Saturday, July 12, 2014

Parasitic Surfers and the Unconditional Basic Income: A Debate



I want to write a few posts about the basic income over the next couple of months. This is part of an ongoing interest I have in the future of work and solutions to the problem of technological unemployment. I’ll start by looking at a debate between Philippe van Parijs and Elizabeth Anderson about the justice of an unconditional basic income (UBI). Parijs believes that a UBI is a requirement of justice; Anderson is less sure. I want to see what they have to say for themselves. I’m basing this on their contributions to the book Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research, which is a surprisingly expensive book about the basic income…

Anyway, I’ll spend most of this post setting out van Parijs’s thoughts on the UBI. I’ll only introduce Anderson’s criticisms toward the end.


1. Parasites, the Moralisation of Work and the Demands of Justice
Parijs famously defended the right to a UBI in an article entitled “Why Surfers Should be Fed”. The title was inspired by something that happened in Hawaii in the early 1970s. Concerned about the prospect of welfare hippies flocking to the island in order to kick back, surf and take advantage of their reasonably generous social welfare provisions, the Hawaiian state legislature instituted a one-year residency requirement for welfare entitlements. The hope was that this would dissuade the idle, leisure-seeking surfers from draining the resources of the state. When enacting the measure, one senator was heard to comment “There will be no parasites in paradise”.

The reaction of the Hawaiian legislatures evinces an attitude common among citizens of the industrious world. Work is moralised (deemed virtuous) and idleness is demonised. Thus, the “idle” surfers are viewed as little more than parasites living off the hard-earned taxes of the virtuous workers. This attitude is common among political philosophers too. Rawls, for example, seemed to approve of something like the Hawaiian measure when he said that “those who surf off Mailbu…would not be entitled to public funds” (Rawls, 1988). The view espoused here by Rawls seems to be that justice does not demand that any welfare payments be made to those who opt for leisure over work.

Parijs has a different view. Far from it being the case that surfers are mere parasites, it is actually the case that justice — or at least a particular but plausible conception of justice — demands that they be provided for. The conception of justice in question is one that appeals to the good of real freedom:

Real Freedom: The ability of people to pursue their own conception of the good life.

It’s difficult to tell from the short extract I read, but it seems that Parijs looks on this as a fundamental good, i.e. one that should be the organising goal of any society. With that value in mind, Parijs then appeals to a fairly typical (Rawlsian) view that justice demands that fundamental social goods, like the good of real freedom, be maximinned. That is to say:

Real-Freedom Principle of Justice: We ought to maximise the minimum provision of real freedom in society, i.e. maximise the provision of real freedom to those who are worst off.

It is this principle of justice that provides Parijs with an argument for the UBI. For once this principle is in place, all he needs to do is argue that the UBI is an efficient and effective means by which to maximise the minimum provision of real freedom. Like this:


  • (1) Justice demands that we maximise the minimum provision of real freedom in society.
  • (2) An unconditional basic income is an efficient and effective way to maximin the provision of real freedom.
  • (3) Therefore, the demands of justice are satisfied by the existence of an unconditional basic income.


Premise (2) is of course the key here, but the argument in favour of it is pretty straightforward. The belief is that in providing the highest possible unconditional income grant to everyone (i.e. a grant at or above subsistence level), we free them from being beholden to others for their existence and thereby increase their ability to pursue their conception of the good life. We don’t guarantee that they will get there, but we improve their chances. Importantly, this includes freeing them up from involuntary employment, i.e. employment that they are forced into by basic necessities of living and that may not be concordant with their conception of the good life.

The implication of this is that you may have those who pursue a life of idleness or (shudder to think) non-competitive surfing. But so be it.


2. Who is parasitic upon whom?
There are several objections to this line of argument, some of which will be raised by Anderson (below). Parijs himself (in the extract I read) looks at two, one of which has to do with the niggling feeling that the idle surfers are unfairly free-riding on the hard work of others; the other of which has to do with the type of society in which the UBI is feasible. Both of these issues (particularly the latter) are more complex than I can possibly do justice to in this post. I’ll merely give a sketch of some of the important ideas.

