Just Distribution : Rawlsian Liberalism and the Politics of Basic Income

University dissertation from Stockholm : Statsvetenskapliga institutionen

Abstract: Should liberal egalitarians endorse the idea of an unconditional basic income for all? This thesis defends a politics of unconditional universalism, offering a liberty-respecting and non-perfectionist basis for maximin-guided policies. The argument starts off from a Rawlsian justification of basic income in the context of institutional ideal theory. This view is based on the aim of maximising the prospects of the least advantaged in ways consistent with a robust protection of people’s effective freedom, the social bases of self-respect and access to meaningful activities at each stage of their lives.The thesis then moves on to specify such a position in response to objections based on ideas of fair cooperation and strong reciprocity. Linking John Rawls’ arguments on property-owning democracy to Philippe Van Parijs’ case for ‘gift-equalisation’, the study defends the view that a basic income is not inherently exploitative or beyond the scope of justice. To the extent that unconditional universalism is tied to the idea of sharing gift-like resources, it is just a matter of distributing wealth to which nobody has a justified prior claim, not an unfair redistribution of labour income.Introducing a problem of feasibility, however, the thesis also argues that unconditional wealth sharing may fail to meet liberal commitments and to counter structural exploitation unless constrained by other requirements of justice. The latter include a minimal autonomy constraint on maximin-objectives and the set of in kind transfers and social infrastructure needed to foster the activities and virtues on which the stability of this ideal relies. The thesis concludes with a study on the application of such standards to real-world conditions. It is argued that policy options combining a modest basic income with work-based social insurance and universal access to social services are more promising than strategies where a high basic income would replace core components of the welfare state.

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