Philippe Van Parijs advocates the provision of the maximum sustainable unconditional basic income. His defense rests on a political philosophy that he calls “real libertarianism.” I shall argue that Van Parijs’s real libertarianism cannot justify a UBI, but that a UBI may have some promise as a supplementary part of a larger social welfare package that is justified on other grounds.

A policy to enact and maximize a UBI, conceived as a means to real libertarianism, suffers from three defects. First, it favors distributing income over direct in-kind provision of, or vouchers for, particular goods, such as health care or education. The preference for income rather than in-kind transfers reflects the commitment of real libertarianism to promoting freedom, conceived as a generic good; the real libertarian urges that we provide people with the resources they need to achieve their aims, whatever those aims are. Thus it gives no special priority to freedom from disease over the freedom to idle: freedom is freedom. As an account of what we owe to one another, that seems misguided. What we owe are not the means to generic freedom but the social conditions of the particular, concrete freedoms that are instrumental to life in relations of equality with others. We owe each other the rights, institutions, social norms, public goods, and private resources that people need to avoid oppression (social exclusion, violence, exploitation, and so forth) and to exercise the capabilities necessary for functioning as equal citizens in a democratic state.1 From a social point of view, then, we should grant higher priority to securing certain goods, such as education, over others, such as surfing opportunities, even if some individuals prefer surfing to schooling. A maximal UBI risks overproviding optional freedoms at a substantial sacrifice–large enough to compromise social equality–to the particular freedoms we owe one another.

Second, in providing equal levels of income to all, the UBI does not adjust for the fact that, due to variations in internal traits, social roles, and other circumstances, some people are better able to convert income to freedoms than others.2 Disabled people typically require more resources to achieve equivalent freedoms–to move around, to get access to information, and so forth–than those who are not disabled. People who engage in unpaid dependent care work also require more resources to achieve equivalent freedoms to those who do not take care of dependents. (For example, to be free to participate in the realm of paid labor, they need access to alternative sources of care for their dependents while they work.) The UBI therefore best serves the interests of healthy adults who care for no one beside themselves. In taking income, rather than capabilities, to be the relevant space in which equality is to be pursued, the UBI assumes as the norm for human beings the perspective of the healthy, egoistic adult.

Third, in granting a basic income that is not conditioned on the willingness of the able to work, the UBI promotes freedom without responsibility, and thereby both offends and undermines the ideal of social obligation that undergirds the welfare state. A UBI would not only inspire a segment of the able population–largely young, healthy, unattached adults–to abjure work for a life of idle fun. It would also depress the willingness to produce and pay taxes of those who resent having to support them.

To deal with the first two problems, Van Parijs could argue that the UBI should be maximized only after the social provision of particularly important freedoms, such as public education and medical care, was secured, and that supplementary programs could give extra help to people with “special” needs. In the US context, at least, this contrast between universal and “special” programs has typically led to underfinanced, stigmatizing support for those regarded as “special” (for example, contrast Medicare with Medicaid). But this contrast is simply an artifact of an accounting system that measures equality in terms of income rather than particular capabilities. From the standpoint of the particular capabilities people need to avoid oppression and stand as equals in society–things such as literacy, mobility, and health– everyone has the same needs.

The social insurance programs that form the foundation of modern welfare states constitute the terms of a great social contract. Like any insurance, they purchase a right to provision from others conditional on a willingness to provide for others, if one is able. Like any insurance, its recipients have an obligation to mitigate damages in recognition of the burdens they place on others. The social-democratic contract recognizes that over the course of a whole life, we are all dependent on caretaking by others for long periods in childhood, sickness, and old age, and some are dependent for their whole lives. This intergenerational contract is sustained and legitimated only by a recognition on the part of the able of an obligation to work and provide for the dependent and those who care for them. It is hard to see how such a contract can be sustained by a system that advertises as one of its virtues that it would free the able to live in idleness.

Suppose, however, we detached the UBI from its real libertarian rationale. Could a UBI play a supplemental role in a welfare state founded on social insurance principles? Here we face a set of tradeoffs, with respect both to administrability and legitimacy. A UBI would not target expenditures to those who need them most, and would therefore both underprovide benefits and waste public expenditures on those who don’t need them. Given high resistance to additional tax burdens, especially in North America, the risk is that such waste comes at the cost of other programs that could do more for the disadvantaged, the disabled, dependents, and those who care for them.

On the other hand, a UBI saves on the substantial administrative costs of targeting expenditures to these groups, and avoids the temptation to add demeaning and intrusive conditions on receipt of public funds to ensure that the needy are “deserving.” A UBI would have the advantage of being universal, and therefore undercut resentment of needy recipients, but the disadvantage of being unconditional, thereby inspiring resentment of undeserving recipients. It is telling that the only current example of a UBI is based on the distribution of Alaskan royalties: Americans, at least, don’t resent unearned income, as long as it is attached to property ownership. This suggests that the legitimation problem in the United States could be solved by funding the UBI through revenues collected from the use of public property: the leasing of national forests and rangeland, oil and mining royalties, the periodic auction of temporary broadcasting licenses, and pollution taxes. Such a strategy would, however, ground the UBI on a principle of ownership rather than need, and also create public incentives to permit increased despoilment of public goods for the sake of private, if evenly distributed, gains. The main question is whether programs more carefully tailored to the needs of the disabled, the disadvantaged, dependents, and their caretakers–and to the particular freedoms we owe one another–would be more effective in delivering the promised goods, and win greater acceptance, than a UBI. I am not persuaded that the costs to the goals of social democracy would be worth the gains provided by a UBI, but I am open to empirical evidence to the contrary.



1 In defense of this thesis, see my “What is the Point of Equality?”Ethics 109 (1999): 287-337.

2 Amartya Sen has consistently made this point in opposition to egalitarian views that regard resources as the relevant space of equality. See, for example, Inequality Reexamined (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).