The real freedom for all : a justification for the unconditionality of basic income

A previous article (here) was intended to show how the thought of the political philosopher John Rawls provides a very promising theoretical foundation for basic income. However, Rawls was not in favor of paying an unconditional allowance to people who were able to find a job. Indeed, his philosophy is based on the theory of the social contract, which itself obeys a logic of reciprocity, each contributing and receiving in return a share of the benefits (rights and duties).

To justify the basic income, it is therefore necessary, either to develop an alternative philosophy to that of the contract, or to recognize that this contract is no longer able to be respected.

This article is the first in a series that will present how some thinkers have sought to answer this objection. He describes how Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght [1] attempt to demonstrate that the real freedom approach for all provides an answer to the  infringment that the basic income would represent to the spirit of the social contract, such as that it is defined in the logic of contractualism.

The conception of justice as a real freedom for all tries to provide a liberal-egalitarian justification of the universal allowance for the Rawls’ position. « Its starting point is the simple idea that justice is a question of the distribution of the real freedom to do what we might want to do with our lives. Indeed, it is not only a matter of law, but also of effective access to goods and opportunities « [2].
These two authors start from the observation that we live in pluralistic societies, therefore societies that are characterized by a great diversity of conceptions of the good. We all have our own conception of what a successful life is, but we also live in capitalist consumer societies, that is, societies in which it is absolutely impossible to pursue one’s conception of a good life without a minimum of material security, without a minimum of material bases.

It is therefore essential to reflect on the best way to distribute equitably the material bases of individual freedom. It is therefore a question of seeking an ethic of reciprocity, but on a material basis that is equitable in the sense of John Rawls’ « difference principle » [3].

Their conception of justice must be formulated in a radical version of equalization, not of results, but of possibilities, that is, of real freedom. Indeed, while the idea of basic income may seem to be a way to equalize income, in reality it makes perfect sense in terms of equalizing opportunities. It’s about giving those with the fewest opportunities in life the greatest opportunity for choice.

How to equalize access to the material bases necessary for the exercise of this freedom?

A return to the fundamentals of the basic income debate, even at the end of the 18th century, is necessary. When the idea is formulated for the first time, in particular by Thomas Paine, by others later also in the nineteenth century in the socialist tradition, advocates of basic income insist much on the idea that it is a kind of compensation for the private appropriation of natural resources, for the fact that these natural resources, which nevertheless constitute the common good of humanity, are appropriated by a certain number of individuals or social groups who derive considerable benefit from them. It was therefore not a question of redistributing, but of distributing an equal share of these common goods to all, without conditions.

The observation of the concrete functioning of our economies today clearly shows that it is not only natural resources, land for example, which are given to us and some of which benefit more than others. Indeed, our economies produce multiple other donations that are incorporated in a very uneven way in our revenues.

The idea is that the bulk of our income does not come from our personal efforts, from our individual merit, but from the complex interplay of different and more or less favorable circumstances that are beyond our control, and that they allow more to some than others to benefit from this common good, from this common heritage of technology, know-how, all that has been accumulated in previous generations.

A number of elements that strongly affect our possibilities for earnings over the lifetime of life are pure coincidence: the generation in which we are born, the place where we are born, the family, the education we will receive, the people we are going to meet, the mother tongue that we are going to speak, the networks in which we will be able to insert ourselves. And, since all this is received by chance, some receive a larger share than the others, which greatly influences their level of income.

 The basic income then makes it possible to give to each one part of this inheritance, unconditionally, to each one an equal share, a sort of right to draw on the common inheritance, which must be as high as possible. It thus makes it possible to recognize the fundamentally social nature of production. The central idea is that the production of wealth today is not first and foremost a question of individual merit, but a question of networking, a social question.

This idea underlies the rationale for unconditional basic income by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon : 
« When we compare the average incomes of rich countries with those of poor countries, we find enormous differences that are surely not simply due to differences in motivation for money … These differences are not simply a question of tonnes of coal or iron, but mostly of social capital that take mainly the form of accumulated knowledge (eg technology, and especially organizational and governmental skills). The same remark can be made about income differences within a given society. « 
Thus, the basic income does not allow to redistribute by solidarity those who work to those who can not, the most productive, the most talented, the most deserving to the undeserving, the poor, the most disadvantaged, but to provide everyone, whatever his choices, with what he deserves. I
In this sense, it is much more than an instrument to fight against poverty. It is an instrument of freedom, of emancipation, which provides the material basis for real freedom, and which tries to maximize this real freedom for those who have the least. It is an instrument to correct the inequitable distribution of donations that are generated by our economies. It is not an extension of charity, but of justice.

An approach that meets the « capabilities » of Amartya Sen

It is interesting to note that the real freedom for all approach is quite similar to that of Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner in economics, who considers that the granting of formal rights is wholly insufficient to ensure social justice. He criticizes Rawls’s theory by pointing out its inadequacy, since the equality of primitive social goods, as defined in the Theory of Justice, is not enough to guarantee that individuals enjoy the same effective freedom, and that in certain situations, the same quantity of these goods would not allow two different persons to perform the same acts. In this sense, it advocates taking into account the « capabilities », that is to say the possibility for individuals to make choices among the goods they deem estimable and actually achieve them.

In any case, to the extent that real freedom for all can be exercised only through a just distribution of the material bases of individual freedom, it is clear that this approach is the demonstration that the concepts of freedom and of equality, not only are not antinomic, but are instead quite complementary. This is the very foundation of the liberal-egalitarian theories of justice.

Robert Cauneau, basic income activist, member of MFRB


[1] P. Van Parijs and Y. Vanderborght, Basic Income, Harvard University Press, 2017

[2] P. Van Parijs and Y. Vanderborght, L’allocation universelle, 2005

[3] This principle, expressed in the « Theory of Justice », 1971, states that economic and social inequalities are only acceptable if they provide the greatest benefit to the most disadvantaged members of society.

Image: CC Pixabay

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