Political Philosophy and the Left (Part 2)

by Ed Lewis, Stuart White

In the second part of a discussion of left-wing political philosophy, Ed Lewis and the political philosopher Stuart White discuss how to institutionalise the values of the left, focusing in particular on the idea of an unconditional basic income.

First published: 14 August, 2010 | Category: Activism, Employment & Welfare, Philosophy and Theory

In the second part of a discussion of left-wing political philosophy, Ed Lewis and the political philosopher Stuart White discuss how to institutionalise the values of the left, focusing in particular on the idea of an unconditional basic income.

Part one of this interview can be read here.

Let’s move on to a specific proposal which is sometimes advocated by proponents of republican democracy as well as other leftist thinkers, and that’s the idea of a basic unconditional income being provided to all citizens. Now, this specific policy proposal is one which has provoked quite a lot of debate among contemporary political philosophers. So I’m interested to know why you think it’s provoked that kind of debate, what its merits are, and how it’s related to some of the ideas we’ve already been discussing.

This is the proposal that everybody as of right should receive an income grant from the state that’s unrelated to the income they have from any other source, and which is also not conditional on a history of work or present willingness to work.

In much contemporary political theory that’s coming out of the analytic tradition the view is that for reasons of freedom and efficiency, and perhaps other values as well, a just society is going to use the market as one mechanism for determining the allocation of resources. How can we structure a market economy so that it achieves more egalitarian outcomes? Basic income is one proposal that’s been put forward in this context.

It’s linked to both of the lines of thought that we’ve mentioned earlier in the discussion – luck egalitarianism and republicanism.

So philosophers like Philippe Van Parijs have used some of the ideas around luck egalitarianism to argue for an unconditional basic income. He in particular develops Ronald Dworkin’s idea that there are certain resources that are given to us prior to work, prior to labour, and which ought to be distributed universally. The basic income is then the form that this universal share of inherited resources takes (Van Parijs, 1995).

And there are people who argue for basic income on the grounds that it secures liberty as non-domination (Raventos, 2007). If you want something that’s going to empower people in the labour market so that they can escape potentially dominating employers, or escape family relationships in which they’re potentially dominated, then an unconditional basic income looks like a very good idea.

Yes, one way in which in which it seems to relate to traditional leftist concepts and thinking is that it looks as though it would very much strengthen the hand of labour in the capital-labour conflict, as perceived by Marxists and others. Presumably that’s one source of attraction of the basic income proposal.

Yes, because by strengthening the position of the disadvantaged in the labour market it thereby precludes relationships of domination between employers and workers. Consider situations where an employer can say to a worker ‘Do what I or say or else’, where the ‘or else’ is you’ll get the sack and then you’ll be starving on the street. With an unconditional basic income, employers can’t make those kind of threats, because if a worker loses the job then there’s still an income independent of the sale of labour power that he or she can fall back on. Even a relatively small basic income, if it’s saved and managed well, can give a worker a lot more independence in the labour market.

And that bargaining power might affect earnings too. At the moment we have a society where a lot of really unpleasant jobs are also really badly paid. People who clean public lavatories, for example, are doing an unpleasant job and they’re usually amongst the lowest paid in our society. One of the possible beneficial consequences of an unconditional basic income is that there would be less pressure to do unpleasant jobs to make ends meet, and so maybe there would be an incentive for technological development to make these unpleasant jobs less unpleasant, or else we’ll simply have to pay people a lot more to do them, and that would seem to be another gain for justice.

This idea of basic income has also been of course sharply criticised. And the concept of exploitation which you can use to justify basic income in the way we’ve just done is also one that’s been used to criticise it. The claim is that if you’re not working and others are compelled through the tax system to support you, then you are effectively exploiting them. What’s your view of this objection?

First of all, it’s important to see that it isn’t necessarily a right-wing objection. As you yourself indicated, the intuition here comes out of socialist or Marxist thought. Marxists traditionally have critiqued capitalism because capitalists exploit workers. Capitalists are people who live off the labour of their fellow citizens through the wage-labour capital relationship. Now if there’s something intrinsically wrong with living off the labour of your fellow citizens when you’re capable of contributing to production yourself – if there’s some objectionable failure of reciprocity there, of failing to give back in return for what you’re getting from the labours of others – then basic income as an unconditional income grant looks as if it’s also vulnerable to this objection. It looks like it allows people to share in the fruits of fellow citizens’ labours without working in return.

