Justifying Basic Income

Written in 2005. Don’t think it was published

In Real Freedom for All Philippe Van Parijs says paying a Basic Income to everyone, irrespective of whether or not they make a contribution to production, is justified because the knowledge endowment and previous technological advances are frequently unacknowledged and may be are unknowable which are used by those individuals who make intellectual or technological “inventions”. Under the present system such inventions if patented provide that individual with wealth. In any case such past knowledge endowment or previous technology is not owned by the individual making the invention but is owned by every member of the society collectively.

This analysis is an adaptation of Thomas Paine’s 1795 (in Agrarian Justice) justification for providing an income guarantee to every member of a society because all own the wealth which flows from privatising the collective ownership of the land of the nation.

On the other hand, those in the “participation income”/ “mutual obligation” corner who want to make payment of income support dependent on the individual receiving income support “giving something back”. They insist that those assisted have to be prepared to enter / re-enter the workforce or make some other contribution to justify payment. This is their way of preventing “free loaders” “abusing” the “generosity” of the beatified “taxpayer”.  With all the subtlety of a door to door salesperson about to offer a set of free steak knives with the next purchase, the “participation income”/ “mutual obligation” crowd also suggest that they are not so much motivated by a fear that some unemployed person might get “something for nothing” as by a “desire to seek the inclusion” within the warm embrace of mainstream society of those whom neither government nor industry can find employment.

Australian disability activist David Morell (1998) considers;

‘inclusion’ in the ‘community’ is not enough. Indeed the very concept does not make sense. The ‘community’ itself is so full of oppression, separation, exclusion, diverse interests and conflict for many of those who are already ‘included’ in it as to render the uncritical use of the concept positively misleading and pursuit of the goal of inclusion disempowering (p.17).

This point is reinforced by Abberley (1999) who contends that:

just because a main mechanism of our oppression is our exclusion from social production, we should be wary of drawing the conclusion that overcoming this oppression should involve our wholesale inclusion in it….

a society may be willing and in certain circumstance become eager to absorb a proportion of its impaired population into the workforce, yet this can have the effect of maintaining and perhaps intensifying its exclusion of the remainder. We need to develop a theory of oppression which avoids this bifurcation, through a notion of social integration that is not dependent upon impaired people’s inclusion (p.53).

Amongst the ranks of “participation income “advocates are the “workfare”, “time limited welfare” disciplinarians of the poor, whom the charitable or overly tactful would call paternalists (Standing 2002). Within this group there are people like Lawrence Mead, one of the ideological defenders of the Wisconsin welfare cutbacks. Mead claims that forcing people into poverty line work is good for them because somewhere down the track they will eventually get better paid jobs. Mead claims his “help and hassle” regime forces poor people to do what is “not only in their best interests, but what they really want to do anyway”. His argument conveniently ignores the fact that poverty line workfare “employees” drive wages down, that low minimum wages in the US and the length of time people stay on the bottom rung of the wage ladder confounds Mead’s claims (Johnston 2005).

Mead’s, John Howard’s and Tony Blair’s Third Way path to poverty alleviation via righteousness and mutually obligated inclusion is predicated upon the idea maximising national production though the imposition of obligations upon the very people who are most marginal to the productive process – those for whom government and industry has failed to find employment. We are asked to believe not only will such policies enhance production but that will make single parents and unemployed people happier.

Such claims about the increased personal satisfaction flowing from imposed obligation would seem to run counter to liberal and social democratic philosophies about individual freedom. Individuals are often, if not always, in the best position to determine what would make them happy. Individual left to their own devices will maximise the opportunities they wish to pursue. If self-actualisation for poor people was really what drives mead and the “mutual obligation” crowd then they would be attempting to impose the maximum personal liberty on recipient of income support.

It is hard not to believe the imposers of obligations upon those most marginal to the productive process are not behaving like the Little Red Hen in the fairy story who turned down requests from the other farm yard “animals who wanted to share the bread she made after having ignored all her requests for help in making it” (Van Parijs 1997, p.133).


Abberley, P. (1999) “The Significance of Work for the Citizenship of Disabled People.” Abstract. Vol. 3, No. 3, December.
Johnston, D (2005) “ Stroke the Rich.” The San Francisco Chronicle 11th April
Morell, D. (1998) “The Long View from Conferenceville.” Abstract. Vol.2, No. 1, March.