New Paper on Reciprocity and Basic Income

I have a new paper out in Politics, Philosophy & Economics on the Reciprocity Objection to Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). Recipients of a UBI are under no legal obligation to work, study, volunteer, care for dependents or otherwise contribute to society. According to a standard objection, the lack of any associated requirement of contribution puts UBI into conflict with reciprocity (Stuart White, most recently this paper). When one receives benefits from others, one ought to respond in kind by benefitting them; UBI apparently permits people to benefit without benefitting in turn, which is often described as a kind of free-riding. However, advocates have responded that UBI does not represent the proceeds of present labour but of natural resources and past labour (Van Parijs and Vanderborght). The upshot of this argument (from inherited assets) is that the duty of reciprocity doesn’t apply, as there can be no question of giving a fair return to nature or to previous generations. The purpose of my article is to determine whether there is a coherent reciprocity objection to UBI – not whether the objection is decisive all things considered but simply whether there is something to be said on the basis of reciprocity against unconditionality of income support.

As presented above, the reciprocity objection conceives of reciprocity as a duty. Free-riders allegedly violate the duty to respond in kind to the benefits they receive from others. Framed in this way, however, the objection is vulnerable to the response that people ought to be able to opt out of receiving benefits, so as to avoid the responsibility of contributing to their provision. If those who need the good in question couldn’t provide it for themselves without making it available to others, as in the case of standard ‘public’ goods such as light from a lighthouse, there would be a rationale for mandatory participation. Yet income is not a public good in this sense – it is ‘excludable.’

It’s true that there is an efficiency or ‘mutual benefit’ argument for collective provision of protection against involuntary economic hardship, because asymmetric information and adverse selection may undermine private insurance markets. Yet as Joe Heath explains (pp.290-91; see also 93 and 137), the case for public insurance based on market failure will not support the generous forms of income support egalitarians favour.

To sustain the reciprocity objection to UBI, we need to think of reciprocity not as a duty but as a limit on other duties. We owe duties to others regardless of whether they have benefitted us in the past or could benefit us in the future. However, some of these duties may be conditional, at least in part, on the willingness of the other party to comply. If the right to assistance when in need and the correlative duty to provide assistance figure among these conditional moral relations then there is an objection to unconditional income support.

Thinking of reciprocity as a limiting condition rather than itself a duty helps explain how reciprocity can be relevant to the division of natural and inherited assets. While it there may be no duty to return benefits received from nature or from the dead, reciprocity is still relevant to the design of the social institutions that determine how economic resources may be passed down from one generation to the next.

I want to underline three qualifications to my endorsement of the reciprocity objection. First, the question is about conditional versus unconditional income support, not income support versus no income support. In a competitive economic system, there is a reciprocity objection to the absence of income support. Second, as White argues, the reciprocity objection to unconditionality only applies in a society that is otherwise not too unjust. I can’t insist on you complying a particular duty with respect to me (as a condition of my complying with this duty with respect to you) if I have already violated a whole series of other duties with respect to you. Third, the objection is only pro tanto, or other things equal; the article does not provide an all things considered judgment on the justice or wisdom of UBI. So the article is not very practical, if by practical one means “immediately useful in supporting one side of the debate vs. the other.”