You become a in a strange sort of way a type of capitalist.

Yes, yes. If the whole national product was distributed to everyone as an equal basic income, then, in a sense, we’d have a situation where everybody would have an equal opportunity to be a modest capitalist living off the labour of others. Now from some left-wing standpoints, you might say, ‘Well that’s fine’. But from a certain traditional Marxist standpoint it looks as if there’s something objectionable there. I have certainly pressed this objection in some of my own work (White, 2003).

So how have basic income advocates tried to respond to this exploitation objection? I think in two ways.

First of all, they’ve argued - and this goes back to Phillippe van Parijs’s arguments that I mentioned a moment ago - that there are some resources that aren’t the product of our fellow citizens’ labours. There are some resources that we just inherit from nature, or from past generations, and before we consider the question of what a fair distribution of the products our fellow citizens’ labours is, there’s a prior question of how we distribute this stuff that we’ve just inherited from nature or from past generations. That’s one argument, which I think has some merit (though for excellent criticism, see van Donselaar, 2009).

The other argument, which is the one that I’ve developed in my work, is that basic income might be justified all things considered even if it is exploitative in the sense outlined. One might say: ‘Well, OK, there’s a valid objection here, maybe a basic income at a certain level does enable people to live off the labour of their fellow citizens, and there’s an objectionable failure of reciprocity there. But a valid objection isn’t necessarily a decisive objection, because there might be other effects that a basic income has, like those we were talking about earlier, which morally outweigh its morally bad effects.’

Of course, even if we don’t enforce reciprocity, we could still try to develop social norms that encourage people to do some work in return for a basic income. There might be ways of addressing the reciprocity concern other than by depriving people of a basic income if they choose not to work.

Yes, because it’s been argued by some advocates, I believe, that the institutionalisation of the kind of generosity that basic income would entail actually might provide a powerful encouragement for people to contribute to society.

Yes, there are a lot of ways in which a basic income could facilitate work or contribution.

One issue at the centre of this discussion which we haven’t focused on is the contestability of these ideas of ‘work’ and ‘contribution’. In my own work I’ve tried to pose the question ‘What counts as contributive?’, and I’ve tried to answer it. My conclusion is that it’s a very tough question to answer. We certainly don’t want to fall into the trap of straightforwardly equating contribution with employment in the formal labour market. And a basic income, while it may allow people to withdraw from the formal labour market, in the process might enable them to shift their energies into other activities – care work, or kinds of work of care for the community, various kinds of social activism, which might also be relevant forms of contribution even though they’re not employment.

I want to ask what you, yourself, think might be the proper institutionalisation of the kind of values that we’ve been discussing – freedom, understood as non-domination perhaps; equality in the way that you’ve described it; as well as perhaps other values we haven’t talked about so much. You’re a qualified advocate of basic income, but that’s not the end of it, I’m sure. What else is there in your vision of a just, free, desirable society?

Well, I’m quite interested and engaged with a literature which explores how far and in what ways we can have a market economy – or at least an economy with a sizeable market sector - which runs on egalitarian lines. There are a range of institutional ideas which come into play in this literature.

One, which we’ve discussed at length, is the idea of unconditional basic income.

Another is the idea of basic capital, the idea that you should pay people a significant capital grant on maturity which they’re then free to use as they want. I’m quite sympathetic to this idea. I don’t see it as necessarily competitive with basic income; you might think about hybrids of the two.

I also think, from a luck egalitarian and a republican perspective, that there’s a very important role for a lot of the things that we conventionally refer to as the ‘welfare state’.

But also important is to think about new democratic mechanisms which might transform how public services operate. Here we touch things like participatory budgeting and efforts to increase the role of workers and service users in the design and delivery of public services (Wainwright, 2009).

And while we’re thinking about the ‘deepening’ of democracy, I’m very interested in ideas for increasing the accountability of investment decisions to groups from within society, e.g., trade unions and environmental groups, such as in Robin Blackburn’s proposal for new democratically-controlled social pension funds (Blackburn, 2002).

So I suppose what I lean towards is a kind of ‘social democracy plus’: an expansive welfare state, itself democratised, with new measures to spread the distribution and democratize the control of wealth: basic income, basic capital, social pension funds. And I would see the kind of structural reforms just described as ideally working alongside initiatives from below such as LETS (local exchange and trading schemes) and community gardens.

