Malibu surfer and basic income

Philippe Van Parijs, one of the most ardent advocates of unconditional basic income, meets the American philosopher John Rawls in a symposium organized in Paris in 1987 for the French translation of his best-selling book the Théorie of Justice. He has been passionate for years for the work of Rawls. His intention is to take advantage of this meeting to defend the idea that the Theory of Justice justifies, more than the « guaranteed minimum income » of which it contains the proposal, an unconditional basic income as high as possible. However, to his surprise, Rawls is opposed to it : « Let’s take surfers from Malibu. If they spend their days surfing, it would not be fair to ask society to support themselves!« . Behind this controversy, a fundamental question is asked : for lack of reciprocity, the basic income is it moral?

Sometimes qualified with humor as a « surfer’s lawyer », Van Parijs never stops thereafter to think about this objection and to propose some answers. This article presents some of them.

Even if it seems obvious, it is important, as a preliminary remark, to specify that the surfer of Malibu that Rawls evokes is only an archetype, a metaphor, a theoretical and limited case, which makes it possible to test the case of people who benefiting from a basic income, decide not to look for a job. But in no way should it be interpreted as the fact that anyone who benefits from a basic income would behave in this way. The « surfer » has become over the years a figure of speech, a concept of political philosophy, which designates any person who, by choice, renounces all participation in society.

An attempt by John Rawls to disqualify unconditionality …

According to the most obvious interpretation of Rawls’s principle of difference [1], people without incomes, whether voluntary or not, are among the most disadvantaged and therefore legitimate to collect basic income. The amount of this income should be as large as it is sustainable, bearing in mind that high levels would likely cause some workers to leave their workshops and offices and spend more time at the beach.

In order to cope with this embarrassing involvement for the benefit of surfers, Rawls proposes to include leisure in the list of social and economic benefits [2], according to the formulation of the principle of difference.

More specifically, he proposes to grant those who choose full-time recreation a virtual income equivalent to the full-time minimum wage. Thus, Malibu’s full-time surfers will not be able to satisfy their lifestyle at the expense of the rest of society. If they want to receive a real salary, not just a virtual one, if they want to be fed and housed, they will have to work.

… to which Philippe Van Parijs finds retorts …

An initial response by Van Parijs is to try to justify an unconditional basic income without relying on Rawls’ principle of difference, but remaining faithful to the two basic intuitions of a Rawlsian liberal approach : equal concern for interests of each one (egalitarian dimension) and equal respect for the different conceptions of good life (liberal dimension), without perfectionist bias, that is to say, anti-liberal, in favor of a working life.

While building on the work of Rawls, Van Parijs defends the idea of ​​a « pure » egalitarian liberal approach: the society must respect, without prejudices, the conceptions of each one of what can be a « good life ».

Suggesting that work is a priority is anti-liberal. A written version of the 1990 conference, in which he developed this approach, was published under the title « Why surfers should be fed? « [3]. The argument that is developed forms the heart of Real freedom for all, certainly the most important work of this author.

Another answer, related to the previous one, is for Van Parijs to consider that the basic income can be justified outside the contractualist logic, based on the need to maximize a minimum of real freedoms necessary in order that each individual, besides the formal rights granted to him, has the greatest possibilities of choice. This approach was presented in a previous article (here).

… and which, paradoxically, provides arguments in his favor …

A third argument is developed by Van Parijs and his colleague Vanderborght [4]. Their idea is to show that the fact that Rawls has added leisure to the primary goods, contrary to his intention not to support an unconditional basic income, makes it actually easier to justify. Indeed, the answer provided by Rawls must be strongly nuanced as soon as it is fully taken into account that its principle of difference, which defines the fair distribution of socio-economic benefits, does not say that those who have the less must have as much as possible, but those who occupy the worst position should be able to expect to have, on average, as much as possible.

Paradoxically, while the inclusion of leisure among the socio-economic benefits ruins the chances of universal allocation in the first interpretation, it improves them in the second: « if leisure does not count for nothing, a device that allows more poorly placed to take more will benefit from a better evaluation than if we focus more strictly on income « .

Van Parijs and Vanderborght conclude that « It is impossible to categorically deny that a universal allowance can be justified on the basis of Rawls’ principles, just as it is impossible to state categorically that it can be justified. Between the various forms and combinations of income guarantee and employment subsidy, the choice will therefore crucially depend on the weighting attributed to the various ingredients of the index of socio-economic benefits, and the impact on each of them. they envisaged devices. [5] They thus leave open the possibility of justifying an unconditional basic income on the basis of Rawls’ theory, notably by reinterpreting its principle of difference.

… while allowing everyone, whatever their choices, to give them what they deserve.

A fourth answer is based on the idea that the fact that the surfer does not « deserve » his basic income is ethically comparable to the fact that the distribution of jobs, wealth, income and leisure time are distributed over ‘an arbitrary and largely based on luck. Both authors consider that this idea does not negate the importance of reciprocity. « But it must govern the distribution of contributions and benefits against the backdrop of equitably distributed basic endowments. »

« What the universal allowance does is not to redistribute out of solidarity those who work for those who can not, but to give everyone, whatever their choices, what is theirs » [6]. ].

This brief presentation of Van Parijs’ and his colleague Vanderborght’s arguments against the rejection by some political philosophers, notably John Rawls, of the possibility of a basic income that is unconditional and morally defensible does not, of course, exhaust the thought of these authors and only touches on it briefly. Whoever seeks to base the basic income philosophically will find in this very rich and fertile thought an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Robert Cauneau, a basic income activist, member of MFRB


[1] The constitutive principles of Rawls’s theory are to demand that the institutions of a just society distribute the socio-economic benefits in such a way that those who have the least have as much as possible (principle of difference), subject to the respect of a set of duly defined fundamental freedoms and the equality of opportunities given talents.

[2] Recall that Rawls considers that individuals are in search of five « essential goods », the distribution of which depends on the application of the principles of justice: (i) fundamental rights and freedoms (falling under the « principle of equal freedoms « ), (ii) freedom of orientation towards various social positions (function of » just equality of opportunity « ), (iii) powers attached to social functions, (iv) income and wealth and (v) social bases of respect of oneself.

[3] Available here:

[4] P. Van Parijs and Y. Vanderborght, Basic Income, Harvard University Press, 2017, p109: 113

[5] Van Parijs and Y. Vanderborght, L’allocation universelle, 2005, p74

[6] Van Parijs and Y. Vanderborght, L’allocation universelle, 2005, p76

Image: CC Kellyslater

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