USBIG Discussion Paper No. 2, September 2000
Work in progress, do not cite or quote without author’s permission
Citizenship or Obligation:
Discussing the eligibility requirement for basic income
The Educational Priorities Panel
225 Broadway, Suite 3101
New York, NY 10007-3001
Gijs Van Donselaar uses a novel definition of exploitation (A exploits B if A is better off and B worse off than either of them would have been had the other not existed) and a series of two-person examples to demonstrate that an unconditional basic income can be exploitative. This paper considers Donselaar’s version of exploitation and the argument against basic income derived from it to show that Donselaar’s argument against basic
income fails on several counts: First, it ignores the value of citizenship. Second, it does not hold true if the two-person examples used to support it are extended to three persons. Third, to the extent that basic income violates his version of exploitation, it does so no more than many legal occupations. Fourth, basic income is in fact necessary to create the conditions Donselaar assumes for the absence of exploitation. Fifth, it does not hold the level of scarcity constant. Sixth, it is unworkable in practice because it relies on unknowable information.
Preliminary draft: Comments requested and please do not cite or quote without the
author’s permission. For the revised draft contact Karl@Widerquist.com
Citizenship or Obligation:
Discussing the eligibility requirement for basic income
Clear evidence of the impact of the movement for basic income is apparent from the appearance of the first book aimed specifically arguing against basic income, The
Benefit of Another’s Pains: Parasitism, Scarcity, Basic Income by Gijs Van Donselaar,
forthcoming. Although there are many books that argue against government redistribution of property in general, this is the first to argue against basic income in particular. This book may be a more formidable challenge because it comes from a very pro-redistribution perspective: it advocates a very strong redistribution towards the least advantaged but argues that universal basic income without a work requirement is an unjust method of redistribution.
Donselaar’s argument is aimed most specifically at refuting case for an unconditional basic income made by Philippe Van Parijs in his book, Real Freedom for
All. Recall that Van Parijs argued for the highest sustainable unconditional basic income to maximize the real freedom of the least advantaged individual in society and that he took pains to make the case that an unconditional income would not exploit working citizens by any of several definitions of exploitation including Lockean exploitation, Lutheran (or Marxian) exploitation, Romerian exploitation, and others. Donselaar takes issue with the universality of basic income and he does so by coming up with a definition of exploitation (or parasitism) that Van Parijs does not address: A exploits B if A is better off and B worse off than either of them would have been had the other not existed (or if they had nothing to do with each other). One cannot simply dismiss Donselaar’s definition by saying that one or another of the other definitions is the “true” definition of
exploitation. All of the different possible definitions of exploitation are legitimate concepts and deserve to be considered on their own merits whether or not they best deserve the right to the term “exploitation.”
This paper considers Donselaar’s version of exploitation and the argument against basic income derived from it (part 1) to show that Donselaar’s argument against basic income fails on several counts: First, it ignores the value of citizenship (part 2). Second, it does not hold true if the two-person examples used to support it are extended to three persons (part 3). Third, to the extent that basic income violates his version of exploitation, it does so no more than many legal occupations (part 4). Fourth, Donselaar assumes that in all circumstance people have unconditional access to all the resources they need for survival and they use basic income to get more than that, but to reach this condition would require either that basic income exists or that people exist who desire no resources at all (part 5). Fifth, it does not hold the level of scarcity constant (part 6). Sixth, it is unworkable in practice because it relies on unknowable information (part 7). Eighth, it makes the questionable judgment that people should not be allowed to share in job assets if they are unwilling to pass a work test (part 8). The final section summarizes the argument (part 9).
Pat X: Donselaar makes the faulty assumption that the only way a person can contribute is by laboring.