My thinking on the institutions of an alternative has been strongly influenced by the Real Utopias project which Erik Olin Wright has run for the last fifteen or so years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It has been a terrific example of the coming together of political philosophy and social science which I mentioned earlier. He has a book just out, Envisioning Real Utopias (Wright, 2010), which draws together many of the ideas just mentioned.

The last thing I want to raise with you is the role of political philosophy in political life today. Pretty much none of the activists that I’ve encountered have heard of people like G.A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin or Isaiah Berlin, and if they have then they’ve got only passing familiarity with them. Why do you think this kind of stuff doesn’t command more attention, and do you think it’s important, do you think that it can be useful for grassroots activists? Should they be reading more political philosophy, or not?

Well I agree there’s a disconnect there. And I think it’s regrettable. I think it’s understandable because what political philosophers are doing, as I said right at the beginning, is stepping back and saying: ‘OK, you’re talking about equality, you’re talking about fairness – exactly what do you mean by that?’ And if you pursue those questions for their own sake and on their own terms then you get into some very in-depth discussion about the nature of equality and fairness and so on. But if you’re an activist, you’re the kind of person who basically knows society is radically unjust, it’s bloody obvious that society is unjust, and why do you need to spend hours sitting around in a seminar room working out exactly in what sense or senses it is unjust? That can seem rather a waste of time and energy which you could spend producing a leaflet, or going on a demo, or producing a magazine or something else.

It seems like an indulgence of sorts.

Yeah, it can seem that way. So I guess my pitch to the activist would be to say that the political effectiveness of your own project does depend on addressing philosophical questions. The right is contesting you, in large part, ideologically, and ideology works through concepts and theories. And so if you’re ultimately going to be effective in contesting the ideology of the right, political philosophy is your tool. Political philosophy allows you to get a handle on these concepts and theories in a way that allows you to defuse a lot of the arguments and claims that the right are making.

I think the classic example of this, which I mentioned in our discussion, is Jerry Cohen’s discussion of negative liberty and private property rights. For about a century, the right had got away with saying: ‘Private property protects freedom; if you care about negative freedom, you’ve got to support private property rights and oppose coercive taxation.’  And Jerry Cohen made the very obvious point – it seems obvious once it’s been made, but it took a long time for somebody to see it – that private property rights also restrict negative freedom. If you’re on the other side of the property right, you’ve got a lack of negative liberty, and what happens when we redistribute property rights, as I said, is not that we simply cancel freedom for the sake of equality, but that we make freedom more equal.

So there’s an example of somebody doing a bit of philosophy and in the process defusing a core ideological claim of the right, a claim which has been used to discredit the left over a long period.

If you want to be effective in contesting the ideology of the right, then at the end of the day, political philosophy is your friend.

References and further reading:

Anderson, Elizabeth, ‘What is the Point of Equality?’, Ethics 109, 1999, pp.287-337.

Berlin, Isaiah, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1969 [1958]).

Blackburn, Robin, Banking on Death - Or, Investing in Life: The History and Future of Pensions (London, Verso, 2002).

Cohen, G.A.,‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice’, Ethics 99, 1989, pp.912-944.
———, ‘Back to Socialist Basics’, Appendix: ‘On Money and Liberty’, in Jane Franklin, ed., Equality (London, Institute for Public Policy Research, 1997), pp.29-47, specifically pp.41-43.

Dworkin, Ronald, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge: MA, Harvard University Press, 2000).

Pettit, Philip, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997).

Raventos, Daniel, Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (London, Pluto Press, 2007).

Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition (Cambridge: MA, Harvard University Press, 1999 [1971]).

Skinner, Quentin,Liberty Before Liberalism (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998).

van Donselaar, Gijs, The Right to Exploit (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009).

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

Wainwright, Hilary, Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy: Revised Edition (Calcutta, Seagull Press, 2009).

White, Stuart, The Civic Minimum: On the Rights and Obligations of Economic Citizenship (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003).

Wolff, Jonathan, ‘Fairness, Respect, and the Egalitarian Ethos’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 27 (2), 1998, pp.97-122.

Wright, Erik Olin, Envisioning Real Utopias (London, Verso, 2010).

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