner, ed., (Secaucus,
N.J.: Citadel Press, 1974), pp. 605-623. A similar program was proposed,
independently, by the New England liberal, and later arch-conservative,
Orestes Brownson in the Boston Quarterly Review of October 1840.
If the American people are committed to the principle of "equal
chances," he argued, then they should make sure that each person
receives, on maturity, an equal share of the "general inheritance."
10 For a more detailed discussion, see Philippe Van Parijs, Real
Freedom for All (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
11 One can think of alternative normative foundations. For example,
under some empirical assumptions a UBI is also arguably part of the
package that Rawlss difference principle would justify. See, for
example, Walter Schaller, "Rawls, the Difference Principle, and
Economic Inequality," in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly
79 (1998) 368-91; Philippe Van Parijs, "Difference Principles,"
in The Cambridge Companion to John Rawls, Samuel Freeman ed.,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). Alternatively,
one might view a UBI as a partial embodiment of the Marxian principle
of distribution according to needs. See Robert J. van der Veen and Philippe
Van Parijs, "A Capitalist Road to Communism," Theory and
Society 15 (1986) 635-55.
12 See Edmund S. Phelps, Rewarding Work (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1997).
13 In the US case, for example, the fiscally equivalent negative-income-tax
scheme proposed by Block and Manza, which would raise all base incomes
to at least 90 percent of the poverty line (and those of poor families
well above that), would, in mid-1990s dollars, cost about $60 billion
14 To fund this net cost, the personal income tax is obviously not
the only possible source. In some European proposals, at least part
of the funding comes from ecological, energy, or land taxes; from a
tax on value; from non-inflationary money creation; or possibly even
from Tobin taxes on international financial transactions (although it
is generally recognized that the funding of a basic income in rich countries
would not exactly be a priority in the allocation of whatever revenues
may be collected from this source). But none of these sources could
realistically enable us to dispense with personal income taxation as
the basic source of funding. Nor do they avoid generating a net cost
in terms of real disposable income for some households, and thereby
raising an issue of "affordability."
15 Along the same lines, Herbert A. Simon observes "that any causal
analysis explaining why American GDP is about $25,000 per capita would
show that at least 2/3 is due to the happy accident that the income
recipient was born in the U.S." He adds, "I am not so naive
as to believe that my 70% tax [required to fund a UBI of $8,000 p.a.
with a flat tax] is politically viable in the United States at present,
but looking toward the future, it is none too soon to find answers to
the arguments of those who think they have a solid moral right to retain
all the wealth they earn." See Simons letter to the
organizers of BIENs seventh congress in Basic Income 28
Originally published in the October/
November 2000 issue of Boston Review