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Philippe Van Parijs Responds

What an unexpectedly sympathetic set of comments! No doubt unrepresentative of US public opinion. But it’s a start. I will focus my comments here on the most critical remarks, concentrating first on issues of normative justification, then on questions of political strategy.

As Emma Rothschild and Brian Barry aptly recall, part of the case for a UBI appeals to efficiency and the general interest. The crucial normative battle, however, is to be fought in terms of justice. I believe that justice requires that we maximize the minimum level of real freedom, and that a UBI is an especially compelling way to secure justice, thus conceived. Elizabeth Anderson and William Galston reject my conception of justice in favor of a view based on reciprocity, and more specifically on the obligation of the able to help the needy–the traditional moral basis of welfare-state programs. To achieve the objectives flowing from this conception, Galston finds a combination of targeted programs more effective than a UBI that provides income for everyone. Anderson, who is particularly sensitive to the stigmatizing and exclusionary impact of targeted programs, is more cautious: empirical evidence may show that a UBI is part of the best feasible package. Precisely this sort of evidence on social and economic trends has turned Robert Goodin and Katherine McFate into advocates of a UBI, on the basis of a normative conception that does not seem that different from Galston’s and Anderson’s. A harder look at these trends–for example, Goodin’s idea that risks are now less standardized–should turn the critics, too, into somewhat reluctant, pragmatic advocates of a modest UBI.
1 In short, the case for UBI does not depend on embracing the real-freedom theory of justice.

Toward the end of her comment, however, Anderson hints at a totally different normative foundation of social transfers, which offers the promise of a more direct justification of a UBI. The Alaska case, she notes "suggests that the legitimation problem in the United States could be solved by funding the UBI through revenues collected on the use of public property." The underlying normative insight is illuminatingly developed in Herbert Simon’s and Ronald Dore’s comments. In Simon’s formulation, it consists in "recognizing shared ownership of a significant fraction of the resources, physical and intellectual that enable the society to produce what it produces." From this view, it does not follow, as suggested by Gar Alperovitz, that the legitimate funding of a basic income can only take the form of dividends on public assets. Some taxes, such as the pollution or energy taxes advocated by Anne Alstott and Barry, can easily be interpreted along these lines. More fundamentally, as explained by Simon and Dore, even taxes on labor income must be understood not as the confiscation of part of the fruit of a worker’s effort, but as a fee on the use of lucky opportunities by relatively high-paid workers.

This key insight takes us from a traditional conception of the welfare state as a combination of (self-interested) insurance and (more or less generous) solidarity, to one that also includes an idea advanced by Tom Paine: that there is a set of transfers to which one is entitled neither by virtue of one’s contributions nor one’s neediness, but simply by virtue of one’s membership in the relevant community. No need to restrict this claim, as Paine did, to natural resources, nor to base it, as Paine did and Barry suggests one must, on alleged "natural rights." We need only recognize the moral arbitrariness of (very unequally distributed) opportunities in order to see that whatever we are given is–as regards distributive justice–"public property."

Elsewhere, I have tried to elaborate this view systematically into a conception of the fair distribution of real freedom that also pays due attention to the special needs of the handicapped, to the importance many people attach–in Europe no less than the United States–to social recognition through paid work, or to the moral ugliness of deliberately living at other people’s expense.2 To be sure, this view is the target of many philosophical objections. Given the constraints of space, I cannot respond those objections here, but instead refer interested readers to my replies to two recent collections of critical essays.3

"One could starve to death talking about income independent of wages," says Wade Rathke. Along the same lines, Peter Edelman notes that pushing for a UBI may involve a hefty opportunity cost in terms of "time not spent on more politically salient ideas, which could actually be enacted." I agree. Even those who are convinced that a UBI is part of what we should aim at must agree that there are contexts in which, and people for whom, it does not make sense devoting much time and energy thinking about it, let alone mobilizing for it. There are many important problems a UBI would not fix, and many important problems more attainable measures could fix.

Nonetheless, even in the seemingly most hopeless situations, it is part of some people’s job to keep exploring and advocating the politically impossible. First, as Barry emphasizes, seismic events do occur, and it is important to prepare intellectually for when a political opportunity suddenly arises. Second, if a carriage is stuck in the mud and you want to get it moving in the right direction, the best policy is rarely to make everyone scrape under the wheels or push at the back. Some people should pull ropes quite some distance ahead, while others investigate alternative routes much further afield.

