In Defense of a Universal Basic Income

How could a state simultaneously commit to individual rights and private property on the one hand, and a universal basic income on the other? On the face of it, these seem like incompatible ideas. In theory, however, they needn’t be. Let me explain some reasons why.

In its simplest form, a universal basic income is a publicly guaranteed yearly income supplement that every citizen receives. It is not means-tested, nor conditioned on work status, and the recipient is free to spend it as she pleases. The only criterion is that one is an (adult?) citizen of the state.

A UBI appears incompatible with a strict regime of private property and individual rights because it’s 1) redistributive, 2) separates income from work, and 3) exploitative. But I think these objections are mistaken. And instead, a strict regime of private property rights requires some form of UBI to compensate those harmed by it.

First, a UBI does involve confiscation and re-distribution of income. However, a UBI would not likely change the particular distribution of income in a society. Strictly speaking, a UBI only changes the holdings of those persons falling below its threshold. And a UBI is likely to be highly efficient, meaning that for those above its threshold the per person cost would be close to the per-person supplement.

Second, the UBI would change work incentives, particularly considering the size of the benefit. A modest UBI tailored to prevent utter destitution would have limited distortionary effects, mainly for the poor. But its unlikely it would change incentives for people who work to earn a discretionary income or find their work interesting and satisfying.

There is a related worry that a UBI would express the idea that one needn’t work to earn an income. This worry relies on the distinction between what A does in stating the very statement X, and what A does by or by means of X. If the UBI states that every citizen is entitled to a minimum level of income, regardless of how deserving they are, it seems that by means of a UBI the state expresses the view that work is unnecessary or unimportant. A UBI could express this view, but not necessarily. It is not necessary to describe what is going on in the enactment of a UBI as a degradation of work.

To elaborate this view further, we can turn to the third possible objection. Someone who receives a UBI but elects not to otherwise support himself by contributing to general wealth–the “surfer” figure in the literature–in one sense exploits the rest of society. He claims a share of others’ incomes to which he otherwise has no moral claim. The UBI allegedly exploits productive members of society by imposing a duty on them to provide income to individuals toward whom they have no moral duty to support.

Note that the problem remains even if we accept that no productive individual strictly speaking supports a given undeserving recipient. It remains true that under a UBI undeserving individuals make claim to a share of social wealth to which they have otherwise no claim.

What exactly is it that makes the “surfer” undeserving, though? I suggest that what makes him seem undeserving is that while he does participate in and regulate his conduct in accordance with his immediate social environment, he does not participate in society’s productive venture. He participates in a distinctly local  order. So what gives him a claim to society’s productive bounty? If society’s dominant norms actually constrain the surfer’s local order, then it would not be exploitative for participants in the dominant order to compensate the surfer.

Private property rights constrain because they distinctively include a right to exclude. The surfer’s local order uses the commons–the beach and sea–within the context of privately owned property. Surfers could make themselves better off if the commons were expanded and opportunities for initial acquisition increased, but private ownership makes that impossible.

Because dominant private property norms constrain the surfer, he can claim some form of compensation from those who benefit from private property norms. Thus, even “undeserving” citizens in the sense of non-participants in society’s distribution of productive property, should enjoy the benefits of a UBI.

There are other forms of “undeservingness” that raise worry about exploitation under a UBI–criminals, pathological behavior, etc.–that require further discussion. But the surfer does not.

On Retribution

I’m currently reading a very interesting work by Deirdre Golash, The Case Against Punishment. One particularly rich chapter concerns retributivism, or the view that “it is the wrongness of the criminal act that justifies the imposition of punishment on the offender” (p. 49). Golash distinguishes two versions of retributivism: first, a version that centers on the victims of crime, and second, a version that centers on the justified anger of the community. I’ll address the second version in a later post, but let’s examine the first argument.

The first version of retributivism conceives of crime as an assertion of moral superiority by a criminal over the victim. Punishment, then, allegedly restores the moral equality of the criminal and victim by “deflating” the alleged moral superiority of the criminal. Of course, crimes cannot be literally taken back, but on this view the punishment does not respond to the harm of the crime itself (compensation does that) but rather the unequal status relation between criminal and victim that the crime asserts.

Golash notes that the assertion of moral superiority by the criminal could be interpreted in at least two ways. First, it could be an assertion that the criminal has some moral value X, relative to the victim’s true moral value V, where X > V, and where the criminal’s true moral value X’ = V. Second, it could be that the criminal’s true moral value X’ < V, because the crime degrades the criminal.

(We might worry about other possibilities too. What if the victim and the criminal are particularly vicious individual? That is, what if the victim’s value V < M and criminal’s value X’ < M, where M is some widely accepted moral standard? Does the relative assertion of superiority matter then? Is the real issue the assertion of superiority relative to some common moral standard?)

Let’s consider how exactly is it that punishment allegedly “undoes” the false assertion of moral inequality. What’s needed beyond compensation is something that restores the victim’s entire moral status. But the problem is that this “something” needn’t necessarily be punishment. Why couldn’t it be an apology, or a recognition of wrongdoing, or even compensation? Any of these actions could express evidence for the victim’s real moral status. What is specifically necessary about punishment?

Punishment is necessary to satisfy a victim’s desire that the criminal be deprived of liberty. Golash notes that the victim may describe her desire in other ways, such as a desire to deny his asserted superiority, or a desire to see him suffer, but there is no way to describe her desire without reference to causing the criminal to lose his liberty. She could not justify punishment if, for example, she desired “that the criminal suffer, but only so long as he doesn’t lose his liberty.”

But the desire to deprive the criminal of liberty needs justification because it violates the criminal’s prima facie right to liberty. It requires us to affirm that the victim’s desire is more important than the criminal’s right. And to affirm this, we would need to affirm that the V > X’, where X’ is the criminal’s true moral value. But the intended outcome was to show that V = X’, not that V > X’.

Nor could punishment, on this theory, be sufficient to assert the moral equality of criminal and victim, precisely because punishment asserts that the victim’s desire to deprive the criminal of liberty outweighs the criminal’s right to liberty.

What her argument shows is that punishment is neither necessary nor sufficient to reassert the equal moral status of criminal and victim. But consider the second account of the moral inequality asserted by crime, in which the crime gives false evidence for X > V, but true evidence for X’ < V. So if punishment asserts that the criminal has a lower moral status than the victim, it is justified by an account of crime whereby the criminal’s moral status gets reduced by the crime.

But as Golash points out, there are deeper problems with this second approach. Suppose the criminal is a kidnapper. If the criminal gains his new, lower moral status by virtue of the crime of kidnapping, is this moral status temporary or permanent? If it’s temporary and ends after the completion of his punishment, there is an asymmetry–we didn’t think that the victim regains his moral status when he’s released from the kidnapper’s control. And if it’s permanent, then there is no reason to end his punishment, ever. But no one believes that all punishments should be indefinite.

Golash notes that a defender of retribution might say that “the punishment makes a statement not about the [criminal], but about the value or validity of [the criminal’s] act” (p. 59). But if then there is another asymmetry–we say that crime expresses something about the victim, but punishment doesn’t express anything about the criminal. And the  thought that crime expresses the moral inferiority of the victim was the original impetus to punishment in the first place. So, this asymmetry needs to be justified, and if it can’t be, then we’re in trouble.

However, there is one big objection available against Golash’s assertion that we have a prima facie right to liberty. Her assertion apparently assumes that a right to liberty is a right against deliberate interference. But what about a moralized conception of liberty, which is a right against deliberate wrongful interference? If liberty is moralized, then a criminal’s right to liberty isn’t violated or overridden by morally justified action.