Review of Real Libertarianism Assessed: Political Theory after Van Parijs

Edited by Andrew Reeve and Andrew Williams

Review by Karl Widerquist*


                  Andrew Reeve and Andrew Williams’ new book is a collection of essays discussing the political writings of Philippe Van Parijs, who is best known for his advocacy of basic income (BI) in his 1995 book, Real Freedom for All: What (if anything) can Justify Capitalism. Inspired by the works of Rawls and Dworkin, Van Parijs defines a philosophy he calls “real libertarianism,” which holds that the most just society is the one that maximizes the least advantaged individual’s “real freedom”—the freedom to do whatever she might want to do. Van Parijs argues that an unconditional basic income would maximize the real freedom of the least advantage, and that the productivity of capitalism, harnessed to provide the highest sustainable basic income, could justify capitalism. Before reaching that conclusion he discusses the issue of whether basic income would exploit workers and how society should compensate those brute luck disadvantages such as handicaps.

                  The essays in Real Libertarianism Assessed provide a valuable and in-depth evaluation of Van Parijs’s theories. All of the authors of Reeve and Williams’ book agree to the quality and value of Van Parijs’s work, although some disagree substantially with his conclusions and make important criticisms.

                  Cunliffe, Erreygers, and Van Trier trace the origins of the basic income idea to Joseph Charlier, writing as early as 1848, and Mabel Milner, Dennis Milner, and Bertram Pickard, writing in 1918-1920. These authors offered justifications for BI that differed substantially from Van Parijs. They derived the right to BI from a right to use the land to produce one’s own subsistence. Although equal claim to land as one of many “external assets” is important to Van Parijs, he explicitly rejects any justification for BI based on a need for subsistence.

                  Peter Vallentyne clarifies and criticizes Van Parijs’s use of the principle of self-ownership, which Van Parijs uses in a much more limited way that traditional libertarians. Vallentyne believes Van Parijs was right to deny that self-ownership includes a right to appropriate natural resources, but that he went too far to deny that self-ownership includes the right to benefit from one’s own brute luck advantages, such as being more physically able and therefore, more productive.

                  Brain Barry, although a supporter of basic income, raises very difficult questions about Van Parijs’s justification of it. The most difficult of these being that the concept of real freedom is too weak to justify basic income. According to Van Parijs real freedom is the ability to do whatever one might want to do regardless of whether one may actually want to do it. Therefore, Barry argues, two different opportunity sets can only be ranked against each other if one dominates the other. That is, only if set A has all the available options in set B plus more, can we say that A has more real freedom than B. But imagine a society in which everyone faces the same budget constraint, and the government wants to impose either a guarantee job or a guaranteed income. Basic income would give people some combinations of labor and leisure that would be unavailable with a guarantee job, but the guaranteed job would probably also offer other combinations of labor and leisure that would be unavailable with a guaranteed income. Therefore neither of them necessarily has more real freedom than the other, making it extremely difficult to build a case for basic income from the point of view of maximizing real freedom.

                  Robert van der Veen responds to Barry’s criticism by saying that in his example everyone faced the same budget constraint, and were all equal in terms of real freedom to begin with. This response is inadequate, however, because Van Parijs argues not that real freedom should be equalized, but that it should be as high as possible. Even though we can tell real freedom is equal in this community, we cannot tell whether this community has more real freedom with or without BI. Van der Veen goes on to argue that BI could dominate a guaranteed job in terms of real freedom, but that is an empirical question that is very difficult to answer conclusively using only deductive reasoning.

                  Arneson attacks BI’s ability to deliver real freedom rather than real freedom’s ability to justify a universal BI. As he puts it, “Making the BI grant as high as possible...would include...individuals who are above average in the real freedom they enjoy, but who happen to have a strong preference for leisure over income-generating activity. The redistribution policies that society establishes could do more to advance the real freedom of the least advantaged if they were better targeted at the least-advantaged.” This is a question, I believe, real libertarians will have a hard time answering.

                  Andrew Reeve and Stuart White are both critical of basic income in general because they see it as potentially allowing non-workers to live off of, and so exploit, workers. However, they both write chapters that are quite sympathetic to Van Parijs. Reeve question his inclusion of jobs as part of Van Parijs’s list of “external assets that can be taxed without exploiting self-owning individuals, but he believes this argument only reduces the potential size of the basic income, not its validity. White’s chapter promotes a principle of “fair reciprocity” in which individuals owe society a productive contribution in exchange for a high minimum share in the social product. Basic income, he says, would allow a very important breech in this principle. People who live off a level of basic income that require effort on the part of others to sustain, should feel obliged to fulfill a reciprocal obligation to contribute to that effort. BI does not hold people to that obligation. But he argues that it does have several reciprocity-enhancing effects on equal opportunity, enabling nonmarket contributions to the social product, reducing domestic abuse, improved job quality, and as a residual safeguard against brute luck disadvantage and market vulnerability. Thus, he concludes that a modified basic income such as a time-limited BI or a participation income combined with a basic capital grant could be part of a reciprocity-focused policy system.

                  Hillel Steiner focuses on the internationalization of real libertarian issues, and Thomas Cristiano writes on Van Parijs theory of voting rights. Van Parijs directs his response mostly to these last critics in the concluding chapter.

                  Overall this book serves to further examine the implications of real libertarianism laid out in Real Freedom for All, and is an essential read for anyone interested in the philosophical case for and against basic income.


* Note I am well acquitted with Van Parijs and several of the authors of this book.