The Civic Minimum: On the Rights and Obligations of Economic Citizenship, by Stuart White

Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, 300pp, hb, 0198295057, £25. Order this book

Stuart White, of the University of Oxford, is a rising star in political theory. Over the past eight years, he has written more than a half dozen articles on the “reciprocity objection” to basic income. Fair reciprocity, as White defines it, states that all those who enjoy a high minimum share of the benefits of social cooperation owe a corresponding obligation to contribute to that society in return (p.17). This point of view seems antithetical to basic income, but White is sympathetic to the arguments of basic income advocates, and he is concerned to find a policy that balances the concerns of both sides.

White’s new book, The Civic Minimum, brings together many of the themes from his articles into a coherent theory of a social system, laying out the rights and obligations that follow from his theory of “justice as fair reciprocity.” It is not a book about basic income but one in which the basic income debate features prominently in a discussion of how to organize an economic system in accord with basic principles of justice. It manages to discuss these issues at a high level of political theory while still being compelling, interesting to read, and closely connected to the current policy debate.

Fair reciprocity, as defined by White, has three characteristics: First, citizens have social rights. Second, these rights are instrumental to a radically egalitarian distributive goal. Third, “Where these rights secure a citizen a sufficiently generous share of the social product, and sufficiently good opportunities for productive contribution, citizens have definite, and potentially enforceable, obligations to make a productive contribution to the community in return” (p.17). In its ideal form, fair reciprocity must be made in the context of institutions that fully correct for unequal access to the means of production and to inequalities of natural ability, but, as White recognizes, this is impossible to achieve fully. In its non-ideal form, fair reciprocity demands only that society satisfies a threshold of equal opportunity. It needs to eliminate the proletarian condition by minimizing class inequality and by ensuring that every citizen has access to jobs that give them above-poverty wages, opportunities for self-realization, and security against abuse and vulnerability (p.19). Where this threshold of basic fairness exists, citizens are obliged to reciprocate the benefits they get from society with a productive contribution in the form of socially desirable paid labour or at least some unpaid work such as care-giving (p.18). This obligation exists not only for recipients of government transfers but also for everyone who benefits from social cooperation, including those most advantaged in the market. It implies that there can be no work requirement unless all able-bodied people, both rich and poor, are equally held to it (pp.136-137).

White finds no strong moral case for a universal unconditional basic income (p.168), but he does find several strong instrumental (or practical) arguments for basic income even from the standpoint of fair reciprocity. First, the reduced need for workers to rely on their wages for day-to-day survival could improve the flexibility of the labour market, leading to higher levels of employment and increased employment opportunities for everyone. Second, basic income could function as a social wage for people who make productive contributions that aren’t adequately compensated by society. Third, by making non-earning parents financially independent BI could reduce domestic exploitation and abuse. Fourth, basic income would put employers under pressure to improve job quality, increasing opportunity for self-realization in work. Fifth, BI would function as a residual safeguard against significant brute luck disadvantage and market vulnerability which a non-ideal system of fair reciprocity might fail to eliminate (pp.166-168).

These last two practical arguments are, I believe, very much in tune with the reasons which lead many basic income supporters hold the position they do, and they are very closely connected with White’s arguments for what constitutes non-ideal fair reciprocity. As he puts it, “Vulnerability arises from the pressing need to sell one’s labour power. If, however, individuals have a source of income that is independent of the immediate sale of their labour power…they need not suffer the acute dependency, and corresponding loss of freedom, characteristic of the proletarian condition” (p.132).

However, White does not believe these arguments for basic income are decisive because there may be other policies that could achieve these goals without having the undesired effect on reciprocity (pp.169-170). He cites an excellent quote from Leonard Hobhouse: “It seems sometimes to be regarded as quite a providential arrangement that some should be born without the necessity of working for their own living so that they have leisure to impose this fundamental duty on others.” Those who do not view this arrangement as providential tend to break off into two camps, those who want to relieve everyone of this duty to work and those who want to find a fair way to enforce the duty to work on rich and poor alike. White’s book is largely an exploration of the second strategy.

White justifies his use of the second strategy by making several strong arguments that basic income supporters will find difficult to answer. Three of these stand out in importance. First, he argues that fair reciprocity follows from and encourages a belief in democratic mutual regard. If one group seems to benefit from the work of others without contributing themselves, they break the feelings of solidarity that make commitment to a generous social system possible.

