Perspectives on the Guaranteed Income, Part I

By Widerquist, Karl | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Perspectives on the Guaranteed Income, Part I


Widerquist, Karl, Journal of Economic Issues


A review of six books on guaranteed income:

Arguing for Basic Income: Ethical Foundations for a Radical Reform, edited by Philippe Van Parijs. New York: Verso, 1992.

Real Freedom for All: What (if Anything) Can Justify Capitalism? by Philippe Van Parijs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

The Benefit of Another's Pains: Parasitism, Scarcity, Basic Income, by Gijs van Donselaar. Amsterdam: Department of Philosophy, University of Amsterdam, 1997.

The $30,000 Solution: A Guaranteed Annual Income for Every American, by Robert R. Schutz. Santa Barbara, CA: Fithian Press, 1996.

"And Economic Justice for All": Welfare Reform for the 21st Century, by Michael L. Murray. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.

The National Tax Rebate: A New America with Less Government, by Leonard M. Greene. Washington: Regency Publishing, Inc., 1998.

The idea of a guaranteed income has been around in one form or another since Thomas Paine(1974) proposed a version of it in 1796. Except for a brief period in the 1960s and 1970s, it has not been a significant part of the public debate in the United States. However, a renewed interest in a guaranteed income led to the publication of numerous articles and books in the 1990s. Most of the recent interest has arisen in Europe, but there has also been growing interest in the United States. Part I of this article reviews six books on the guaranteed income published in the last decade-three from Europe and three from the United States.

A guaranteed income is a policy that unconditionally guarantees that no one's income falls below a certain level. There are many ways to accomplish this goal, but much of the recent literature focuses on a version called the basic income, which is an income paid by the government to every citizen regardless of private income, wealth, employment, or marital status. For example, Charles Clark (1997) estimated that a flat tax of 36 percent on all income would support a basic income of just under $8,000 for each adult and $2,000 for each child. Under this plan, the government would pay every individual a basic grant and would withhold 36 percent of income from all other sources. A person with no private income would receive only the $8,000 basic grant. A person with $8,000 in private income would pay $2,880 in taxes and receive the $8,000 basic income grant for an after-tax, after-transfer income of about $13,220. An individual with a private income of $40,000 would pay $14,400 in taxes, receive the basic income of $8,000, for an after-tax, after-transfer income of about $33,600. Most citizens would be net taxpayers, but the system would be structured so that all individuals could count on a guaranteed minimum grant. Most of the authors discussed here have not put an exact dollar figure on the minimum income, but most favor a grant at least large enough to eliminate all poverty even among those who do not work.

European Views of Guaranteed Income

Philippe Van Parijs's edited volume consists of thirteen chapters by twelve authors. The chapters are based mostly on papers that were presented at a conference in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, in 1989 entitled "Liberty, Equality, Ecology: Around the Ethical Foundations of Basic Income." Most of the book is dedicated to discussing four possible justifications for basic income: freedom, equality, community, and economic efficiency. Although Arguing for Basic Income is more coherent than many edited volumes, it occasionally lacks consistency. Some chapters are highly relevant; some are tangential.

In part I, Guy Standing and Clause Offe each discuss the socioeconomic background of the basic income proposal. In part II, Hillel Steiner and Alan Carling debate the merits of a left-libertarian justification for basic income. Although this topic could be quite interesting, the authors do not spend nearly enough time discussing the basic income directly. …

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