What’s wrong with a free lunch?
Nothing’s wrong according to Belgian economics professor Philippe Van Parijs in his 2001 book with the same title. Van Parijs or VP is one of the leading proponents of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) or Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). Never heard of it? Don’t be ashamed; I haven’t till recently. The UBI is an income a government pays, at a uniform amount and in regular intervals, to each adult permanent resident, regardless of his/her economic status and whether s/he is willing to work or not (Van Parijs 2001:5). It is guaranteed because the government is required to pay each permanent resident this amount. It is basic because the amount is “something on which a person can safely count, a material foundation on which a life can firmly rest” (Van Parijs 2001:5-6). As defined, it can either fall short or exceed the amount needed to fulfill the “basic needs”. Why is a UBI desirable? VP lists the following main points below.
It is just. Social justice is equivalent to real freedom for all. Freedom is normally equated with enforceable property rights and personal liberties. What should be added to this is the means or resources to use these personal liberties. VP calls this the distribution of opportunity, which should be designed in such a way that those with the least opportunities be given real opportunities. Providing a UBI is one way.
It promotes real jobs and sustainable economic growth. VP notes that Europe and
It is gender sensitive. Women have taken a disproportionate amount of the household “caring” functions. They have also been discriminated in the workplace in terms of pay and career advancement. A UBI gives them more financial independence to take care of the household and family, or from an abusive husband and more bargaining power from a discriminatory company.
It is environment-friendly. Environmentalists, according to VP, face an obstinate foe in “productivism, the obsessive pursuit of economic growth” (Van Parijs 2001:20-21), which generates pollution, consumerism, and uses up scarce natural resources. Accelerated economic growth is justified on the grounds of reducing unemployment. VP notes that working class organizations have bought into this argument. The UBI addresses unemployment without promoting “productivism” and undermines this broad argument. It forces business and industry to rethink their business programs. For environmentalists, the UBI provides them with the volunteer manpower who can now afford to work on environmental programs.
What are the objections?
It costs too much. Not really if a wide range of existing welfare benefits are abolished, tax collection becomes more efficient, tax exemptions minimized, economic rents are collected (from natural resource exploitation and use of government land), and the government cuts back on pork barrel expenses. Note that the UBI does not necessarily need to meet the individual’s “basic needs”. That is the goal, but it isn’t required.
It distorts labor supply. This is a non-issue according to VP. The goal should be sustainable economic growth not an “overworked, hyperactive society” (Van Parijs 2001:23). A productive adult does not necessarily have to be earning a living. They could be taking care of their children, elderly relatives, or volunteering. All these improve human capital and reduce costs on peace and order, prisons (better socialized youth), hospitalization (healthier families and elderly relatives), and other social service expenses that could be handled by less-stressed families.
It is unethical and immoral to get something without working for it. This is the reciprocity issue and is the basis for
Lewis et.al (2005:2) also noted that “tough love” policies, e.g. workfare, while supposedly providing more incentive to work, have, in the neo-liberal era, encouraged employers to pay less than living wages. Further, they advise value-neutral economists to note that many Americans have made the value judgment that workers should earn living wages and employers not paying living wages are morally reprehensible. Hence, value-neutral economists should take this value judgment into account in their assessments and policy recommendations, e.g. how to achieve living wages. This view has been supported by recent philosophical literature, while psychological research and evolutionary game theory lend support to altruistic motives and action, as well as cooperative behavior, and refutes the fear that individuals will free ride (not work) with a UBI (Lewis et.al 2005:2-3).
Lastly, the reciprocity issue is fallacious because everyone who became successful did so because of a combination of one or the other of the following: family line, ties, and resources, government support (tax breaks, public education, incentives, etc.), help from friends or relatives, pure luck, utilization of natural resources or public land/resources. No one really is self-made. Hence, the UBI ensures that everyone gets a fair chance.
The idea and concept of the UBI is not new or radical. In the
The UBI is feasible in the G8 countries and there are many versions of this.
What can be more radical than the UBI? Why haven’t the progressives in the
Clark, Charles M.A.
2002 The Basic Income Guarantee: Ensuring Progress and Prosperity in the 21st Century. The Lifey Press,
2004 Basic Income, Unemployment, and Compensatory Justice. Kluwer Academic Publishers,
Van Parijs, Philippe
2001 t’s Wrong with a Free Lunch? Beacon Press,
Widerquist, Karl; Michael Anthony Lewis, and Steven Pressman
2005 The Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee. Ashgate Publishing Ltd.,
Basic Income Earth Network: http://www.etes.ucl.ac.be/BIEN/Index.html
Global Income: http://www.globalincome.org/LinksEnglish.html
Livable Income for Everyone: http://www.livableincome.org/links.htm