​Basic Income, for a Free Society and a Sane Economy. PART 3: IS A UBI ETHICALLY JUSTIFIABLE? – Philippe van Parijs, Yannick Vanderborght. 

Of all objections to a basic income one sticks out above all others—and is more emotional, more principled, and more decisive in the eyes of many. It relates to its being unconditional in the sense of being obligation-free, of not requiring its recipients to work or be willing to work. Someone can concede that a basic income would provide an effective way of reducing poverty and unemployment while still being fiercely opposed to it on ethical grounds.

This objection comes in two main versions.

In one version, the “perfectionist” one, the underlying principle is that work is part of the good life and hence that an income granted without some work requirement amounts to rewarding a vice: idleness.

In the other version, the “liberal”one, the underlying principle is not about virtue but about fairness. As Jon Elster puts it, an unconditional basic income “goes against a widely accepted notion of justice: it is unfair for able-bodied people to live off the labor of others.”

How can this objection be refuted?

How can the proposal of an unconditional basic income be vindicated against this sort of objection?

Enjoying a basic income without doing any work constitutes unfair free riding — that is, it violates some norm of reciprocity, some conception of justice that stipulates that income should be distributed according to people’s productive contributions.

This accusation should be relativized and the accusers should temper their indignation.

The introduction of an unconditional basic income, far from increasing injustice as characterized, could reduce it.

If one is serious about denying an income to those able but unwilling to work, this denial should apply to the rich as well as to the poor.

UBI is a problem for those who, in today’s socioeconomic context, want to refuse to the poor the leisure the rich can get away with.

A modest unconditional income that would give to the poor, as well, the option of some chosen leisure would address the unfairness of such double standards.

Should a morality that stigmatizes an access to an income without work and thereby tries to restrict material gratification to those willing to contribute to society’s production not be abandoned when technological progress is leading to overabundant workers?

We have moved from a situation in which, say, 90 percent of the population were required to satisfy everyone’s basic needs in food, housing, and clothing, to one in which, say, 10 percent suffice.

Those who want to reduce the working week today do not want to do so in order to reduce a burden, but rather in order to share a privilege. In this context, should one still be as outraged as in the past at able-bodied people living off the labor of others?

Once the basic-income regime is in place, only a tiny minority will take advantage of it in order to do nothing or very little. This can be expected because the universal nature of a basic income, which makes it combinable with recipients’ other income, gets rid of the inactivity trap created by means-tested schemes.

Experiments with basic-income-type schemes suggest that even when freedom from obligation causes a fall in the labor supply, this does not translate into an expansion of leisure as idleness, but rather into an upsurge of productive activities in a broader sense such as education, childcare, and engagement in the community.

If one can expect only an insignificant minority of really lazy scroungers, there is no big clash between basic income and justice as reciprocity to get worked up about.

In order to avoid penalizing unfairly people who are sick, and wrongly assumed to be lazy, a modest unconditional income can be justified as the least bad measure.

For those truly concerned about free riding, the main worry about today’s situation should not be that some people get away with doing no work, but rather that countless people who do a lot of essential work end up with no income of their own. A huge amount of essential, productive work currently goes unpaid, as it is performed at home.

If there is massive free riding anywhere, it is within the traditional family structure in the form of men free riding on the unpaid work done by their partners.

An obligation-free basic income may well prove the least bad way of tackling free riding. The best feasible approximation of the principle that income should be distributed according to work does not exclude a basic income. It rather requires one, pitched at such a level that a further increase would worsen the injustice stemming from overpayment of the truly lazy more than it would reduce the injustice stemming from underpaying those who currently care for children, the elderly, or the disabled without any form of payment.

At present, the intrinsic attractiveness of a job and its remuneration are positively correlated . This can be viewed as a form of free riding or exploitation by the better paid: thanks to their bargaining power, they can do jobs they enjoy while benefiting from the toil of people who have no option but to accept low-paid jobs that the better paid would hate doing. A basic income, being obligation-free, would strengthen the bargaining power of the most vulnerable participants in the labor market and would therefore mean that the irksomeness of a job, its lack of intrinsic attractiveness, would be better reflected in the pay it commands. With irksomeness better compensated for, unfair free riding will not expand but shrink.

