John Rawls and basic income

John Rawls’s Theory of Justice : A Promising Theoretical Framework for Basic Income ?

One way to try to answer the question of philosophical justifications for basic income is to ask whether it is « just » and « moral« . This questioning naturally ties in with the wider question of « what is a just society? » It therefore refers directly to the theories of justice, including that developed by the American philosopher John Rawls, whose masterpiece, Theory of Justice [1], seems to be a very promising theoretical framework for basic income. Yet Rawls was opposed to it.

This article aims  to present the elements of this dilemna.

As was developed in a previous article (here), the case for an institution such as the Basic Income, which will be a major reform, can be based either on principles (deontological approach) or on its purposes (teleological approach) or its consequences (consequentialist approach). Rawls’ thinking is clearly in the principles approach.

John Rawls’s Theory of Justice is a « liberal-egalitarian » theory …

Since its publication in 1971, John Rawls’ Theory of Justice has undeniably been the main source of inspiration for reflections on social justice. Wanting to synthesize in a few lines such a complex and profound work is undoubtedly a challenge. This article will therefore be limited to the essential, namely the presentation of the principles of justice that emerge :

« 1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. »

2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both : (a) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and (b) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle (the difference principle) [2] « 

Rawls wished that these principles apply in « lexical order », that is to say that they are ordered by an order of priority. This means that the principle of freedom (1) takes precedence over the principle of equality of opportunity (2.a.) which itself takes precedence over the principle of difference (2.b).

The statement and the order of these two principles make it clear that this is a liberal political theory. Indeed, the first principle, which is a priority, is to preserve individual independence and to guarantee all freedoms for this purpose. Respecting the liberal tradition, it imposes no conception of the « good life », that is to say of a happy, accomplished, successful life, and emphasizes the right of everyone to develop his own good design.

But this liberalism, unlike that of the founders, gives an important place to the idea of ​​equality by emphasizing that equality of rights is not sufficient, and that it is necessary, as far as make it possible, for every citizen to have more resources to build his life.

Indeed, the principle of difference asserts that no one has the right to retain for himself all the advantages he derives from the favorable and morally arbitrary circumstances in which he finds himself, and that inequalities are only legitimate if all people take advantage of the extra wealth they make possible.

Thus, concerned about the conflict between equality and freedom, a recurring problem in modern societies, Rawls suggests that these two trends, equally legitimate in his view, are complementary rather than contradictory. For this reason, his theory that combines freedom and equality in a coherent theory of social justice can be described as « liberal-egalitarian ».

… which constitutes a very promising theoretical framework for the basic income …

The theoretical framework proposed by Rawls seems very promising for the justification of an unconditional basic income [3].

Indeed, on the one hand, (i) the principle of difference does not only require that everyone be guaranteed a minimum level of consumption. In addition to income, he mentions wealth. An unconditional basic income is equivalent to an endowment paid throughout life.

He also mentions (ii) the powers and prerogatives. However, the unconditional nature of basic income gives power to the weakest in the context of employment, as well as that of their families.

Another point, (iii) Rawls argues that a just society is not only defined by a fair distribution of opportunities and wealth, but also by an equitable distribution of self-respect.

Its concern to ensure the « social bases of self-respect », presented as the basis for genuine recognition of each, should favor a way of guaranteeing a basic income that facilitates access to income-generating activities. It should both avoid falling into the trap of unemployment and suffer the stigma and humiliation associated with targeting the needy.

Finally, (iv) both in the Theory of Justice and in a more recent article, in order to show how its principles of justice can establish the distributive function of the institutions of a just society, Rawls proposes the establishment of a guaranteed minimum social income, in the form of a negative income tax, a concept similar to that of unconditional basic income.

… to which, however, the philosopher was opposed.

However, insofar as his philosophy is based on the theory of the social contract (the contractualism of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant), which itself obeys a logic of reciprocity, each contributing and receiving in return a share of the profits, Rawls was opposed to the idea of ​​an unconditional endowment. This opposition was expressed in a very explicit way, especially through this famous statement: « Those who surf all day in Malibu should find a way to provide for their needs and could not benefit from public funds. »

Thus, if one wants to continue a search for philosophical justifications to the basic income inspired by the thought of Rawls, it will be necessary « to develop an alternative philosophy to that of the contract, or to take it that this contract is no longer in able to be respected « [4].

Future articles will attempt to meet this goal.

Robert Cauneau, activist for a basic income, member of MFRB


[1] John Rawls, Theory of Justice (trans., Paris, The Threshold, 1989); Rawls later gave two other versions of his theory that attempt to answer certain objections: Political liberalism (tr., Paris, PUF, 1995); Justice as equity (tr.Fr., Paris, La Découverte, 2006).

[2] John Rawls, Justice as Equity, Reformulation (Justice as fairness A restatement), Bertrand Guillarme (trans.) Paris, La Découverte, 2008, p. 69-70.

[3] P. Van Parijs and Y. Vanderborght, Basic Income, Harvard University Press, 2017, pp. 109-113

[4] F. Augagneur, Is Universal Income Fair? Revised and expanded edition of an article published in the journal Projet in February 2017, published in  la Revue d’éthique et de théologie morale, 295, September 2017, pp. 57-68

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