Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom

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The individual must be free of arbitrary domination or any institutional design that makes him or her live at the mercy of others because of poverty and fear.

Basic income – too basic, not radical enough | Michael Roberts Blog

This means that rights have to be protected by laws and political mechanisms. In a democratic political system where sovereignty is conferred on the state for the benefit of society and in which citizens trust their government not to neglect or despise its duties, human rights should entail binding legal obligations and a political system designed to prevent any excess by the sovereign power. Do we need more evidence than the destruction of our planet and the present refugee crisis to see that all this and many more catastrophes are caused by corrupt governments at the service of the rich who not only control the planet but are ravaging it to death?

There is resistance to the awful global system in which we are all mired, pockets of resistance on different issues. But overall resistance is also needed. If we want a decent, human — in the best sense of the word — world we have to claim not only our own rights but those of everyone. Of all the political mechanisms that have been debated in recent years, the most rational and perhaps the only one that would seem capable of providing a sound foundation for universal human rights is basic income. In its different theoretical forms and experiments today it is usually presented instrumentally.

For example, the right sees it as a way of dismantling state institutions, and the left as a policy for tackling poverty or robotisation of the workforce. If considered normatively it is much more than that. It is a guarantee of the three great human rights principles, as classical democratic republicanism taught long ago. Indeed, both democratic and oligarchic republicanism shared this conception of freedom. The difference was: whose freedom? For oligarchic republicanism it was confined to adult male property owners, while democratic republicanism championed freedom for every member of the community.


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All arbitrary interference infringes on individual freedom but some forms are normatively more relevant than others in social policy because they are intimately linked with the basic mechanisms governing the dynamics of human societies. Swindling and lying, for example, affect the lives of individuals and can be used to support the economic status quo but society is not structured by falsehood. It is founded on property which may then rely on a whole zoo of porkies, red herrings, cock and bull to shore it up.

Enter the rich and the poor. Not in the statistical sense which has its own illustrative merit but the Aristotelian sense of materially independent people and the rest. The inequalities which limit or deny the freedom of some members of society are the result of several factors, most notably political economy. Any political economy favours some sectors and handicaps others.

You have to be unemployed, disabled, mentally ill or bear some other kind of social stigma in order to receive them.

Review of Daniel Raventós, Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom

Basic income is unconditional, without stigma and even thrifty because the administrative costs of conditionality keeping people monitored and stigmatised are very high. Unlike previous social policies, it is a measure that counters exclusion. Such a redistribution of wealth would be the opposite of what has been happening in recent decades. Perceptions of social reality change over time, and not necessarily a lot of time. And these are the people who fund political campaigns.

All of these approaches are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, I shall argue that the most promising line of argument combines and balances elements of b and d. Starting with the argument from non-alienation, one contribution that played a central role in the new wave of interest in basic income among European scholars in the early s was the work of Robert van der Veen and Philippe Van Parijs. Instead, they suggested that we should look for inspiration in the ultimate aims that Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme associated with the so-called higher stage of communism. According to their argument, capitalism generally appears superior to socialism for supporting productive development.

We shall return to some of the factual considerations on the possible links between basic income, productivity, and access to meaningful work, in connection with the exploitation objection below.

A republican call for a basic income

However, leaving these issues aside for the moment, there is a fundamental objection to justifications of basic income that appeal so very strongly to the idea of inherently rewarding work. People may reasonably want to accept less stimulating forms of work if that would help increase opportunities for other things they find important: say, forms of consumption or leisure activities to which they ascribe great value.

But he has also rightly pointed out that basic income—given its complete unconditionality—does not seem to fit very well with such a starting point. After all, people would be free to use it for whatever purposes they may have, that is, including activities that are unlikely to realize the ideals of non-alienation, as these are typically fleshed out. This may suggest that a more compelling and coherent path is to develop a non-perfectionist foundation for the justification of such a reform based on a liberal, neutrality-based account of equality of opportunity.


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  • However, before analyzing the full list of justifications mentioned above we must first introduce the most important basis of criticism to basic income in debates on social justice, the so-called exploitation objection. The literature on basic income offers two main lines of arguments for addressing this important objection—one pragmatic and one principled—to be identified and addressed in the following two sections.

    The pragmatic response accepts the central moral premises of the exploitation objection. Those who advance this type of argument concede that the basic income would allow some degree of exploitation and that this captures an objectionable feature of such a scheme.

