Philippe Van Parijs Responds
What an unexpectedly sympathetic set of comments! No doubt unrepresentative
of US public opinion. But its 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 needythe 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 Galstons and
Andersons. A harder look at these trendsfor example, Goodins
idea that risks are now less standardizedshould 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 Simons and Ronald Dores comments. In
Simons 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 workers 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 ones contributions nor ones neediness,
but simply by virtue of ones 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 isas regards distributive justice"public
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 attachin Europe
no less than the United Statesto social recognition through paid
work, or to the moral ugliness of deliberately living at other peoples
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 peoples 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
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 countrys collective project, which is business."
I have no authority to speak about Americas 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 belongswith 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 Americas
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 todays climate. Only
if they dare to speak out.
1 Rawlss 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 BIENs
eighth congress, Berlin, October 2000, available from http://www.etes.ucl.
Originally published in the October/
November 2000 issue of Boston Review