Part 1: Donselaarian exploitation
To understand Donselaar’s case against basic income, one must first understand Van Parijs’s case for basic income. Van Parijs argues that the freest society is one that leximins real freedom. That is, it maximizes the freedom of the least advantaged individual to do whatever she might want to do. He argues that a basically capitalist economy with the highest sustainable basic income is the society that can give the least advantaged more real options than any other. He recognizes that this level of basic income would require substantial redistribution, which should be undertaken only if it can be done without exploiting other members of society. He judges that such redistribution is not exploitive because of the existence of “outside assets”—assets that
no one alive created but that have monetary value, such as land and natural resources. No one created these assets and so no one has an inalienable right to the return these assets generate.
Van Parijs believes that land and natural resource taxes alone, unfortunately, cannot raise enough revenue to support a substantial basic income, but he believes that there is another outside asset that can produce a large tax base—labor. Labor is not
traditionally thought of as an “outside asset.” A person creates her labor income with her
own effort and therefore should be entitled to the fruits of her labor and certainly should not be forced to share her efforts at least not with people who are not willing to put forth similar effort. No so fast, says Van Parijs; not everyone has the opportunity to put forth 1 the same effort. In order to work in a capitalist economy a person first must find a job,and jobs—especially good jobs—are often difficult to find. Therefore, Parijs concludes
some part of the return from labor income can be considered the fruits of one’s effort and some portion of it can be considered the return on the asset of having a particular job. He advocates using a progressive income tax as the best approximation of taxing the asset-portion of jobs. This money can be used to sustain the highest possible basic income. This basic income must be unconditional (that is it must not have any work requirement), because to do so would reduce the freedom of the least advantaged to do whatever they might want to do.
Donselaar does not object to taxing outside assets, to the redistribution of income, or treating jobs as assets; he objects to the unconditionality of the basic income grant. This objection comes from two principles, which he often states as if they are synonymous.
First, he objects to the concept of real freedom (the freedom to do whatever one might want to do) on the grounds that freedom should be limited to exclude situations in which one uses her right to an asset (even legitimate rights) to extract the product of someone else’s labor without putting forth effort herself. If not a full objection to, this is at least a limitation on, the use of real freedom. Rights are abused if one sells a right to which one has no interest in. Donselaar uses an example to illustrate this point. A farmer diverts the stream running through his property solely to get his neighbor to pay him to return the stream to its natural flow. According to Donselaar this transaction would have been acceptable if the farmer had some private reason to divert the stream, but if he does it solely to get his neighbor to pay him to stop, he is a parasite and he is abusing his rights. Therefore, society has the right to protect itself from such abuse.
1 Or suitable self-employment.
Second, Donselaar offers a criteria by which society can judge whether the relationship between two people is parasitic or exploitive: A exploits B if A is better off and B worse off than either of them would have been had the other not existed. Although this definition was proposed originally by Guathier (1985?), let’s call it Donselaarian
exploitation because he seems to be the first to employ it to such an extent. Donselaar argues that to the extent jobs can be considered an outside asset, they are different than other assets because the asset owner cannot get any return job without putting forth effort himself. Therefore, Donselaar believes only those who are willing to put forth such effort should be entitled to a share of the return on such an asset, and thus, only those who are willing to work should be entitled to redistribution from labor income. According to Donselaar, the basic income recipient (who does not work) is better off and the laborer is worse off than either of them would have been if the other had not existed (or if they had nothing to do with each other). He then concludes that an unconditional income is an unjust abuse of rights and should be replaced by substantial support only for those who are willing to work.
The relationship between the abuse of rights and Donselaarian exploitation is unclear in the Benefit of Another’s Pains. It is possible to have either one without the
other, buy it is unclear whether the abuse of rights is wrong because it can lead to exploitation, or whether exploitation is wrong if and when it follows from abuse of rights, or whether they are both wrong on their own. This confusion comes from the fact that Donselaar focuses almost entirely on cases in which the two exist together.