    However, they also argue that this should not lead us to abandon the view that basic income is part of the best available strategy for social justice, all things considered. To appreciate the potential of a , we should recognize that conditional forms of income support are by no means immune to the exploitation objection. Do people work when they spend most of their evenings to prepare the startup of a new business project? Do they work when they improve or maintain their opportunities to find and be available for jobs, or when they care for an elderly relative, or assist refugees in urgent need, or when they make unpaid contributions to the collaborative commons?

    We may distinguish four general considerations on why this may lead us to prefer basic income to traditional forms of income support on grounds of nonexploitation. First, there is the observation that household-based, means-tested benefits of the residual safety nets are typically associated with next to confiscatory effective marginal tax rates for low incomes, thereby failing to encourage the individual members of such households to take productive initiatives.

    This condition may be particularly harmful to poor households in a rapidly changing economy where self-employment is common, and where people are expected to be able to move in and out of jobs in flexible ways, and to combine earnings from different sources Atkinson, , p.

    Daniel Raventós, The material conditions of freedom

    Second, there is the observation that traditional forms of social insurance usually require people to be available for work in order to remain eligible for benefits, which usually implies a ban on more time-consuming forms of informal work, volunteering etc. Jordan, When the exploitation objection is directed against basic income, the argument is often driven by a narrow focus on remunerated forms of work.

    Considering the obstacles to gainful participation associated with present forms of means testing and behavioral conditionality, basic income supporters have emphasized how the fear of jeopardizing or interrupting access to a regular payment for basic needs in such systems may often deter people from taking economic initiatives and making social contributions of different kinds. In specifying these considerations, one of the key issues is what counts as a relevant contribution in return for social benefits, and how best to support and recognize these contributions. One strand of normative theory on basic income has argued that an employment-centered account of work fails to sufficiently take into account the extent to which formalized economic activities, and social cooperation at large, depends heavily on unpaid, informal, and socially necessary care work.

    Arguably, this often reflects a gender-biased lens on the meaning of work, productive contribution, and socially useful activities. In every part of the world women still tend to take far greater responsibility for work in the household, informal care work, and the everyday maintenance and nurturing of relationships, often making them economically worse off than men, and placing them in conditions of greater social and economic vulnerability.

    While it seems obvious that many such contributions have great social value it does not seem possible or desirable to formalize or monitor all such efforts and initiatives. This has led some researchers to examine the prospects for linking basic income-type transfers to innovative strategies for developing the opportunities, social infrastructure, and norms in support of useful contributions beyond the employment contract Gorz, ; Atkinson, Another aspect of attempts to widen our conceptions of productive contribution focuses on the rapid development and expansion of the collaborative commons on the Internet Rifkin, , and the many ways in which products and services are developed and provided free of charge through the voluntary unpaid efforts of users in, for example, mass collaboration phenomena such as open source software or Wikipedia Wright, With a basic income to rely on people would not have to apply for jobs they do not want or have no realistic prospects to get.

    Such a system of income support could thereby do away with costs associated with writing and processing meaningless applications, and of supporting a bureaucracy for monitoring and enforcing such obligations. More broadly, there is the idea that people may generally act more confidently and productively as entrepreneurs and be more willing to try out new things, and accept rather than resist the necessary transitions of a dynamic economy if they know that whatever happens they will always have the basic income to rely on Van Parijs, b. Fourth, and relatedly, if people had the bargaining power and security that the basic income confers, this may help promote a more inclusive and humane labor market with better opportunities for all to contribute productively, by spreading jobs among a greater number of people i.

    Finally, as mentioned in the beginning of this section there is also a second version of the pragmatic response to the exploitation objection b , which is based on the idea that nonexploitation is not all that matters and, perhaps, not what matters most. Specifically, the aim of effectively ensuring that all persons are able to satisfy their basic needs in a dignified way, and have the necessary bargaining power to avoid or escape situations of dire need and exploitable dependency, are objectives we have reasons to ascribe fundamental moral importance something to which we return in connection with equality of status below.

    Thus, even if we accept the exploitation objection as valid, and even if the basic income would lead to a net increase of exploitation, the objection is not necessarily decisive White, ; Van Donselaar, Goodin, According to the pragmatic approach to the exploitation objection it becomes important whether certain hoped-for, contribution-oriented effects of the basic income would actually materialize. However, there is also a second and more principled response available in the literature, which I shall here refer to as the pre-distribution argument.

