BASIC INCOME STUDIES
An International Journal of Basic Income Research
Vol. 2, Issue 2 COMMENT December 2007
Debate: “Basic Income and the Republican Legacy”
Guest editor: David Casassas, University of Oxford
A Republican Right to Basic Income?*
The basic income proposal provides everyone in a society, as an unconditional
right, with access to a certain level of income. Introducing such a right is bound
to raise questions of institutional feasibility. Would it lead too many people to
opt out of the workforce, for example? And even if it did not, could a
constitution that allowed some members of the society to do this – at whatever
relative cost – prove acceptable in a society of mutually reciprocal, equally
positioned members? I assume in this short essay, however, that none of these
problems is insurmountable. I concentrate on the question of how far
republicanism makes room for justifying something like a right to basic income,
assuming that there are no problems of this kind with introducing and
establishing such a right.
Any satisfactory argument for a basic income should satisfy two desiderata.
First is that of adequacy: the argument should establish a right to an intuitively
* I am indebted to David Casassas and Jurgen De Wispelaere for their editorial assistance, and for some helpful
discussion of the issues.
Copyright ©2007 The Berkeley Electronic Press. All rights reserved.
adequate level of income.1 Second is that of independence: the argument should
establish a claim to a nonnullifiable, nonstigmatizing basic income.
These desiderata should be relatively uncontroversial. The defenders of a
basic income have all had an adequate income in mind, by some intuitive
criterion of adequacy. And they have wanted to make such an income available
as a right that is not subject to provisos about existing means, employment
history, willingness to perform certain services, or anything of the kind (Van
Parijs, 1995; 2001). The attraction of republican political theory is that it
underwrites a basic income scheme argument that satisfies both of these
desiderata better than do alternative schemes.
2. Utilitarian and Liberal Alternatives
Utilitarian theory makes a very good case for a financially adequate basic
income, but it is not clear that it could satisfy the independence desideratum. If
the government used the utilitarian criterion in making distributional decisions,
it might turn out by happy accident that promoting utility would argue for
giving each a basic income. But, that would not mean that people would enjoy
basic income as a right; they would enjoy it only so long as this was for the
A plausible liberal argument for a right to a basic income must offer a liberal
reason – related to the cause of liberty rather than utility – for establishing a legal
right to a basic income in every society. And that liberal reason ought to provide
a more plausible ground than the utilitarian counterpart for establishing and
maintaining such a regime.
First, let liberty be understood, in the spirit of contemporary liberalism, as
the absence of interference by others. In particular, let it be understood as the
absence of interference in the basic liberties: the absence of interference, roughly,
in the harmless exercise of liberties of belief, expression, association, ownership,
and the like. The cause of promoting the traditional basic liberties is unlikely to
argue, in that case, for a regime in which everyone has a right to a basic income.
Possessing those liberties will be maximized by inhibiting those who would
interfere. And it is unclear what role a basic income policy would play in such a
regime of inhibition.
Philippe Van Parijs (1995) directs us to a second, more promising way of
arguing for a basic income right from within a broadly liberal vision. He argues
1 For an attractive way of identifying an adequate level, refer to Amartya Sen’s notion of basic capabilities (Sen,
1985; Nussbaum, 1992).
that we should reject the distinction between the absence of maltreatment by
others that allows us the possession of liberal liberties and the absence of natural
or social obstacles that gives value to the possession of those liberties, enabling
people to exercise them with greater ease or in a greater range of cases (Rawls,
1971). We should treat intentional obstruction and unintentional limitation on a
par – we should see each as a variety of liberty-reducing interference. Since each
reduces our choices, they are equally opposed, as Van Parijs says, to “real
freedom.” As we establish rights to legal protection against intentional
interference, we should also establish legal rights against having to endure
remediable limitations. And such rights might well include the right to a basic
But even this derivation of a basic income right is not fully satisfactory. For it
is implausible to treat unintentional limitation as being as bad, in the ledger of
liberty, as is intentional interference. If someone stands in my way, that’s a
different sort of challenge to my liberty than the challenge provided by the tree
that has fallen in my path. If someone threatens me with harm if I take a
particular action, that is a different sort of challenge than one which occurs when
someone warns me that I will suffer harm, say from natural causes, should I take
that action. It is entirely plausible to provide people with rights against
intentionally imposed harm from others but not so plausible to provide them
with rights against unhappy twists of fate, if the rights are supposed to be
We see that utilitarian premises do not provide an argument for a suitably
entrenched right to a basic income. The premises invoked in this liberal approach
might argue for such a right but are not suitably compelling. This approach is
indifferent to the contrast, marked in traditional discussions of liberty, between
the ill of being restricted by natural obstacles and the evil of being subject to the
intentional constraints of others.