An essential part of the forward-looking thinking that is required consists of working out the best transition strategy, which may vary greatly from one country to another.4 In one place, family policy may be the best point of departure (McFate), in another the development of sabbatical accounts (Claus Offe). Even existing workfare schemes may prompt a move towards a UBI through a gradual broadening of the work condition in response to the difficulty of providing suitable standard jobs for all claimants (Goodin). This process could lead to a "participation income"–a UBI subjected to the performance of some (paid or unpaid) socially useful activity. Goodin, Offe, and Barry believe that imposing such a condition would considerably increase the political chances of a UBI, in Europe no less than in the United States. So do I, while also believing, along with Barry, that a rigid participation income scheme risks opening up "a nightmarish scenario of an enormous bureaucracy entrusted with arbitrary monitoring powers," which will either lead to regression or, as we both hope, to an unconditional basic income.

In the US context, however, the best basis from which to build is probably the EITC. Ronald Dore and Fred Block emphasize the potential for turning it into a negative income tax (NIT), which Block regards as "far more affordable" and therefore politically more realistic than a UBI. For a given level of income guarantee, an NIT is not more affordable than a UBI in an economically relevant sense. It only looks more affordable because of a frequent failure to perceive the economic equivalence between benefits and tax expenditures.5 The variant sketched by Block is even less affordable, in this sense, than a UBI financed by a flat tax on all income, because of the exemption it proposes on the first $3,000 of earnings. Yet, I agree that using the NIT route is politically most promising, both in Europe and the United States, when income tax is used as the main source of funding. This is not, however, a matter of true economic cost, but of fiscal cosmetics.

Those who think that EITC needs to be reshaped in the direction of an NIT or a UBI believe, along with Alstott, that it does not give people enough room for reducing working time or taking a break. Others, like Edmund Phelps, believe that the EITC gives people too much of it, and that it must accordingly be reformed in the direction of hourly wage subsidies channeled through the employers and restricted to full-time workers. Phelps sees no reason to "feel sorry about women ‘subjected to the dictates of a boss for forty hours a week.’" On the contrary, this gives them "a sense of contributing something to the country’s collective project, which is business."

I have no authority to speak about America’s collective project, but I would find it sad if it were reduced to business, and terrible if someone managed to convince those women that their dignity, their pride, the meaning of their lives were to be found in full-time submission to a boss. Along with Alstott, I believe instead that it is a great advantage of a UBI that "it comes without strings, so that women can choose for themselves how to spend the cash" and that it "places that choice squarely where it belongs–with women." Empowering the weakest, spreading the "independence" emphasized by Rothschild and Alperovitz to those currently dependent on bosses, husbands, or welfare officers, are to me no less worthy objectives than business. According to Adam Smith (pace Rothschild), pursuing them may not even be bad for business. And even if it were, it would remain an imperative for the sake of liberty and justice for all.

Hard and bold thinking about UBI and the means to achieve it is essential for those committed to this less degenerated interpretation of America’s collective project. There is no reason to believe that they cannot win. But they will do so only if they do not let themselves be intimidated by a concern for "relevance" in today’s climate. Only if they dare to speak out.

1 Rawls’s conception, which both Galston and Edmund Phelps invoke against UBI, is not as first-best-inimical to a UBI as the traditional social-democratic conception. See my "Difference Principles," in The Cambridge Companion to John Rawls, Samuel Freeman ed., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

2 See Philippe Van Parijs, Real Freedom for All (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

3 See "Basic Income? A Symposium on Van Parijs," Analyse und Kritik 22 (2000); Real Libertarianism Reassessed: Essays on Van Parijs (London: MacMillan, forthcoming).

4 There is certainly no need to wait for a global UBI to be feasible before introducing it in any particular country. The migration problems mentioned by Galston, Rothschild, and Barry can be handled in the same way as they are under existing means-tested schemes.

5 See section 3 of Philippe Van Parijs, Basic Income: A Simple and Powerful Idea for the XXIst Century. Background Paper for BIEN’s eighth congress, Berlin, October 2000, available from http://www.etes.ucl.

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

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