Friday, December 20, 2013

Pettit on Republicanism and the Basic Income



As an addendum to my recent series on libertarianism and the basic income, I thought I would look at another political philosophy and the case it makes for the same proposal. The philosophy in question is civic republicanism, which has its roots in antiquity, but has most recently been defended by the philosopher Philip Pettit. Republicanism is a distinct branch of liberalism. Like mainstream forms of liberalism, it is concerned with individual freedom; unlike mainstream forms of liberalism, it offers a conception of what it means for an individual to be free in terms of structural relationships of power.

In his article, “A Republican Right to Basic Income”, Pettit argues that civic republicanism can provide a compelling argument for a universal basic income (UBI). Since I never know who might be reading these posts, or whether they’ve read previous posts, I feel it incumbent upon me to review what is meant by the UBI. In brief, it is a proposal to reform the way in which welfare is paid, such that everyone, regardless of means and willingness to work, is entitled to the same basic income.

At the outset of his article, Pettit suggests that any successful case for the UBI will have to satisfy two desiderata:

Adequacy: It will have to argue for a basic income level that is adequate, in some appropriately defined sense of adequacy (e.g. above poverty level).
Independence or Unconditionality: It will have to argue for a basic income that is not dependent on the satisfaction of other conditions, e.g. willingness to work or lack of other income. (Pettit calls this the “independence” desideratum; I’m calling it the “unconditionality” desideratum, as that strikes me as being more descriptive)

His main thesis is that a republican argument for the UBI better satisfies these desiderata than do utilitarian or more traditional liberal arguments for the UBI.

To understand this argument, I’m going to break this post down into three sections. In the first, I’ll look at Pettit’s critique of the utilitarian and liberal arguments for the UBI. In the second, I’ll talk about the difference between freedom as non-interference and freedom as non-domination, the latter of which is central to the Pettitian conception of republicanism. And in the third, I’ll outline Pettit’s republican argument for the UBI.


1. The Failure of Utilitarianism and Liberalism to Justify the UBI
As a political theory, utilitarianism is concerned with identifying and implementing policy proposals that maximise utility (however that is understood). Assuming the traditional welfare conception of utilitarianism (as, for example, defended by Robert Goodin), it is relatively easy to see how a utilitarian could make a case for the UBI. All they have to do is show that the UBI maximises welfare, relative to other proposals.

The problem that Pettit sees is that this utilitarian argument is too unstable to meet the two desiderata mentioned above. To be sure, one could make a utilitarian argument for an adequate basic income — after all, the goal is to maximise welfare across the population as a whole and an adequate income would seem to be important for that. But could one really make a utilitarian argument for an unconditional basic income? One of the defining features of utilitarianism (and consequentialist theories more broadly) is that they are highly contingent in nature. They justify particular policies only insofar as those policies do achieve the best outcome. If the facts change, or if other policies are better able to bring about desirable levels of welfare, the utilitarian argument for the UBI collapses.

(One problem with this is that Pettit himself endorses consequentialism, at a certain level of analysis. More on this later.)

What about liberalism? As traditionally understood, liberalism is concerned with allowing individuals to do as they please, so long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. The role of the liberal state is to minimise or eradicate these forms of interference. Pettit argues that it is hard to see how this could provide the basis for a UBI. The challenge for the liberal would be to show that a UBI is necessary in order to stop interference from others. But why would it be? A poor and destitute person can be left to die of starvation or hypothermia, without having their right to non-interference impeded.

Philippe van Parijs tries to offer a plausible liberal route out of this problem. He does so by arguing that, from a political perspective, there is no important difference between intentional impediments to freedom (i.e. acts by others that interfere with your rights) and unintentional impediments to freedom (i.e. natural or social obstacles that interfere with your rights). He then goes on to claim that the UBI can help remove the latter kind of impediment and hence can be justified under liberalism.

Pettit responds by saying that there is a plausible distinction between intentional impediments and unintentional impediments. Hence, there is reason to think the government should act so as to remove the former but not the latter. I think Pettit is a little bit too swift in his dismissal here, but I’m willing to ignore that since the important issue for me is not whether the distinction between the two types of impediment can or cannot be maintained, but whether republicanism can provide a more satisfying justification of the UBI.


2. Freedom as Non-Domination vs. Freedom as Non-interference
The key to understanding the Pettitian brand of republicanism is to understand the distinct conception of freedom that is at its core. According to Pettit, mainstream liberalism is committed to an ideal of freedom as non-interference. This was implicit in the discussion in the preceding section. To be free on this account is to be left alone, to follow one’s desires, and to have one’s negative rights protected.

The republican ideal of freedom is rather different. It views freedom in terms of non-domination. To be dominated is to be dispositionally controlled by another person’s whims or preferences. As Pettit defines it:

Control: Another person, X, controls me when their presence in my life raises the probability of my acting according to their tastes.

