Jurgen De Wispelaere will be giving a lecture at the Little BIG conference, New Mexico State University, February 6th to 8th. His talk is entitled "Universal Basic Income: From Justice to Legitimacy?"
Abstract: Many advocates argue for a universal and unconditional basic income on principled grounds as constituting a core component of a just social order. In this paper I argue the idea that basic income constitutes a requirement of social justice is flawed for two reasons. On the one hand, principled arguments are too weak to offer a comprehensive argument in favor for the basic income proposal. Theories of justice often remain silent on key design features of any plausible basic income scheme – and are therefore too indeterminate – or else proscribe radically incompatible design precepts, preventing basic income advocates to reach agreement on a "specific" basic income scheme. On the other hand, even where we have good independent reasons to endorse a basic income policy – perhaps reasons grounded in pragmatic rather than principled considerations – basic income must still meet the test of legitimacy. In a democratic society where disagreement persists regarding which theory of justice to adopt, the principle of legitimacy plays a key justificatory role. However, the contemporary debate about basic income gives us little indication under what conditions basic income should be regarded as a legitimate (rather than a just) policy. In this paper I propose two conditions that basic income must meet: basic income must receive sufficient "popular support" and basic income must be "effective". Each of these legitimacy conditions poses stringent challenges when applied to the case of basic income, which are nevertheless often misunderstood in the contemporary debate. Moreover, the basic income proposal appears to suffer from a pernicious “governance paradox”, in which strategies to boost popular support for basic income simultaneously impairs its effectiveness (and vice versa). This governance paradox affects both the immediate political feasibility of basic income as well as its long-term political resilience or stability. I conclude that the most important challenge for basic income advocates today is to find a solution to the legitimacy problem, rather than waste further effort examining whether basic income is just.