Second, he argues that there is a direct connection between reciprocity and work, which has great intuitive appeal, and which is best summarized by a quote from a recent article:

“Imagine, for example, that we institute a ‘social right’ assuring all citizens of a decent minimum of income. If, as a citizen, I accept that there is such a right-and that it is an equal right held by all citizens, not merely a privilege peculiar to me-then I must also accept that each citizen, myself included, has a correlative obligation to help sustain the scheme that will assure citizens of this level of income. … If assuring citizens of this level of (real) income requires that work be done, then, as part of my obligation to help sustain the scheme for assuring citizens of this income, I surely have a prima facie obligation to share in this work.” 1

Third, he criticizes those who argue that a justification for basic income can be built on the observation that much of the pay for jobs is actually a rent from either the imperfect market for those jobs or on the technology that mixes with labour. The “jobs as assets” argument was pivotal to Van Parijs’s influential case for the highest sustainable basic income, but White makes a strong rebuttal. True as it may be that part of the return to labour is a rent, he argues, output still requires work and it makes sense to divide the output amongst those who are willing to work. He uses an excellent example to illustrate his claim (161-162). He specifically applies this example to technological rent, but by analogy it demonstrates a weakness in the entire ‘jobs as assets’ argument. Two people are shipwrecked and spend a day swimming and unsuccessfully trying to catch fish with their hands. The next day they wash up on an island where a previous generation of inhabitants left an abundant supply of fishing equipment. One fishes all day. The other refuses to fish, but asks for half of the catch at the end of the day citing the fact that the entire catch is attributable to a rent on their joint property-the land and technology-without which her labour was useless. Such a claim is as obviously weak as it is obviously true. It is similarly weak for someone to claim the rental portion of the wages on jobs they refuse to perform. Van Parijs argues that society should be neutral between people with different preferences for labour, but White replies that neutrality does not trump other demands of justice, and that a preference for living off someone else’s efforts could be just such a preference (pp.158-159).

There are three general ways in which Basic Income supporters could answer White’s challenges. One is to argue that fair reciprocity is not an important principle of justice or at least that there are other principles of social justice that are more important. Another is to accept reciprocity as a value, but argue that it does not conflict with basic income because, for example, the case for basic income derived from the value of assets is stronger than the version of that argument he addresses in this book, or empirically that no one will fail to contribute. A third response would be to accept the reciprocity principles which imply that everyone should work but to make the instrumental case for basic income strong enough to make it acceptable on balance despite its negative side-effects on reciprocity.
One instrumental argument against White’s case for enforced reciprocity is to note the huge complexity of the system he builds to combine the enforcement of reciprocity with concerns for fairness towards the people who are being held to that obligation. Reading through the book reveals an extremely long list of policies:

1. Some mechanism to ensure that private and public employment actually benefits society as a whole, or at least to ensure that people who perform such work do not benefit from a civic minimum (pp.98-108)

2. Legislation to establish a basic work expectation in terms of hours worked (p.114), which-if possible-should be higher for the more advantaged than for the less advantaged (p.116)

3. Legislation to stipulate that people work some minimum percentage of their peak-ability wage rate if possible (p.114), including people with significant non-labour income (pp.136-137), with exemptions for the handicapped and for care-givers (p.115)

4. A mechanism to oversee the unemployed to make sure that they prepare for and look for work (p.116)

5. A mechanism seriously to limit the returns to capital to the level that represents genuine sacrifice (pp.118-124)

6. A bill of rights for welfare recipients including a reasonable right of refusal of unacceptable work offers and guarantees that the work obligation will be productive and not punitive (pp.141-143)

7. A bill of rights for the children of welfare recipients so that they are not burdened by the sanctions to enforce their parents’ work obligations (144-145)

8. A time-limited basic income (pp.173-174)

9. An inheritance and gift tax on the part of a recipient at a very high rate, possible at 100% for transfers above a lifetime limit unless such a level of taxation proved to be counter-productive (pp.180-186)

10. The wealth tax would be linked to a two-tier capital grant system including a “participation account,” for which funds could be used only for purposes linked to productive contribution to the community such as education and setting up a business, and a “life account,” which would essentially be a time-limited basic income (pp.191-192). The participation account would in turn require a regulatory body large enough to oversee how every citizen used these funds

11. Possibly a “community fund” in the form of collective share ownership to help finance the capital grant system (pp.197-199, 205)

