Basic income Reconsidered: Social justice, liberalism, and the demands of equality, by Simon Birnbaum

Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, xii + 246 pp, hbk, 0 230 11406 7, £62.50

‘Radical liberalism … holds a substantial universal and unconditional tier of social rights to be one of the ideal requirements of liberal-egalitarian justice.’ (p.8) Equality and freedom can and should be pursued at the same time, a universalist welfare state is the means to this combination, and an important element of such a welfare state is a Citizen’s Income. This is the agenda that Birnbaum has pursued through the research project of which this book is the outcome: an agenda with which he constantly contrasts more conditional forms of welfare state based on ideas of ‘reciprocity’.

In his introductory chapter, Birnbaum locates his treatment between the quite general theorizing of John Rawls and an empirical approach more concerned with feasibility: ‘between’ in the sense that his ‘feasibility’ takes the long view and does not allow short term political realities to determine feasibility in the longer term, and in the sense that his method is one of ‘reflective equilibrium’: a moving backwards and forwards between different propositions in an attempt to resolve contradictions.

In Rawlsian fashion, the first part of the book argues for a Citizen’s Income on the basis that it maximises the economic prospects of the least advantaged member of society more effectively than would more conditional benefits systems. The second part answers the objection that a Citizen’s Income requires taxation and therefore exploits workers. Birbaum follows Philippe Van Parijs in showing that much of the income earned through employment is the result of resources that belong to all of us, and that taxing earned income is therefore a redistribution of gifts. The argument is then extended to jobs: if they are gifts, then everyone has a claim on their value.

The third part of the book tackles feasibility. Birnbaum argues that a Citizen’s Income ‘would be particularly well-suited to foster economic initiatives, meaningful work and a rich associational life’ (p.169), making formal reciprocity requirements unnecessary; and he finds that ‘basic income proposals that seek to build on and develop the social insurance and in-kind benefits of existing welfare state institutions are far better suited to serve objectives [of political legitimacy, sustainability, and gender equity] than radical replacement strategies’ (p.204).
The book is full of enlightening argument, and particularly compelling is a method which sets out from a situation in which a Basic Income has been implemented and then studies a situation in which it has been abolished. This method is well employed on p.59 to demolish the ethical argument for ‘welfare to work’ policies.

The book is also full of quite dense argument which assumes some acquaintance with the terminologies and literatures of moral philosophy and political economy: but readers without such an acquaintance will still find the book invigorating because the argument is both thorough and coherent, and because it contains a persuasive riposte to arguments for a welfare state based on enforced reciprocity. (It is no surprise that Stuart White has the longest author entry in the index after John Rawls and Philippe Van Parijs.) In social policy terms, the book is a persuasive argument for a Citizen’s Income and against both today’s ‘welfare to work’ benefits structure and a Participation Income.
Anyone coming to this book will need to work hard at it, but the work will be worth it.