Just Distribution: Rawlsian Liberalism and the Politics of Basic Income, by Simon Birnbaum

Stockholm Studies in Politics 122, Stockholm University, 2008: 978-91-7155-570-0

Simon Birnbaum is a newcomer to the basic income debate who has quickly worked his way into the basic income movement. He completed his doctorate in 2008 at Stockholm University, and has already been awarded fellowships at Oxford University and at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium under the supervision of Philippe Van Parijs. He has only been publishing since 2005, but he has already published six academic articles and chapters, five of which are on basic income.

Just Distribution is Birnbaum’s doctoral thesis. It is not an easy read. It is 240 pages of dense political philosophy that only people who intend to get deeply into the philosophical debate over basic income will want to read in full. It is aimed at people who have already read several of John Rawls’s major works and some of the more philosophical works on distributive justice in general and basic income in particular. However, many of the arguments in this book are of interest to a wider audience, and I will try to give readers of CIT Newsletter a brief introduction to them.

Birnbaum’s starting point is John Rawls’s Theory of Justice, one of the most influential works of political philosophy of the Twentieth Century. Rawls’s most famous proposition, “the difference principle,” stated that the distribution of benefits from the joint social project should take incentives into account, but decision makers should use incentives to maximize the benefit to the least advantaged individual. When do we stop giving more to high achievers? When doing so ceases to be in the interest of the least advantaged people. Such a principle sounds favourable to basic income, but Rawls balked when confronted with the question of whether the difference principle should benefit lazy “surfers” who enjoy the benefits of the social project without contributing. The least advantaged individual in Rawls’s theory is not necessarily the poorest person, but the poorest contributor to the social project, apparently ruling out basic income.

Birnbaum’s project is to admit that the surfer problem exists but also to argue that on balance an unconditional basic income would further the overall goals of a Rawlsian economy. The surfer problem is a strike against basic income, but it need not be decisive, if basic income has other benefits that further Rawlsian goals. Birnbaum discusses many such benefits. For example, many contributors would benefit from the assurance of unconditional support. People who contribute to the social project in ways other than paid labour will share more in the benefits that they help to create and will be better able to make their contribution if an unconditional basic income is available. Subjecting disadvantaged people to extensive supervision to make sure that they are eligible for conditional redistribution is harmful to the self-respect that Rawlsianism is supposed to accord to contributors. Basic income gives workers the power to refuse exploitive working conditions. Finally, there is a large amount of wealth in society that attaches to nonhuman resources, and that can therefore be distributed unconditionally without violating any principles of fairness to contributors.

The latter half of the book responds to criticisms based on reciprocity, responsibility, and feasibility. A regular basic income can be important to upholding the security and autonomy that individuals need in order to make well-informed choices as self-respecting, equal citizens, and it, therefore, helps maintain responsibility. Birnbaum concedes that a contributory ethos is necessary to maintain a Rawlsian society with or without basic income and that basic income might therefore lead to exploitation of those who hold the necessary ethos by those who don’t. However, there is also a tension between the effort to eliminate any such exploitation and the neutrality-based goals of a liberal society. Birnbaum concludes that, given the constraints of feasibility, there is a tentative case to be made for a mixed redistributional system with some redistribution coming in the form of conditional benefits and some coming in the form of unconditional basic income.

Karl Widerquist, University of Reading