12. In-work benefits for the low paid including a minimum wage and child-care subsidies (p.202)

13. Conditional but generous welfare programmes in the traditional welfare state mode (pp.203-204)

14. Equal opportunity programmes for education and anti-discrimination policies in the work force (p.204)

15. Possibly a childhood privilege tax-subsidy scheme (p.204)

16. Possibly an employer of last resort (p.205)

17. Possibly subsidies for temporary employees (p.205)

18. Possibly public pensions (p.205)

All of these programmes would be expensive. Most of them would require a large bureaucracy with a very large overhead cost, so that the taxes needed to support the system would be much greater than the benefits received by those in need. The complexity would also create obvious disadvantages in terms of transparency and understandability. Some of the policies (such as the requirement that even those who have saved a sufficient amount of money must work a set number of hours) seem unenforceable without a rather harsh regulatory system.

Compare White’s proposal to Anthony Atkinson’s basic income/flat tax proposal, 2 which would replace all these programs (except the equal opportunity provision) with one tax and one benefit in a system that would require minimal bureaucratic administration. The Civic Minimum is not a moderate alternative to basic income but a far more radical restructuring of the entire economy.

The complexity is necessary to make sure that people at all points in the economic hierarchy follow the norm of fair reciprocity. Some restrictions are to make sure that recipients of public benefits fulfil their obligations, others are restrictions on people with higher incomes which are necessary because White recognizes that society cannot force the poor (through their vulnerable condition) to work for a system that is not fair to them. This turns out to be an enormous task requiring items 2, 3, 5, 9, and 10 on the list above. To build a system fair enough to demand such participation, he has to attempt to build capitalism without unearned income, if such an ambition is possible. White seems to admit that the confiscatory levels of income and capital taxes needed to assure that no one lives without work would be unsustainable, and we well have to accept that some wealthy people will live comfortably without working. If this is the correct interpretation, why then is it so important to make sure that not one recipient of transfers lives without working? Why does solidarity allow the better off to demand that every single able-bodied person on the minimum works, but solidarity does not allow those on the minimum to demand that every single person above the minimum works? If this is not the correct interpretation, are we really ready to accept the radical changes that would be necessary to ensure that our society has no people so rich that they need not work? Do we really know how to do that? For those of us who believe that the belief in “striking it rich” is the linchpin of capitalism, it does not even seem possible.

What do we get for all of this complexity? Apparently, the benefit appears to be that it allows society to exclude those few who don’t meet their obligations of fairness. The system is nearly as universal as basic income; a relatively small number would be left out and only after many second chances. But what happens to them? White argues convincingly that the Civic Minimum is universal in the sense that there is universal access to it for people who are willing to fulfil their obligations (138). But, as extensive as White’s policy prescriptions are, he does not answer the question of what to do with people who fall below the minimum; nor does he argue that there will be no such people. Should there be a sub-minimum for non-reciprocating indigents or should nonworking homeless people be left to fend for themselves somehow until they wise up and enter the system? He mentions an unconditional right to access to land but concludes that a case for unconditional benefits based on it is incomplete (168), and I do not understand what he intends those who stand outside of the cooperative obligation to have. Basic income, by contrast, would pick these people up into its universal benefit. The fact that fair reciprocity can exclude people is supposed to be an advantage. Certainly, a society putting non-ideal fair reciprocity would have far fewer homeless than the present system, but is the great advantage of the civic minimum over basic income that when we pass beggars in the street, we will know that in the context of a basically fair though non-ideal system, there is an acceptable likelihood that they deserve to be beggars? Or should the already lengthy list of programs be enlarged to include the services for non-reciprocating indigents?

Karl Widerquist, New York and Oxford



1. Van Parijs, P. (1995). Real Freedom for All: What (If Anything) Can Justify Capitalism? Oxford, Oxford University Press.

2. Atkinson, A. (1995). Public Economics in Action: The Basic Income/Flat Tax Proposal. Oxford, Clarendon Press.


Atkinson, A. (1995). Public Economics in Action: The Basic Income/Flat Tax Proposal. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Van Parijs, P. (1995). Real Freedom for All: What (If Anything) Can Justify Capitalism? Oxford, Oxford University Press.

White, S. (2003). The Civic Minimum. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

White, S. (2003). ‘Fair Reciprocity and Basic Income’. Real Libertarianism Assessed. A. Reeve and A. Williams. New York, Palgrave MacMillan: pp.136-160.