3. The Republican Turn
Republican political theory can make a firmer and more persuasive case for a
right to basic income than any of these approaches.2 In particular, it can satisfy
not just the adequacy desideratum but also the independence desideratum – i.e.
the desideratum that utilitarianism would fail and that liberalism would satisfy
only at the cost of rigging the requirements of freedom.
2 For a congenial, republican case for basic income – which I had not known about when I wrote this piece – see
3Pettit: A Republican Right to Basic Income?
The basic distinction between republican and liberal political theory is that
the former construes freedom, not as the absence of interference by others, but as
the absence of a certain sort of dominating control. Let us say that others control
me to the extent that their presence in my life raises the probability of my acting
according to their tastes. And let us set aside the reasoned and nondominating
variety of control exercised when others give me advice or information on a take-
it-or-leave-it-basis. Let us focus instead on unreasoned control.
Unreasoned control – henceforth, called “control” – may be exercised
through interference, such as when others remove an option, replace it with a
penalized alternative, or reduce my capacity to choose rationally, whether by
exploiting a weakness or inducing false beliefs. But control may also manifest
without such active interference. Suppose that others are in a position of being
able to interfere in any of those ways that gets me to behave according to their
tastes. And imagine that they decide to interfere only on a need-for-action basis.
They leave me alone so long as I behave according to their taste, but they are
ready to interfere if I begin to deviate from that pattern – or if their taste changes.
Such agents control what I do, whether or not I realize it, even when they
find no reason to interfere actively. They exercise control by invigilating my
behavior, monitoring it with a view to interfering when necessary – and only
when necessary. If I manage to act as I choose, I am lucky; I happen to choose as
they want me to choose. Whatever I do, then, I do by their implicit leave. In the
words of the old republican complaint, I act only cum permissu: only with
The view that unreasoned control takes away liberty and that it may assume
a wholly invigilatory character is just the view, in more traditional terms, that
liberty requires nondomination. I will escape domination only to the extent that I
occupy a protected position and am empowered against such control on the part
of others. My freedom will consist in that protected and empowered status.
Let liberty be restricted to the possession of the basic liberties: that is, let
those liberties define the domain of freedom and let freedom require the mere
possession of those liberties (Pettit, 2008). We can still argue for a right to a basic
income, so long as the possession of those liberties is taken to require not just the
absence of interference by others in the relevant areas of choice but also the
absence of unreasoned control – the absence of domination (Pettit, 1997; Skinner,
1998; Viroli, 2002; Pettit, 2007c). The cause of promoting basic liberties in this
republican sense does markedly better than the alternative justifications we have
The argument is straightforward. Others will control me, if only in the
merely invigilatory fashion, only to the extent that the division of powers
between us means that they can interfere with me at will – that is, without
prevention – and at tolerable cost, i.e. with a degree of impunity. If I am not
assured a basic income, there will be many areas where the wealthier could
interfere with me at tolerable cost, without their being confronted by legal
prevention of that interference.
Suppose there are just a few employers and many available employees, and
that times are hard. In those conditions I and those who like me will not be able
to command a decent wage: a wage that will enable us to function properly in
society. And in those conditions it will be equally true that we would be
defenseless against our employers’ petty abuse or their power to arbitrarily
dismiss us. Other protections, such as those that strong trade unions might
provide, are possible against such alien control. But the most effective of all
protections, and one that should complement other measures available, would be
one’s ability to leave employment and fall back on a basic wage available
unconditionally from the state.
Next suppose that you live in conditions where you, and perhaps your
children, depend financially on your husband. In such conditions he is likely to
control you, even though he never resorts to violence or other abuse. He may let
you act as you please within certain limits, while being disposed to stop you – at
the limit, by leaving you – if you breach those limits. You would live under your
husband’s control, almost certainly straining to keep within his restrictions,
unless there is an effective, financially viable alternative such as that which a
basic income would provide. Other protections may be available here as in the
first case – for example, he may be legally required to provide maintenance
should you separate – but these are unlikely to be equally effective and in any
case they will be powerfully supplemented by a basic income.
Such examples show it to be entirely plausible that promoting the resilient,
republican possession of basic liberties argues for establishing a legal right to a
basic income. Such a right would mean that people had adequate income for
functioning properly in society. And that income would mean that people would
not have to beg the favour of the powerful, or even of the counter-clerk.
