Basic Income, Unemployment and Compensatory Justice, by Loek Groot

Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, 2004, 142 pp, hardback, 1 4020 2614 5, £42. Order this book

The main argument of this wide ranging, interdisciplinary and well-researched book is that if the economy were to be in a state of long-run full employment, and if everyone had equal earning capacities, then there would be no need for a Citizen’s Income (here called ‘basic income’ (BI) or ‘universal basic income’ (UBI)). However, in situations of structural unemployment and nonequal earning-powers, compensatory justice is best served by a BI.

An introductory chapter by Philippe Van Parijs defines a BI as an ‘income paid by a government at a uniform level and at regular intervals, to each adult member of society’ (p.12) and compares it with other policy instruments, and particularly with a Negative Income Tax which, while similar to a BI, is based on the household rather than the individual, is paid after tax returns are submitted and thus risks poverty during the previous year, and contributes to the financial uncertainty experienced by someone unemployed and faced with a job offer. Van Parijs goes on to argue for a BI on the basis of a ‘real freedom’ notion of justice, and in relation to the different job markets which a BI would instigate.

Groot’s first chapter compares the increasing conditionality of social security benefits with a BI, and answers the objection to a BI that it damages self-reliance, reciprocity and the work ethic by showing that in some ways they might increase with a BI.
The second chapter suggests that some parasitism is a price worth paying for the compensatory justice which a BI would promote. This chapter also contains a careful critique of three understandings of ‘compensatory justice’. It shows that raising means-tested benefits and increasing the minimum wage increases unemployment and thus has a detrimental effect on compensatory justice, and that a BI would improve compensatory justice because workers would be more able to turn down jobs which did not offer pay which compensated sufficiently for the disadvantages of the job.

In chapter 3 the author understands the voluntary non-work option as a giving up of job rights in return for a BI; and in chapter 4 he discusses a possible BI experiment (discussed in the Citizen’s Income Newsletter, issue 2 for 2005, pp.5ff) – because only in this way shall we be able to evaluate a BI’s effects. The limitations and results of Negative Income Tax and other similar experiments are discussed, and an experiment to discover the behavioural responses to a BI is described.
The final chapter outlines the steps which could be taken to implement a BI scheme: steps which would begin to have some of the effects of a BI.

The book is generally clear and well-argued, though two issues might have been given rather clearer treatment: 1. A Negative Income Tax could indeed have the same net income effect as a BI, but given the problems which Van Parijs finds with it (the household base, delayed payment, and financial uncertainty when faced with a job offer – and other problems might have been mentioned, such as administrative complexity), it is difficult to see why this option is given the prominent treatment it gets throughout the book; and 2. Both ‘work’ and ’employment’ are used to mean ‘paid work’, whereas ‘work’ should properly encompass both paid and unpaid family, community and artistic work. (Writing this book review is work, but it’s not paid work).
It’s helpful that technical material appears in appendices, but unhelpful that there is no subject index.

This book is an important addition to the growing field of CI studies, and any future treatment of the relationship between BI, unemployment and concepts of justice will need to take account of its arguments and conclusions.