To introduce his main response, Parijs uses the Crazy-Lazy thought experiment:

Crazy-Lazy Thought Experiment: “Consider Crazy and Lazy, two identically talented but rather differently disposed characters. Crazy is keen to earn a high income and works a lot for that purpose. Lazy is far less excited by the prospect of a high income and has decided to take it easy. With the Basic Income at the highest feasible level [as demanded by the maximin principle]…Crazy is rather miserable because her net income falls far short of the income she would like to have. Lazy however is blissful. When added to the small income he earns, the grant he receives is more than sufficient to cover what he regards as his material needs.” 
(van Parijs, 2013, p 18)

The purpose of the thought experiment is to pump our intuitions in such a way that they start to sympathise with Crazy. Crazy’s conception of the good life consists in earning as a high an income as possible and she is prevented from doing this by Lazy’s idleness. Is that not unfair, particularly given that it will be some kind of tax on Crazy’s income that finances Lazy’s lifestyle?

Parijs argues that there are several things wrong with this thought experiment. For starters, he thinks it conflates different conceptions of what the fundamental social good is. If the fundamental good were welfare or well-being, then there might be something to it: Crazy is less happy than she would be under some alternative distribution of incomes and Lazy may be just as happy with less. But well-being is not the fundamental good with which Parijs is working. He is working with real freedom, which is the ability to pursue one’s conception of the good life. Furthermore, he adds that the commitment to real freedom includes a commitment to the view that people must take responsibility for their choices in life. Crazy cannot demand more income, however happy that may make her, when that would compromise the real freedom of others.

But these are just preliminary points. The larger point has to do with how we understand the relationships between Crazy and Lazy in the first place. We think of Lazy as a feckless free-rider, but that isn’t necessarily right. Using some more thought experiments, Parijs argues that people need external resources (i.e. resources over and above innate talents) in order to pursue their conception of the good life. For instance, people like Crazy need access to capital (land, technology) and jobs in order to earn higher incomes. In a just society, everyone would probably get an equal, per capita share of those external resources, which they could then trade with others according to their desires in life. So, for example, Crazy and Lazy would get an equal tradable right to land. Crazy would like more land in order to earn more money; and Lazy could do without his share since he has no desire to earn a higher income. Lazy could then sell his right to Crazy, earning a certain fee for his troubles.

Of course, such a world is a fiction. In reality, for a variety of historical and unjust reasons, people do not have an equal tradable right to external resources. This is clearly true of rights to capital (like land and technology), and Parijs argues that it is also true of jobs. He has a technical explanation of why that I won’t get into (hint: it has to do with the existence of non-Walrasian labour markets). The result is that many people earn excessive rents (from capital or from work) from which others are excluded. Taxing and redistributing those rents in the form of a basic income is a way to correct for those injustices and to maximin real freedom.

Two comments about this line of reasoning are in order. First, I would add that the kinds of inequalities that block equal access to external resources are likely to increase in the future. This is the central thesis in Piketty’s Capital, which uses extensive historical evidence to demonstrate that the rate of return from capital is such that the rich tend to get richer over the course of history. Furthermore, this trend is likely to be increased in the future by technological unemployment, as capital takes an ever greater share of income from labour. Second, in developing this line of reasoning Parijs pinpoints the kinds of societies in which a basic income is likely to be feasible. They will be, according to him, reasonably affluent societies in which there are people earning high rents. Thus, modern, wealthy, industrialised and technologised societies are the most plausible places in which to pursue the basic income agenda.

The upshot of all this should be a reorientation of our perspective on the likes of Crazy and Lazy. Far from it being the case that Lazy free-rides on the hard work of Crazy, it is actually Crazy who is likely to be taking an unfair share of external resources from Lazy. As Parijs puts it:

“..those who take an unfair share of society’s resources are not those who opt for such a low-production, low-consumption lifestyle. They are people like myself and most of my readers who, thanks to the attractive job they were given, appropriate a huge employment rent.”
(van Parijs, 2013, p. 21

So in a world in which a UBI grants them the maximum feasible level of income, “idle” surfers of this world will simply be living off their share, or possibly less than their share, of rents that would otherwise be monopolised by wealthy capitalists and job-holders.