However, why give the basic income right to all, not to only those in need?
A number of considerations might argue for this provision. A universal right of
the sort imagined would resist electoral pressure for change better than would a
needs-tested right, since it would benefit everyone in common, thus being a
more entrenched and firmer bulwark against domination. A universal right
5Pettit: A Republican Right to Basic Income?
would mean that those who rely on the basic income – distinct from the
independently wealthy – will not have to assert their right on the grounds of
being a class apart: people who depend on others’ goodwill and are easier targets
of control and domination. And a universal right symbolizes the fundamental
equality of all in relation to the collective provisions of government; only some
will depend on the basic income that all receive, but all can see that the income is
there to depend on, should they themselves fall on hard times.
Would government itself exercise dominating control in establishing a basic
income regime? Would it do so, for example, in relation to the wealthy who are
the net creditors in the effected redistribution? As a matter of logic, the liberal
government that interferes with people in order to reduce overall interference
will have to take liberty-as-noninterference away from some in order to increase
such liberty overall. But the government that interferes with people in order to
reduce overall domination may not have to take liberty-as-nondomination away
from any in order to increase such liberty overall. There is no similar necessity of
If I can stop a certain pattern of interference that you practice, or if I can
make it too costly for you to continue it, then my allowing it does not mean that I
am dominated. If I allow you to keep the liquor cabinet key or to hide my
cigarettes, you still interfere with me when you act under that permission. But
your interference will not be control or domination; the interference will be
controlled or nonarbitrary.
Does the interference that government might practice in establishing a right
to a basic income count as a controlling or dominating form of interference in the
lives of those of us who are relative losers? Under appropriate conditions, it can
be held to be controlled and nonarbitrary.
Let the activity of government in establishing a basic income right have to be
supported by considerations that all of us explicitly or implicitly take to be
relevant in public decision-making. And if it is not uniquely supported by
considerations of that kind, let it be chosen from among acceptable candidates on
the basis of some procedure – say, a parliamentary vote or even a referendum –
that is supported by such considerations. To the extent that such conditions
obtain, one can plausibly say that the measure introduced is an exercise of
controlled interference, and so not dominating in itself (Pettit, 2007a; Pettit,
2007b). The wealthy individuals who are relatively disadvantaged by the
measure will not themselves exercise the required checking. But the co-governed
people as a whole will exercise such checking; and if they do so by implementing
a regime of common reasons or values, then they can be thought of as acting in a
way that does not discriminate between wealthy and poor.
Utilitarianism fails to provide premises that would persuasively support a basic
income right, because they would not argue for a suitably firm and universal
right. Liberalism, even the left variety of liberalism, would not persuasively
support a basic income right because the premises it has to invoke for the
purpose, given a conception of freedom as noninterference, are not suitably
compelling; they make freedom depend, not just on the possession of the basic
liberties, but on the absence of natural obstacles to the exercise of those liberties.
Only republicanism serves well in the required role. The premises it invokes
are inherently and independently persuasive, deriving from a well-established
conception of freedom as nondomination. And, absent problems of feasibility,
they give us plausible grounds for arguing in favor of a dispensation in which
people enjoy a universal right to a basic income.
Nussbaum, M. (1992) “Human Functioning and Social Justice,” Political Theory 20 (2),
Pettit, Philip (1997) Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford: Oxford
Pettit, Philip (2007a) Examen a Zapatero. Madrid: Temas de Hoy.
Pettit, Philip (2007b) “Joining the Dots,” in M. Smith, H. G. Brennan, R. E. Goodin and
F. C. Jackson (eds.) Common Minds: Themes From the Philosophy of Philip Pettit. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Pettit, Philip (2007c) “Republican Liberty: Three Axioms, Four Theorems,” in C. Laborde
and J. Maynor (eds.) Republicanism and Political Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.
Pettit, Philip (2008) “The Basic Liberties,” in M. Kramer (ed.) Essays on H. L. A. Hart.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Raventós, Daniel (2007) Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom. London: Pluto
Rawls, John (1971) A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, Amartya (1985) Commodities and Capabilities. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Skinner, Quentin (1998) Liberty Before Liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Van Parijs, Philippe (1995) Real Freedom for All: What (If Anything) Can Justify Capitalism?
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
7Pettit: A Republican Right to Basic Income?
Van Parijs, Philippe (2001) “A Basic Income for All,” in J. Cohen and J. Rogers (eds.)
What’s Wrong With a Free Lunch? Boston: Beacon Press.
Viroli, Maurizio (2002) Republicanism. New York: Hill and Wang.
308 Marx Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544