Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A theory of freedom as the power to say no, by Karl Widerquist

Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 1 137 27472 4, hbk, xiv + 241 pp, £62.50

The message of this book is simple: We are not free; we ought to be; and a Citizen’s Income (called here a ‘Basic Income Guarantee’) is an important means to that end.

The ‘propertylessness’ in the title represents the diagnosis: that is, that someone who is without sufficient property to meet his or her basic needs is reliant on property owners for the meeting of those needs (through an employment contract, state benefits, or some other mechanism) and is therefore not free. Starting from a definition of freedom as non-interference, Widerquist develops a theory of ‘status freedom’: ‘the effort to identify the difference between a free person and an unfree person’, and also a refined definition of freedom as ‘effective control self-ownership … freedom as the power to say no’ (p.15). Co-operation with others should always be voluntary, which means that it should be from a position of genuine independence: and it is this ‘independentarianism’ that requires an individuals’ right to property and therefore to a Citizen’s Income.

In this book Widerquist draws out the implications of freedom as effective control self-ownership, and particularly its relationship to the individual’s co-operation with other individuals, to the labour market, to our ability willingly to sign away our freedoms, and to such theoretical positions as Philippe Van Parijs’s ‘real freedom’ (a positive freedom to do as one wishes consistent with others’ freedoms) and Stuart White’s ‘justice as fair reciprocity’.

Alongside this somewhat abstract discussion of concepts, Widerquist studies today’s social and economic context, and concludes that

in a modern, industrial economy [effective control self-ownership] is best secured by an unconditional basic income guarantee large enough to secure housing, food, clothing, and basic transportation, plus enough more that individuals do not display signs of economic distress (p.70)

and also that a Citizen’s Income is compensation for our inability to provide everyone with sufficient status independence (p.71).

There is no attempt to escape the logic of capitalism. Trade is a perfectly just mechanism if undertaken by independent individuals and by mutual agreement; and Widerquist shows how a moral obligation to participate can be satisfied better by voluntary participation than by mandatory participation:

Even if people have an obligation to contribute to a just system of social cooperation, giving individuals the power to say no to working conditions they find unacceptable might be a better method to create a just system of social cooperation than giving a democratic majority the powers both to determine the conditions of fair cooperation and to enforce participation. (p.117)

For Widerquist, the individual’s freely-chosen consent to participate is paramount: a freely chosen consent that can only be guaranteed by the existence of an exit option: that is, by the ability not to participate.

This book is many things: an exercise in political economy; a textbook on philosophy and social ethics (particularly in chapter 9 on ‘duty’); and a sustained argument for a Citizen’s Income: and it is an excellent example of all of them.

However, there remains a problem with terminology. For a UK audience, the language of ‘guarantee’ is confusing. A ‘guarantee’ of an income is a promise that someone’s income will reach a particular level, and this can be achieved by a means-tested benefit as well as by a universal one. The previous Labour Government’s Minimum Income Guarantee was means-tested, and was as far from a universal benefit as it is possible to get. It is unconditionality, individuality and universality that matter, and Widerquist might have stressed these important characteristics of a Citizen’s Income more than he has.

But having said that, this is an important contribution to the literature on universal benefits, and therefore to the debate that might one day lead to their extension to working age adults.