A Basic Income for All: A Brief Defence × To Secure Real Freedom, Grant Everyone a Subsistence Income

  • Philippe Van Parijs


Entering the new millennium, I submit for discussion a proposal for the improvement of the human condition. namely, that everyone should be paid a universal basic income (UBI), at a level sufficient for subsistence.


Basic Income Introductory Chapter Income Maintenance Basic Pension Employer Subsidy 
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  1. 1.
    Many academics and activists who share this view have joined the Basic Income European Network (BIEN). Founded in 1986, BIEN holds its tenth congress in Barcelona in September 2004, publishes an electronic newsletter (, and maintains a web site that carries a comprehensive annotated bibliography in all EU languages ( For some useful European discussions, see Robert Jan Van der Veen and Loek Groot, eds., Basic Income on the Agenda: Policy Objectives and Political Chances(Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000) and Angelika Krebs, ed., ‘Basic Income?’, special issue of Analyse & Kritik 22 (2), 2000, 153–269.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Federal senator for the State of Sao Paulo and member of the Workers Party (PT), Eduardo Suplicy managed to get a basic income proposal approved by Brazil’s federal Congress in 2003 and signed into law by President Lula da Silva in January 2004. It is meant to be implemented gradually as from 2005, `starting with the neediest categories’.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Two UBI networks were set up in the Spring of 2000: the United States Basic Income Guarantee Network, c/o Dr. Karl Widerquist (; and Basic Income/Canada, c/o Prof. Sally Lerner ( Scholar
  4. 4.
    See James Tobin, Joseph A. Pechman, and Peter M. Mieszkowski, ‘Is a Negative Income Tax Practical?’, Yale Law Journal77 (1967), 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 4a.
    See also a recent conversation with Tobin in BIEN’s newsletter (`James Tobin, the Demogrant and the Future of U.S. Social Policy’, in Basic Income 29 (Spring 1998), available on BIEN’s web site).Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    See Joseph Charlier, Solution du probleme social ou constitution humanitaire(Bruxelles: Chez tous les libraires du Royaume, 1848)Google Scholar
  7. 5a.
    John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 2nd ed. [1849] (New York: Augustus Kelley, 1987).Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    See the exchange between Eduardo Suplicy and Milton Friedman in Basic Income 34 (June 2000).Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    The latest countries to introduce a guaranteed minimum income at national level were France (in 1988) and Portugal (in 1997). Out of the European Union’s fifteen member states, only Italy and Greece have no such scheme.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    In the United States, one recent proposal of this type has been made by Fred Block and Jeff Manza, `Could We End Poverty in a Postindustrial Society? The Case for a Progressive Negative Income Tax’, Politics and Society 25 (December 1997), 473–511.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    See Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, The Stakeholder Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  12. 9a.
    See also, for a discussion, Wright, Erik O., ed., Redesigning Distribution: Basic Income and Stakeholder Grants as Cornerstones of a More Egalitarian Capitalism, special issue of Politics & Society 32 (1), March 2004Google Scholar
  13. 9b.
    Dowding, Keith, De Wispelaere, Jurgen & White, Stuart, eds., The Ethics of Stakeholding, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Their proposal is a sophisticated and updated version of a proposal made by Thomas Paine to the French Directoire, ‘Agrarian justice’ [1796], in The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine, P.F. Foner, ed., (Secaucus , N.J.: Citadel Press, 1974), 605–623. A similar program was proposed, independently, by the New England liberal, and later arch-conservative, Orestes Brownson in the Boston Quarterly Review of October 1840. If the American people are committed to the principle of ‘equal chances’, he argued, then they should make sure that each person receives, on maturity, an equal share of the ‘general inheritance’.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    For a more developed argument, see Philippe Van Parijs, Real Freedom for All (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) and, for a critical discussion, Reeve, Andrew & Williams, Andrew, eds., 2003. Real Libertarianism Assessed. Political Theory after Van Parijs (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    One can think of alternative normative foundations. For example, under some empirical assumptions a UBI is also arguably part of the package that Rawls’s difference principle would justify. See, for example, Walter Schaller, ‘Rawls, the Difference Principle, and Economic Inequality’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly79 (1998), 368–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 11a.
    Philippe Van Parijs, ‘Difference Principles’, in The Cambridge Companion to John Rawls, Samuel Freeman, ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 200–240). Alternatively, one might view a UBI as a partial embodiment of the Marxian principle of distribution according to needs. See Robert J. Van der Veen and Philippe Van Parijs, ‘A Capitalist Road to Communism’, Theory and Society 15 (1986), 635–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 12.
    See Edmund S. Phelps, Rewarding Work(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  18. 13.
    In the US case, for example, a fiscally equivalent negative income tax scheme proposed by Fred Block and Jeff Manza, which would raise all base incomes to at least 90 percent of the poverty line (and those of poor families well above that), would, in mid-1990s dollars, cost about $60 billion annually.Google Scholar
  19. 14.
    To fund this net cost, the personal income tax is obviously not the only possible source. In some European proposals, at least part of the funding comes from ecological, energy or land taxes; from a tax on value; or from non-inflationary money creation; or possibly even from Tobin taxes on international financial transactions (although it is generally recognized that the funding of a basic income in rich countries would not exactly be a priority in the allocation of whatever revenues may be collected from this source). But none of these sources could realistically enable us to dispense with personal incomeGoogle Scholar
  20. 15.
    Along the same lines, Herbert A. Simon counters the objection that a UBI would be unfair by observing ‘that any causal analysis explaining why American GDP is about $25,000 per capita would show that at least 2/3 is due to the happy accident that the income recipient was born in the U.S.’ He adds, ‘I am not so naive as to believe that my 70% tax [required to fund a UBI of $8000 p.a. with a flat tax] is politically viable in the U.S. at present, but looking toward the future, it is none too soon to find answers to the arguments of those who think they have a solid moral right to retain all the wealth they “earn”.’ See Simon’s letter to the organizers of BIEN’s seventh congress in Basic Income 28 (Spring 1998).Google Scholar

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  • Philippe Van Parijs

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