Abigail Lynn @shmabbss
The idea of a basic income raises many hopes and some eyebrows. In this article, some of its defenders will explain to us which is, in their view, the best way to justify it. However, in order to make the discussion more interesting, we also asked them to answer one common objection that is often raised against the proposal: the free-riding objection. What does this objection say? Quite simple. Unlike other social security schemes, a basic income is unconditional, which means that you can be entitled to it regardless of your socio-economic condition. And, more crucially, regardless of the extent to which you contribute to your society.
For some people, this is plainly unfair. The viability of a basic income depends upon the existence of enough contributors to a common public fund. But, as long as this scheme is already in place and working in a stable manner, if any individual decided not to contribute to it, there would be nothing we could do in response: given the income’s unconditional character, the supposed free-rider would still be as entitled to it as any other citizen. Let us suppose – so goes the classical example[i] – that I decided to spent all my time living high, surfing the waves in Malibu, playing guitar under the moonlight, driving along endless highways on the wheel of an old van. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Still, since such a plan would only be possible if others work and contribute to a common fund, my decision might look like an injustice, a clear case of free-riding. But is it really like this?
Before introducing some possible answers to this challenge, we will look first at some arguments in favor of a basic income.
According to Hillel Steiner[ii], «the best way to defend the right to UBI involves a dual strategy: (a) showing that this right is implied by some more basic and uncontested principle, and (b) showing that this right is compatible with, and does not encroach upon, other widely accepted rights«. As a left-libertarian, Steiner regards the Earth as humanity’s common possession[iii], which entails that if somebody intends to appropriate herself of any portion of it, she should compensate her fellow co-owners. If she didn’t, she would be illegitimately appropriating of something that is not really hers. In other words, she would be stealing. Steiner’s emphasis on natural resources colors both his model of basic income and his preferred justification of it:
«In my view, a right to UBI should be funded by a 100% tax on the ownership of natural resources, commonly termed a ‘Land Value Tax’ or, more accurately, a ‘Location Value Tax’. This tax would be levied on the value of those locations themselves, and not on the value of any improvements made to those locations by human labour. A right to a UBI funded in this way satisfies (a) since those taxable natural resources/locations, not being the product of any person’s labour, are rightfully available for use by everyone. So if someone wants to privatise some of them, and to exclude all others from using them, then it seems only fair that the privatizer should compensate those others. The UBI I’m proposing simply is that compensation.»
This is a fairly common way to defend the right to a basic income, also employed by Guy Standing[iv], author of Basic Income: And How we Can Make it Happen[v]. In Standing’s view:
«the right to a basic income can be justified on three ethical grounds. First, it is a matter of common justice. The land, the air, water, and even ideas inherited from our ancestors are all part of the commons which belong to everybody equally. But elites and the wealthy have been given, have inherited or have used the commons for their benefit. Therefore, they should compensate the commoners who have lost the commons, and the fairest way to do that is give everybody in society a common payment, a ‘common dividend’ on our collective public wealth«.
Again, the basic income is presented as a way of compensating human beings for having deprived them of what is, in essence, a public good. However, as we have seen, Standing believes there are additional reasons on behalf of a basic income.
«[A] second fundamentally ethical reason for a basic income», he contends, «is that it would enhance individual and societal freedom. In particular, it would strengthen republican freedom -the freedom from domination by figures in unaccountable positions of power. Whether you are on the political left or right, we all claim (or most of us do!) to believe in freedom. But you cannot be free unless you have the capacity to say ‘no’ to people who can oppress or exploit you. If you do not have basic income security, you do not have that capacity.»
Note that this argument is slightly different from the previous one. Granted, here the argument is also premised upon the existence of an injustice. Yet in this case the injustice does not involve the illegitimate appropriation of what is commonly owned, but rather the presence of a structure of domination under which individuals cannot really be considered autonomous or free. According to this argument, justice requires that nobody ever feel the need to be subjected to another’s arbitrary will, an aim which would only be secured by implementing a right to a basic income[vi].