It is to a conception of distributive justice, not of cooperative justice, that one must appeal in order to best defend the fairness of an unconditional basic income.

An unconditional basic income is what we need if what we care about is freedom, not for just a few but for all.

Adopting such a conception of distributive justice generates a strong presumption in favor of an income paid to all in cash, on an individual basis, without means test or work test, indeed in favor of such an income paid at the highest sustainable level.

It makes sense to distribute this income at short and regular intervals throughout people’s lives, possibly at a lower level for children and a higher level for the elderly.

And for analogous reasons, it makes sense not to give the whole of this highest sustainable income in cash, but to allocate part of it in particular to free or heavily subsidized education and health care and to the provision of a healthy and enjoyable environment, at the cost of a lower cash basic income.

In all sorts of ways, but for most of us primarily as part of our earnings, we benefit very unequally from what was freely given us by nature, technological progress, capital accumulation, social organization, civility rules, and so on. What a basic income does is ensure that everyone receives a fair share of what none of us today did anything for, of the huge present very unequally incorporated in our incomes. And if given to all and pitched at the highest sustainable level, it ensures that those who receive least receive as much as is durably feasible.

“Current productive power is, in effect, a joint result of current effort and of the social heritage of inventiveness and skill incorporated in the stage of advancement and education reached in the arts of production; and it has always appeared to me only right that all the citizens should share in the yield of this common heritage, and that only the balance of the product after this allocation should be distributed in the form of rewards for, and incentives to, current service in production.” George D. H. Cole

Much of what we earn must be ascribed, not to our efforts, but to externalities which owe nothing to them.

“How large are these externalities, which must be regarded as owned jointly by members of the whole society?” Herbert A. Simon

The appeal of the conception of distributive justice on which our principled justification of basic income rests depends on our realizing the extent to which our economy functions as a gift-distribution machine, as an arrangement that enables people to tap— very unequally —our common inheritance.

In actual life, the opportunities we enjoy are fashioned in complex, largely unpredictable ways by the interaction of our innate capacities and dispositions with countless other circumstances such as happening to have a congenial primary school teacher or an inspiring boss, to belong to a lucky generation, to have a native language in high demand, or to get a tip for the right job at the right time.

The granting of a basic income to everyone should therefore not be misunderstood as aiming to equalize outcomes or achievements. Rather, it aims to make less unequal, and distribute more fairly, real freedom, possibilities, and opportunities. Granting a basic income to all helps equalize what people are given— the material substratum of their real freedom— and only as a consequence , indirectly and more roughly, what they achieve with what they are given.

A defense, on grounds of justice, of an unconditional income paid in cash does not presuppose a blind faith in the perfection of the market, but it does assume sufficient trust in the idea that prices reflect how valuable goods are in a sense that is relevant to determining a fair distribution of access to them. It therefore assumes an economy largely governed by something like a duly regulated market. It seems reasonable enough to suppose that this will remain the case for the foreseeable future.

Note, however, that granting to all an unconditional income does not increase dependence on the market. Quite the contrary. Because of its freedom from obligation, a basic income contributes to weakening the cash nexus, to de-commodifying labor power, to boosting socially useful yet unpaid activities, to protecting our lives against forced mobility and destructive globalization, and to emancipating us from the despotism of the market.

The conception of distributive justice is one that belongs to a family of conceptions commonly labeled liberal-egalitarian.

It is liberal in the sense that it does not rest on a particular conception of the good life but instead is committed to respecting equally the various conceptions of the good life that are present in our pluralist societies.

It is egalitarian in the sense of taking as a baseline an equal distribution of the resources people have at their disposal in order to try to realize their conceptions of the good life.

Justice is about sustainably maximizing the prospects of those with the worst prospects, not about equalizing prospects even at everyone’s expense.

Discussing proposals aimed at making our societies more just is important. Without such proposals, there is no hope— neither for ourselves nor for generations to come. But, for there to be hope, what is being proposed must be not only desirable but also realizable.


Philippe van Parijs & Yannick Vanderborght

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