Using this definition of exploitation Donselaar easily demonstrates that one of the examples Van Parijs uses to support basic income (the story of Crazy and Lazy) is exploitive. Crazy and Lazy are the only two inhabitants on an island. They recognize that both have equal claim to the land of the island. Lazy prefers to work as little as possible and grows only enough crops for subsistence, using less than her half of the land. Crazy prefers to work as much as possible and wants to use as much land as possible to produce enough crops to live in luxury. The two strike a deal, in which Crazy farms all of the land and gives Lazy enough crops so that she can subsist without working at all. Van Parijs judges this transaction to be fair because both benefit from it relative to how well off they would be with the same property rights and without the exchange.
Donselaar, who uses a different basis of comparison, judges this transaction to be exploitive on the following basis. If Crazy was on the island all by herself, she would be better off because she could farm the entire island without sharing anything with Lazy. Lazy, however, would be worse off if Crazy was not there because she would have to work to produce her own subsistence. Lazy is better off and Crazy is worse off than either of them would have been had the other not existed. This is Donselaarian exploitation. This is also Donselaarian abuse of rights. Lazy has sold land, for which she had no private interest. Lazy does not need her half of the land. She doesn’t really care what happens to it. She should simply farm the portion she needs for her own subsistence and let Crazy have all of the rest free of charge. It does not matter, from Donselaar’s perspective, whether Lazy is the legitimate owner of half the land or not. Selling an asset, which she has a legitimate right to but no private interest in (her land), allows Lazy to obtain control over an asset she has no legitimate right to (Crazy’s labor). Thus, it doesn’t matter to Donselaar whether taxes are applied to labor assets, or land assets, or any other
assets; the product of those assets belong only to those who are willing to work with those assets to produce consumption goods.
The rest of this paper examines how Donselaarian exploitation can be employed as a standard to judge economic transactions to show that it is neither a workable standard nor does it necessarily imply that a universal basic income is exploitive or any more exploitive than any other economic transaction.
Part 2: Donselaarian exploitation and the value of citizenship
Under Donselaar’s definition, for Crazy to be exploited by Lazy, Crazy must be worse off than she would have been had Lazy not existed. It is clear from the example in the last section that Crazy is materially worse off than she would have been had Lazy not
existed, but is that enough to say that Crazy is worse off in total than she would have
been had Lazy not existed? Would Crazy be better off with a few more goods but with no other human being to interact with all day, every day, for the rest of her life? Would Crazy not be driven insane by loneliness? Donselaar’s conclusions, therefore, rest on the belief that citizenship has no value; that the only contribution that a human being makes to society worth mentioning is her work effort. Social interaction, raising children, painting pictures, or any other nonmarket activity simply has no value in Donselaar’s setting. If one recognizes that all human action, except for criminal activity, makes a positive contribution to our society and our culture, the idea that someone is a parasite simply because they do not participate in the labor market disappears.
One could suppose that Lazy is just a jerk and that her presence does not enhance Crazy’s life at all so that Crazy is in fact worse off than she would be if she were on the island all by herself. If we are to consider that possibility, we should also consider the possibility that Crazy is a jerk and that even by producing all the consumption good’s Lazy needs for survival he still does not make up for what a jerk he is so that Lazy is still worse off than she would be had he not existed. Thus, to know whether Donselaarian exploitation exists it is not enough to prove that Crazy is productive and Lazy unproductive, but also that Lazy is a jerk and Crazy is not. This second part of the proposition is much more subjective and difficult to prove. One’s materially contribution is only a part of one’s social contribution, and to focus in only on the material portion is a serious omission. This line of reasoning will not be solved by a participation income, because someone could meet the conditions for participation and still be such a jerk that no one wants him around, or someone could fail to meet the conditions for participation and yet be so pleasant that his presence enhances the lives of others. Since, in a capitalist society, the denial of a universal basic income means the denial of unconditional access to the resources one needs for survival, it may be best to assume that all human beings are valuable unless proven otherwise.
Despite the insufficiency of Donselaar’s tacit assumption that one is worth one what one sells, the rest of this paper uses his yardstick and as limited only to the discussion of whether people make each other materially better off or not.
Part 3: The level of scarcity