Political philosopher Karl Widerquist[vii], author of many books and articles on the basic income[viii], has defended a similar view. As he puts it, we need acknowledge that:
«[I]t’s wrong for anyone to come between another person and the resources they need to survive. It’s wrong for anyone to put conditions on people’s access to the resources they need to survive. Don’t ignore this fact: poverty is the lack of access to the resources you need to live a decent life. A healthy person with the right skills and access to a healthy environment can do many things that are impossible for an impoverished person in society today. They can build their own house; fish, farm, or hunt their own food; they can work with who they want. They call work alone or with whoever they want. They don’t need a boss. They never have to follow orders.
Our societies create poverty by interfering with people who would like to use the resources of the Earth for themselves. We do it because better off people want to control all the world’s resources. By allowing a small group to control the world’s resources without paying compensation to the people they thereby make propertyless, we put most people in the position in which “work” becomes synonymous with “a job.” Making a living means taking orders. This is not a fact of nature. It is the outcome of society’s rules. We need to change those rules.
UBI rectifies that problem. It says if you’re going to hold more resources than others, you have to pay something back in compensation, so that no one ever again is forced to live in poverty and no one is ever forced into the position where they must take orders to survive.
UBI is not the end of the market or the end of paid labor. It is simply a market where income doesn’t start at zero, and workers are freed from the threat of destitution. With UBI, workers enter the labor market as free people. Employers have to pay enough to make it worthwhile for workers to take those jobs. UBI will give us a high-wage economy that works for everyone.»
One view in this vicinity has been defended by philosopher Elizabeth Anderson[ix], who, nonetheless, does not believe that a basic income would necessarily be the best option. Now, if it was, she says, the best way to ground it would be as follows:
The best case for the UBI is as follows. Automation, and changes in the nature of employment, are bringing about the disappearance of stable jobs and the rise of a precariat class whose members are unable to support themselves with steady employment. UBI is needed to provide the security and basis for a decent life for a rising number of people in the world. BI should be universal to ensure its political stability and to avoid the costs of means testing and intrusive investigations of people’s lives.
Among other things, Anderson is well-known for her defense of so-called «relational egalitarianism«[x], the view that theorists of justice should focus a bit less on how resources are distributed and more on how we treat each other (the latter having obviously implications for the former). This is to say, what matters the most is not who gets what, but whether we treat each other as an equal or not – without distinctions based on social status or power asymmetries.
Before finishing this part of the article, let us look at another possible strategy to justify a basic income. Until now, the arguments we have seen have focused either i) on a compensation for an illegitimate appropriation of a common good, or ii) on the need to make sure that individuals enjoy a minimal independence, in that they ought not to be forced to choose between accepting orders or starve. But there is a third line of argument, which would stress iii) the alleged positive consequences of a basic income. This is Guy Standing’s third argument:
The third ethical reason for wanting a basic income is that it would tend to provide basic security, which is what we call a public good. We all want basic security in our lives, and basic security is a superior public good in that if everybody in our community has basic security, it increases the value of it for everybody. Basic security has been shown to increase tolerance, resilience, altruism and mental bandwidth (or mental health and IQ).
This is all very well, one might say. But, what happens with our Malibu surfer? Isn’t he objectionably free-riding on his fellow citizens? Isn’t it unfair that he can live a highly pleasant life while I have to break my back from 9 to 5?
In Steiner’s view, the answer is no: «[E]veryone – lazy, as well as industrious – is entitled to that compensation«. For remember that, according to him, a basic income is not just another subsidy, but the compensation that those who want to possess more than their fair share of the Earth’s natural resources have to pay to the rest of us – whether we are surfers or not.
Widerquist, in his reply, invites us to cast some doubt on the value judgments and the assumptions presupposed by the objection:
«The thing that most detracts people from UBI is the belief that prosperous people have the right and responsibility to tell less prosperous people what to do. We, the prosperous, want to think we are better than the less prosperous. We want to think our virtue—rather than a less-than-perfectly-fair system—is the reason people are less prosperous than we are. We like to think that we know what the less prosperous need to do to become prosperous—even though the vast majority of us have no idea what it is like to grow up poor and how different people’s circumstances can be.