He then distinguishes between reasoned and non-arbitrary control — such as advice-giving — and unreasoned and arbitrary control — such as the control exercised by the slave-master or abusive husband. We can call the latter “dominating control”. The goal of a republican government is to remove all sources of dominating control, and hence to realise the ideal of freedom as non-domination.

A standard objection to republicanism is that there is no real difference between non-interference and non-domination. Pettit argues that there is: one can be free from interference and yet still be dominated. Consider the following case:

Benevolent Slave-Owner: Person A is a slave, legally owned by B and hence B is institutionally protected if he wishes to punish A. But B is a relatively benevolent slave-master. He does not abuse or strong-arm A and leaves A to do pretty much as A pleases.

In this example, A is not being interfered with and so would count as being free under the traditional liberal conception of freedom as non-interference. But is A really free in the morally important sense? Pettit argues “no”. A is still structurally and institutionally dominated by B. If A’s behaviour falls outside of a certain pattern, B might be inclined to rein A back in. Furthermore, B will be perfectly within his rights to do this. A can only act cum permissu: with the permission of another. This is contrary to the republican ideal of non-domination.

The point is that, for the republican, freedom is not simply a matter of factual non-interference; it is a matter of institutions and power relationships too. Unless A is institutionally freed from B’s dominating control, A is not free in the morally important sense.

(Note: some people argue that this still fails to pick out a distinct conception of freedom. Pettit has many responses to these criticisms. I am not going to catalogue them all. See here for a general flavour of the debate.)


3. The Republican Case for the Basic Income
You should now be able to see how the republican case for the UBI might go. In outline form, it will look something like this:


  • (1) The republican political goal is to ensure that all people are free from dominating control (i.e. that the ideal of freedom as non-domination is achieved).
  • (2) The UBI is an essential (or at least highly effective) means of ensuring freedom as non-domination.
  • (3) Therefore, the UBI helps to achieve the republican goal.


The second premise is the important one. Why might the UBI be so important in ensuring non-domination? Very simply: relationships of economic dependency, which are institutionally supported by regimes of contract and property law, can involve dominating control. Pettit gives two examples of this. The first is a case in which there are many employees but relatively few employers. The employers can thus use their superior bargaining power to impose harsh or unfair working conditions on the employees, and the employees cannot step beyond the bounds of the working relationship due to their economic dependency. The second case is that of the woman who is economically dependent on her husband. Pettit notes that the husband need not be abusive or violent toward the woman for a relationship of dominating control to arise: the economic dependency is sufficient for that.

In both of these cases, provision of a UBI would free the people from dominating control. Furthermore, the argument on behalf of such a UBI would have to meet the adequacy criterion. The amount of the income provided would need to be enough to eliminate the relationship of economic dependency. Would the argument also meet the unconditionality criterion? That’s a little bit more difficult to say since, arguably, other regimes could be used to achieve the same end. For example, more robust systems of workers/women’s rights, coupled with selective forms of welfare payment.

Pettit responds to this objection by arguing that the UBI would, in both cases, be a much more robust and effective method for achieving non-domination. For example, suppose the woman had available to her a flexible divorce regime, coupled with a court-enforced requirement for the husband to make maintenance payments. That might help to bring about non-domination, but it would be extremely imperfect. The woman may have to pay legal costs, or constantly go to court to enforce payments (as is often the case under current maintenance regimes). An unconditional basic income would provide her with a much more definite and effective route out of economic dependence. The same, Pettit argues, would be true for the workers: even if there was scope for unionisation and a strong system of workers rights, the UBI would be much simpler and more effective. The one problem I have with this argument is that it renders the republican case for the UBI contingent in the exact same manner as the utilitarian argument. Still, that is not too surprising given Pettit’s embrace of consequentialism in other aspects of his work.

This suggests that there is a strong republican argument for the UBI. There is, however, one lingering concern. In removing one form of economic dependency — that between husband and wife, or worker and employer — the UBI seems to replace it with another — that between the state and the individual. People will now be dominated by state, and be just as dependent on them to meet their economic needs as they were their previous controllers. Furthermore, those upon whom the financial burden of paying the BI may fall will experience other forms of domination. How is this reconcilable with the republican goal?

Unfortunately, Pettit’s answer to this is a bit rushed. He appeals back to the distinction between arbitrary and non-arbitrary forms of control, and argues that the control exercised by the state can be non-arbitrary. In doing this, he relies on the notion of procedural legitimacy. As it happens, this is the subject of his most recent book. You can hear him being interviewed about the topic on the New Books in Philosophy podcast.

Unfortunately, I’m not going to follow this interesting debate about legitimacy and its role in republican political theory. It’s much too long to get into now. Instead, I’m going to finish up. With any luck, this post has given you an insight into how republicanism can support the UBI.

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