Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy by Philippe van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght

| December 2017
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basic income book coverBasic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, Philippe van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017), 400 pp., $29.95 cloth.

For a variety of disparate reasons, ranging from concern that increasing automation will soon mean an end to the nature of work as we know it to dissatisfaction with the complexity and inefficiency of the traditional welfare state, interest in the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) has never been greater. The past few years have brought us a wide range of books expressing enthusiasm for the concept, from an updated version of the libertarian conservative political scientist Charles Murray’s In Our Hands (2006) to former labor union leader Andy Stern’s Raising the Floor (2016). But for a long time the most philosophically sophisticated articulation and defense of a UBI has been Real Freedom for All (1997), by the Belgian philosopher and father of the modern global basic income movement, Philippe van Parijs.

Now we have a new work from van Parijs, together with co-author Yannick Vanderborght. Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy does not offer the same level of philosophical depth as van Parijs’s earlier volume, but what it lacks in depth it more than makes up for in breadth. Basic Income offers by far the most comprehensive and up-to-date discussion of UBI available today. It carefully describes the nature of a UBI and contrasts it with other closely related forms of social welfare policy, such as the negative income tax. It also provides a fascinating intellectual history of UBI, tracing the idea from the late eighteenth-century English schoolteacher and activist Thomas Spence up through such twentieth-century advocates as Friedrich Hayek and John Kenneth Galbraith. And while the authors make no effort to hide their support for the idea, their book presents and evaluates, in a remarkably thorough and evenhanded way, almost all the major arguments both for and against a UBI.

Given the diversity of policies that are described as a “basic income,” this comprehensiveness is no easy accomplishment. A UBI is more like a family of closely related policies than a single policy, and some versions of UBI (such as those libertarian versions that would implement it only as a replacement for all other existing social welfare policies) would no doubt be regarded by some advocates as not only undesirable but arguably worse than the status quo.

What all UBI proposals have in common, according to the authors, is that they involve cash payments (rather than in-kind transfers) made to individuals (rather than to households) on an unconditional basis (as opposed to being tied to a means test or work requirement). The goal of such programs is to provide a guaranteed minimum level of income to all persons, thereby giving them the freedom to say “no” to unattractive and potentially exploitative offers of employment, and the freedom to say “yes” to any number of other pursuits, whether it be staying home to raise a family, pursuing the life of an artist, or simply surfing the beaches of Malibu.

Yes, that’s right. Able-bodied individuals who could support themselves by working but instead choose to spend their days surfing will be subsidized by the government to pursue their chosen lifestyle. Once people realize that, almost everybody quickly discovers two seemingly powerful objections to the concept of a UBI: cost and fairness.

The cost objection is fairly straightforward. If we are going to give money to everybody without checking to see whether they need it or not, and without checking to see whether they deserve it or not, things are going to get expensive very quickly. To illustrate, the current poverty level for a single, nonelderly individual in the United States is an annual income of $12,316. Multiplied by the approximately 250 million U.S. citizens over the age of 18, a UBI sufficient to raise every individual out of poverty would cost a little over three trillion dollars—almost three-fourths the entire current federal budget, and close to three times the total amount the United States currently spends on transfer programs at the state and local level.

Of course, how much a UBI will cost depends on how generous it is. And van Parijs and Vanderborght’s proposal is fairly generous, indeed. As an ideal, the authors propose a basic income equal to roughly 25 percent of GDP per capita, or about $14,000 per person per year in the United States. Ultimately, they would like the UBI to be increased to whatever level maximizes the sustainable real freedom of the least well-off, and they would like it to be implemented globally, not just on a country-by-country basis. But they realize that getting there will take a combination of baby steps and subtle political opportunism.

How do they propose to pay for all of this? Part of the answer involves a variety of new funding sources. The authors consider a land tax, a carbon tax, a financial transaction tax, and a host of other new mechanisms that might ease the cost of a UBI. But still, all of these new taxes—even if they were politically feasible and even if it were possible to guarantee the funds raised would go to a UBI rather than to some other more politically favored cause—would not be sufficient to cover the cost arrived at above.

What is needed, therefore, is some way of cutting back on the expense. One way the authors propose to do this is to use UBI as a replacement for some other transfer programs that provide a lower level of comparable benefits, such as food stamps or conditional cash assistance. The other way is to compromise on the unconditionality of the proposal. Proponents of UBI like to say that everybody should get it—that the rich are entitled to it as much as the poor. But, presumably, whatever UBI check Bill Gates receives will be subject to the same very high marginal tax rates that would apply to any other income he earns. Thus, while Mr. Gates might receive the same UBI as everybody else, it is an entirely separate question how much he gets to keep. This sort of back-end means testing will cut down on the cost of a UBI significantly, though one might still worry about the long-term economic effects of the tax increases necessary to finance its still significant cost.

Quite apart from concerns about cost, however, many people think that there is something deeply unfair about a basic income. Why, after all, should hardworking laborers have some of their wages taken away to support surfers who eschew work to pursue their hobby? This sort of concern does not come just from political conservatives; John Rawls thought a basic income was incompatible with the idea of reciprocity that underlies his theory of justice. And many Marxists see the Malibu surfer who lives off the labor of others as engaging in a kind of exploitation, akin to the exploitation of the laborers by the capitalist class.

The authors take this objection quite seriously, and offer a number of powerful responses. For starters, many people under our current system do not face any requirement to make a contribution to society—namely, the rich. If reciprocity is such an important political norm, why is it only a problem when the poor are able to enjoy leisure without working? More fundamentally, why assume that the only form that a social contribution can take is paid labor in the marketplace? Artists, parents, homemakers, and many others make a vitally important social contribution, for which they are often financially compensated either poorly or not at all. A UBI that provides these individuals with a minimum level of income will arguably make things more fair with respect to considerations of reciprocity, not less.

Finally, even those who think reciprocity is important agree that those who cannot work should not be required to do so. But distinguishing genuine disability from mere unwillingness is difficult business, and one that requires a lot of costly and intrusive government machinery to enforce. The costs of conditioning benefits on a reciprocal contribution (including the costs of wrongly denying benefits to those who merit them) might simply not be worth it.

There is much more to this book, including fascinating discussions of the steps we might take to make a UBI a political reality, and how the possibility of immigration (of potential beneficiaries) and emigration (of potential contributors) complicates the implementation of a UBI in a globalized world. Even those who are not convinced of the wisdom of a UBI will learn a great deal from these discussions. A terrific synthesis of philosophy, economics, intellectual history, and public policy, Basic Income is a remarkable accomplishment and an essential read for philosophical visionaries and Silicon Valley tinkerers alike.


—Matt Zwolinski


Matt Zwolinski is professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and director of its Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy; a co-director of its Institute for Law and Philosophy; and a fellow at the University of California San Diego’s Center on Global Justice. With John Tomasi, he is the author of the forthcoming A Brief History of Libertarianism (2018).

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Category: Book Review, Issue 31.4

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