Bowles and Gintis argue that egalitarians should endorse a widespread commitment to reciprocity. At the same time, they argue that the commitment to reciprocity ought itself to be qualified by a commitment to protect individuals from severe disadvantage for which they are not responsible (“basic needs generosity”). Their argument is thus not for mere reciprocity, but more specifically for a form of egalitarian reciprocity.

I think that they are broadly right. The concern for reciprocity is a perfectly legitimate and important moral concern, one which egalitarians should embrace rather than concede to the right. Historically speaking, it is certainly not a value which has been monopolized by the right. A commitment to reciprocity arguably underpinned much of Marx’s ire at capitalist exploitation and is implicit in his conception of a just post-capitalist society in which, “[w]ith labour emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labour ceases to be a class “attribute.”1 In the ethical socialist tradition associated with writers like Leonard Hobhouse and R. H. Tawney, we see this same reciprocity-based opposition to “functionless property”: to income rights detached from productive social service.2 While Bowles and Gintis may be breaking new ground in explaining why reciprocity matters, their timely insistence that it does matter reiterates an insight that was well-understood by past generations of egalitarian thinkers and political activists.

Even if one accepts the general idea of egalitarian reciprocity, however, much remains to be clarified. What I want to do here is pose three basic questions which seem to lie at the heart of this task of clarification. The questions also point to potential lines of objection which the proponent of egalitarian reciprocity must respond to if the general idea is to be shaped into a plausible conception of distributive justice, and harnessed in the service of a genuinely progressive political project. I invite Bowles and Gintis to respond to these questions.

1. The question of background conditions. The individual’s putative obligation to make a productive contribution to the community will be enforced against some background distribution of assets and opportunities. Is it fair to say that the individual has such an obligation, and to enforce it, regardless of what these background conditions look like? From the standpoint of egalitarian reciprocity, the answer must surely be no. To assert otherwise is to assert that significantly disadvantaged individuals in a highly inegalitarian society may have an enforceable moral obligation to cooperate in their own exploitation. Some threshold distributional conditions must be satisfied, therefore, before we may say that citizens in general have such obligations. The question then becomes: What are these threshold conditions? I pose this as a philosophical question, but its political pertinence should be clear. If the concern for reciprocity becomes disconnected politically from the struggle to attain these threshold conditions, it can all too easily provide support for purely punitive social policy. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act arguably represents an example of this.

In view of such dangers, some egalitarians might wonder if they are not best advised to eschew talk of reciprocity altogether. However, this is to miss the point that political support for establishing a truly decent social minimum is most likely to be constructed if citizens see the minimum not as an unconditional handout, but as one side of a social contract which has, on its other side, an individual obligation to work. It is important, though, to insist that this is a two-sidedcontract: that the community must do its bit, by securing certain threshold conditions of opportunity, as a precondition of requiring individual citizens to do their bit in return.

2. The question of when work counts as contributive. Egalitarian reciprocity holds that individual income entitlements should be linked to productive contribution. But what counts as a productive contribution? Back in 1911, Leonard Hobhouse could quite comfortably assert that paying single mothers to stay at home and raise their children was fully consistent with the reciprocity-based principle that income payment should follow productive service.3 But in the USA of the early 1990s, single mothers doing precisely this had somehow become the model of unproductive, non-reciprocating parasitism. Clearly, our understanding of what counts as contributive has changed somewhat over the years. How, at any given time, can we make a non-arbitrary distinction between forms of work that count as productive contributions from the standpoint of the reciprocity principle, and forms of work which do not count as contributive in this way? (A further question, which I set aside here, is whether contribution need take the form of work at all, as opposed, say, to the provision of capital for productive purposes.)

3. The question of subsistence reciprocity. Let us stipulate that there is some level of income, or resources in-kind, that defines a bare subsistence standard of living. To what extent, if at all, should receipt of this subsistence income be linked to productive contribution? Assuming that all the relevant threshold conditions referred to above are satisfied, should a subsistence income fall within the scope of the reciprocity principle?

Bowles and Gintis do not take a clear position on this question. On the one hand, we are told that the problem with conventional public assistance (“welfare”) is that it is seen as offering something for nothing. The implication is that, to overcome this perception, access to a subsistence income should be made conditional on willingness to work. At the end of their article, however, Bowles and Gintis declare that individuals in fact have “a virtually unconditional willingness to share with others to assure them of some minimal standard”; they speak of “a guarantee of an acceptable minimal living standard consistent with the widely documented motives of basic needs generosity.” The implication is that provision of a subsistence income falls outside the scope of the reciprocity principle.

Another view, which seems broadly consistent with the poll data and experimental evidence marshalled by Bowles and Gintis, is that people are willing to share unconditionally with those who cannot help themselves, but at the same time insist on reciprocity, even in regard to provision of a subsistence income, in the case of those whom they regard as capable of doing something towards meeting their basic needs by themselves. This suggests a policy of providing an unconditional minimum income to those with severe productive handicaps, while insisting on reciprocity for the “able-bodied.” Do Bowles and Gintis accept the justice of such a distinction? Do they accept that a subsistence income should be conditional on willingness to work for the able-bodied?

The reciprocity principle would seem to call for such a condition: Why give people who are perfectly capable of working, and who have adequate employment opportunities, a free-ride? On the other hand, there are some awkward questions about such a policy which egalitarians cannot ignore: How can we ensure that only genuine free-riders are denied a minimum income? How can we deny a subsistence income to those who are unwilling to meet the claims of reciprocity while also adequately protecting the interests of innocent third parties (such as the children of non-compliant welfare recipients)?

These questions reveal how difficult it is going to be in practice to operationalize egalitarian reciprocity without significantly compromising either egalitarian or reciprocity-based norms. Their ambivalence on the issue of subsistence reciprocity indicates that Bowles and Gintis are still wrestling with the question of how to reconcile these two concerns.


1 Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France,” in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, David McLellan, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 544. I discuss Marx’s apparent reciprocity ethic in more detail in “Needs, Labour, and Marx’s Conception of Justice,” Political Studies 44, no. 1 (1996): 88-101.

2 See Leonard Hobhouse and James Meadowcroft, eds., Liberalism and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993 [1911]), especially pp. 67-102, and R. H. Tawney, The Acquisitive Society (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1948 [1920], especially pp. 52-83.

3 According to Hobhouse (Liberalism, p. 87), “if we take in earnest all that we say of the rights and duties of motherhood, we shall recognise that the mother of young children is doing better service to the community and one more worthy of pecuniary remuneration when she stays at home and minds her children than when she goes out charing and leaves them to the chances of the street or to the perfunctory care of a neighbour.”