    This view questions one of the key assumptions of the exploitation objection, and makes the justification of such a reform much less dependent on its possible consequences. It is important to see that the exploitation objection usually assumes that the basic income would be financed exclusively or mainly through the taxation of earned incomes to which workers have valid moral claims, on grounds of reciprocity or desert or ambition.

    According to this view, we should interpret the basic income as a strategy for pre-distribution of assets to which all have an equal claim rather than a redistribution of earned incomes. Based on this observation the problem is not, perhaps, that there are opportunity-expanding assets that we receive without any clear or deep connection to our own work efforts, or that we may have unconditional access to some of them.

    Due to the spontaneous concentration of such resources, some have the economic opportunities and bargaining power that allow them to say no to unattractive jobs, to opt in and out of work in flexible ways, to choose when and how to retire, and so on. However, most people have a far more limited range of options in these respects. Yet, for reasons suggested in the early proposals of Paine and Charlier mentioned above, this does not stand in the way of justified redistribution.

    According to some, the most straightforward way of addressing this inequality is to ensure that all may access a share of the competitive value of natural resources by providing unconditional payments in cash, financed by people who claim more than an equal share of these resources Steiner, While such an argument may provide a foundation for a wide range of taxes on the ownership, control, or use of natural resources, including environmental taxes, it is not clear that such sources of taxation would be sufficient to offer a substantial or strongly redistributive form of basic income.

    For left-libertarians of this sort, this is not perceived as a problem or at least not a problem of justice. The size of the justified basic income may turn out to be high or low. This simply depends on the revenue from taxation of natural resources. However, the general idea of pre-distribution can also be fleshed out in a way that allows a much wider range of taxes for financing a basic income, and that links the basic income more consistently to an egalitarian project of equal opportunity. Yet, it is important to see that he thinks that we should ultimately dissociate our views about liberty from the strong notions of self-ownership endorsed by orthodox libertarians, and the restrictions they impose on justified redistribution Van Parijs, , p.

    This is, of course, not the idea , p. However, larger inter vivos gifts and bequests may clearly be an important source of concern for anyone who is guided by the aim of counteracting the impact of luck on the social distribution of life prospects, and have been ascribed a role in the financing of unconditional payments for such purposes Atkinson, ; Piketty, ; White, Van Parijs argues that so-called employment rents are incorporated into the wages of privileged jobs of contemporary economies, and call for redistributive transfers by way of predictable taxes on income and capital.

    The mechanisms that lead people to access and hold on to privileged jobs so very unequally in contemporary societies are diverse and involve a complex mix of causal factors. The pre-distribution argument articulates powerful reasons for why efforts to equalize opportunities should include elements of unconditional transfers, and why such transfers are not inherently exploitative. However, it is misleading to suggest that we must choose between a view that we may refer to as libertarian resourcism exemplified by the different versions of the pre-distribution argument above —with its emphasis on cash payments as the privileged method of distributing opportunities—and objectionable forms of perfectionism.

    Surely, Van Parijs is right that we must not be work fetishists. On the other hand, we should not be resource fetishists either, by fully disconnecting a concern about the distribution of measurable resources from an evaluation of how it affects the terms of social interaction or inequalities of social and political power more broadly. A central topic in his arguments on this theme is how to equip citizens with the resources necessary to effectively participate as equals, and to identify and pursue their projects with a lively sense of self-worth.

    Such considerations on resources, status, and voice in social and political relationships have been central in recent works on so-called relational egalitarianism and its critique of focusing exclusively on the impact of luck or the distribution of resources rather than the wider terms of social interaction. Self-owners do not necessarily care about powerlessness in social relations and, in any case, such conditions are unrelated to justice—as specified by these conceptions—as long as no libertarian rights are violated. These observations also suggest that libertarian ways of thinking will have great difficulties to explain the view of basic income supporters that a regular income stream should be given priority to some form of basic capital , that is, lump-sum payments rather than a monthly stream of income as defended by Paine and, much more recently, Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, for discussions of basic capital see, e.

    After all, the latter would provide greater opportunities and flexibility to make large and risky investments at an early stage of life, and it will generally be hard to rely on libertarian principles to justify the restriction or denial of such options. This type of argument is not primarily about counteracting the impact of luck on the distribution of life prospects, or about endowing people with an equal share of natural resources important as this may be.