Not only are these beliefs unfounded, they are not good for the middle class. Because we want to put the very poor in the position where they have to do what more prosperous people want, we put the vast majority of people in the position where they have to do what the wealthiest few want. Probably well more than 90% of people in every country have no choice but to take a job for a living. The vast majority of us—even some very prosperous people—are unfree to work for ourselves. And so, we must go to an employer—most of whom represent very wealthy corporations—get a job, and take orders all day. That is neither freedom nor fairness.
UBI will put the middle class in a much better bargaining position. In most countries, the middle class is not significantly better off than they were 40 years ago. Virtually, all the benefits of the last 40 years of economic growth have gone to the wealthiest 1%. UBI will help the other 99% command the better wages and the shorter working hours that they have earned.»
Another way to answer the free-riding objection involves calling into question its relevancy. Why should we care so much, the rejoinder goes, about something that is actually very unlikely? A rejoinder of this type has been endorsed by Guy Standing:
«The normal human condition is to want to work, to improve ourselves, to improve our living conditions, to improve the life prospects of our children and so on. I would feel sorry for somebody who would not work because he or she had a modest basic income. But of course this is not what happens or is likely to happen to more than a tiny number of people. We have found in our pilots that people with a basic income work more, not less, and are more productive, not less.[xi]»
Indeed, Standing believes that even if free riding was as likely as the objection assumes, the good consequences of a basic income would probably outweigh its potential defects or unfair aspects. As he puts it, a basic income «would encourage more of us to spend more time doing work that is not labour, such as caring for elderly frail relatives or children or doing community work. Most of us will go into old age wishing we had done more of that type of work and less of labour«.
Finally, one can accept the core of the objection – namely, that justice requires some degree of reciprocity – while denying that one’s contributions to society must be measured solely according to their market value. In Elizabeth Anderson’s words:
«Everyone ought to contribute to society. But not all positive contributions to society need be via paid employment on the market. Much of women’s work taking care of children and elder dependents is not paid, although it is socially necessary. Much nonprofit work makes a huge difference for others, but it is also not paid. Most people want to make a positive contribution and will do so in one way or another. Society should expand opportunities to make a contribution, but not insist that they survive a market test«.
What this view suggests is that Californian surfers needn’t be free-riding on us. Though their economic contribution to society may border on nothingness, this wouldn’t necessarily imply that they cannot contribute in other ways, nor that they are unable to provide us with valuable things. Suppose we discovered that no member of the Rolling Stones has ever paid a dollar in taxes since they became famous. Would that mean they haven’t contributed to society as much as they should? Probably. Would it also mean they haven’t contributed anything at all? That seems harder to stomach. For many people, listening to their songs, going to their concerts, or simply learning to play guitar by imitating Keith Richards or Roon Wood are in themselves valuable experiences that would not vanish of a sudden.
Are these arguments convincing? Do they answer adequately to the free-riding objection? Do they really succeed in justifying a basic income? That is something for the reader to decide.
[i] This objection was famously formulated by John Rawls in his article “The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good” (1988), Philosophy & Public Affairs 17(4): 257, n. 7. For an equally well-known response, see also Philippe van Parijs,“Why Surfers Should be Fed: The Liberal Case for an Unconditional Basic Income” (1991), Philosophy & Public Affairs 20(2): 101-131.
[iii] See, for instance, Steiner’s article “Left Libertarianism and the Ownership of Natural Resources” (2009), Public Reason 1(1): 1-8.
[v] For the Spanish tradition, see: https://www.marcialpons.es/libros/la-renta-basica/9788494769474/.
[vi] Let us remember that a similar argument was put forward by Matt Zwolinski in this article’s predecessor: https://www.revistalibertalia.com/single-post/2019/11/22/Voices-on-the-basic-income-I-Libertarianism-and-the-basic-income
[viii] See, for instance, https://www.amazon.com/Independence-Propertylessness-Basic-Income-Exploring/dp/1137274727.
[x] The locus classicus of this discussion is “What is the Point of Equality?” (1999), Ethics 109(2): 287-337.
[xi] These results are discussed in chapter 8 of the book mentioned in note iv.