3. Anderson’s Critique
So much for Parijs’s defence of the UBI and its tolerance of those with low-production and low-consumption lifestyles. What about Anderson’s critique? I’ll be much briefer here since Anderson’s main criticisms are effectively a set of bullet points. Nevertheless, they raise important issues that a defender of the UBI should be willing to address. There are three such criticisms.

The first criticism has to do with Parijs’s concept of real freedom and the foundational role it plays in his argument. As you may have noticed, this concept of real freedom is completely generic. It does not say that certain conceptions of the good life ought to be prioritised over others, or that certain specific types of freedom ought to be prioritised over others. The person who wants to spend their life curing sick children in a poor country finds that their choices are worth just as much as those of the idle surfer. Anderson, for one, finds this to be unwelcome. As she sees it, there are certain kinds of freedoms we should care about more. Specifically, she thinks we should focus on the kinds of freedom (and the means to those freedoms) that help us to avoid things like social exclusion, exploitation, violence, and that allow us to function as equal citizens in a democratic state. In other words, Anderson has a highly instrumental understanding of the value of freedom: freedom is not valuable simply in and of itself; it is valuable as a means toward securing a more equitable and democratic society. It could be that the conflict of values between herself and Parijs is too great on this score.

The second criticism has to do with Parijs’s assumption that income translates readily into freedom. Remember, for Parijs the UBI is justifiable because it helps to maximin people’s capacity to pursue their conception of the good life. This means he must be assuming that people can leverage the income they receive into that pursuit. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Anderson highlights the fact that the elderly, the disabled and those with care-giving duties, are often unable to translate a share of income into greater freedom. They need other things (e.g. new technologies, or disproportionate shares of income) to achieve the kinds of freedoms available to single, able-bodied adults. Her fear is that prioritising a UBI over other types of welfare many simply benefit the single able-bodied adults at the expense of those others. I think there are legitimate concerns here, though I would note that the link between income and freedom is not completely implausible, even for the individuals Anderson identifies, and it isn’t necessarily the case that a UBI would replace all other forms of social welfare. Specific payments to those with disabilities or with care-giving duties could continue, though the political and practical feasibility of this would need to be explored.

Finally, Anderson argues that a UBI promotes freedom without responsibility. In her view, social welfare programmes are best understood as part of social contract in which benefits (freedoms) and burdens (responsibilities) are shared among the population. The guiding assumption in most social insurance programmes is that you get money out of them when you fall on hard times, provided you are willing to pay into them at other times. Thus, for Anderson, working for a living, and paying into social insurance programmes is both a virtue and a duty. We should be willing to pay our fair share whenever we are able to do so. Her fear is that a UBI, particularly given its unconditional nature, would undermine this sense of social duty. Again, I think this is a legitimate concern, but possibly overstated. It’s not clear to me that a UBI would actually discourage people from working and fulfilling social duties. Such evidence as exists suggests that it doesn’t sap people of the motivation to work or do good. Furthermore, there is room for optimism: by freeing people from involuntary work, a UBI could actually help them to engage in more socially-oriented activities. This could actually reinforce a sense of social duty. Either way, it is an empirical question that has yet to be fully determined. We should, I think, be willing to experiment with social policies of this sort in order to learn more.


4. Conclusion
So that’s an overview of the arguments of Parijs and Anderson. To briefly summarise: Parijs favours the UBI on the basis that it would help to maximin the level of real freedom in society. In defending this, he argues that people should be freed from involuntary work and that we shouldn’t look on those with low-production, low-consumption lifestyles as parasites living off the hard-work of others. Opposing this, Anderson worries that Parijs’s concept of real freedom is too generic; that his assumption that income translates into freedom is too simplistic; and that his acknowledgement of social duties and responsibilities is too absent.

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