Civic republicanism, the basic income guarantee, and the living wage

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USBIG Discussion Paper No. 25, March 2002

Work in progress, do not cite or quote without author’s permission



Jerry Waltman

University of Southern Mississippi

The Western political tradition is composed of two distinct strains, liberal individualism and civic republicanism. For several reasons, liberal individualism largely came to occupy the field in both academic and popular political discourse in the thirty odd years following the end of World War II. Within the last decade or so, however, academics have been busy resurrecting and rehabilitating civic republicanism. (1) The purpose of this paper is to lay out the basic model of civic republicanism, stressing how it handles poverty and economic inequality, and then assess the universal basic income grant (UBI) and the living wage in light of these principles. I conclude by arguing that a melding of the two policies-a Universal Service Set and a living wage-provide the best approach.


Civic republicanism's origins lie in the ancient world, in the political theory undergirding several notable Greek city-states and the Roman republic. (2) Thereafter, it lay dormant until resurrected in the Italian city-states of the Renaissance, and then by the "Commonwealth men" of seventeenth century England. From the latter, it was transported to the American colonies and flowered during the Revolutionary era and immediately afterward. While republican thinkers from these various periods parted company on several matters, their unifying focus was that the polity is a self-governing community of citizens.

The aim of the civic republican polity is maintaining the liberty of its citizens. Since liberty cannot be achieved outside a community-a wild animal can be "free" but it cannot be said to have "liberty"-the individual citizen must be intimately connected to the community. He must believe that his interests are inseparable from those of the community, and that the role of citizen is a natural part of life. The state can rely on its citizens, who after all are the state, to exercise civic virtue and to consider the needs of the community along with their own. The citizenry governs itself by the process of deliberation, a deliberation devoted to finding and pursuing the public interest. To this end, political institutions in a republic should evidence a certain balance and be rather slow acting, at least under ordinary circumstances. Representative democracy, which allows republics to be larger than city-states, is a method for the further protection of liberty. It is not, pointedly, an end in itself.

Unlike liberal individualism, which posits no overriding end for the polity, civic republicanism stands emphatically on liberty as its central value. Liberty is taken to mean being free from domination. More formally, according to Richard Petit, a leading contemporary republican theorist, "One agent dominates another if and only if they have a certain power over that other, in particular a power of interference on an arbitrary basis." (3) Domination can therefore take either of two forms. In the first, one private individual holds power over another (dominium); in the second, it is the state which exercises the domination (imperium). Both are equally odious to republicanism. If I am dominated, I am not free, no matter what the source of the domination. To be a citizen is to be at all times and all places free of domination, since citizenship is synonymous with the enjoyment of liberty.

Prohibiting dominium presupposes that no citizen can be the servant of another, for servanthood brings domination with it by its very nature. If you are my servant and I order you around, you are quite clearly being dominated. Nevertheless, it is important to note that you are dominated even if I chose not to order you around (for whatever reason). You still cannot look me in the eye as an equal, for we both know that "The Remains of the Day" is more realistic than Wooster and Jeeves. Not only may I alter my reserved role at any time without consulting you, but you will also be ever mindful of my ability to do so, and that cannot help but affect how you think, feel, and act. You and I are both aware that there may come a time when you will have to tread gingerly. Citizens of a republic simply cannot have such a relationship. As Petit said of civic republicans:

The heights that they identified held out the prospect of a way of life within which none of them had to bow and scrape to others; they would each be capable of standing on their own two feet; they would each be able to look others squarely in the eye. (4)

Or, as Walt Whitman succinctly described a citizen, "Neither a servant nor a master am I." (5)

Governmental power can of course be a source of domination also, for the enormous power of the state is ever pregnant with the potential for domination. There is, however, a critical difference here. Whereas interference, real or potential, by one individual over another's choices is by its nature domination, governmental interference in one's affairs may or may not be. This is because liberty can only be made meaningful in a community, and the needs of the community will necessarily at times come into conflict with one or more individuals' autonomy, or at least with individuals' autonomy as they would define it. It is the community that makes liberty possible, and a citizen's freedom is inseparable from the interests and health of the community. As Blackstone noted, "laws, when prudently framed, are by no means subversive but rather introductive of liberty." (6)

This is where civic republicanism and political theories based in neoclassical economics (as well as those based on extreme versions of a right to privacy, it should be added to be fair) clash. Take Milton Friedman's argument that the right to buy and sell property at market prices is a fundamental liberty that should be guaranteed in the Constitution. (7) The civic republican would reply that, first, while a citizen certainly has property rights (and indeed that they are important rights), he/she also has property in rights. James Madison endorsed this sentiment in 1792 when he wrote that "as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights." Government, he went on, should "impartially secure to every man whatever is his own." (8) What he meant is that the liberty of the person, considered as a citizen, is the central concern. The right of property refers not merely, and certainly not exclusively, to the right to possess and accumulate physical goods; a person's property includes the possession and exercise of civil and political liberties.

Moreover, our civic republican would continue, economic life is not separable from political life. It is the pursuit of the collective interest of the citizenry in preserving their liberty that is paramount. Thus, I cannot claim that the state can brook no interference in my right to sell my apples at price X or construct a high-rise office building on my real estate. Of course it may interfere with my doing these, and a host of other activities for that matter. Its only constraints are utilizing proper procedures in adopting the policy, non-arbitrariness in carrying it out, and the maintenance of contestability. My rights are as a citizen, not as the owner of a lemonade stand. Thomas Jefferson argued in a letter to a friend in 1816 that governments do not exist to protect property. They exist, rather, to promote access to property, which, he said, is why he changed John Locke's trilogy of "life, liberty, and property" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." (9)

Critics sometimes contend that civic republicanism, by granting the state such extensive powers, can suffocate the individual. Of course, it is theoretically possible that it could, but that is a faint threat in a viable republic. Republican politics endeavors to construct a society in which individuals are free to make the choices that they wish, to be truly free from domination today and the threat of domination tomorrow. If the citizenry, though, becomes selfish and irresponsible, then, yes, republican governments could become arbitrary and destructive of liberty. It is often, though, a rampant individualism that undermines individual freedom. In part, this is because it turns a blind eye to the domination that can be inherent in individuals' relations with each other. But it is also because that by asserting that there is no higher good than self-interest it destroys the whole. Tocqueville, it is worth recalling, was strongly in favor of "individuality," attainable only when people are free from domination, but deeply skeptical of "individualism," where people acknowledge no higher good than the pursuit of their own self-interest. In fact, one of the major concerns voiced throughout his writing was whether republican liberty could be maintained as democracy spread, or whether the offspring would swallow the parent. (10)

Consequently, "rights," whether the economic rights favored by Friedmanites or the privacy rights cherished by the left, cannot stand as impenetrable barriers to policies designed to achieve the public good. (11) To do so is to champion an individualism that is the path to isolation and ultimately to anarchy. Rights are a means to the accomplishing of liberty, not zones that by absolutely restricting state action are subversive of it.


Republics are composed of and governed by their citizens. Seeking to secure and protect the liberty of the citizenry, republics depend on both widespread civic virtue and active participation in public affairs. The role of citizen is not merely a legal status conferred by the state; it is rather a central component of the individual's life.

To be free in the republican sense, free from domination, requires that each citizen be autonomous. Without autonomy, the citizen cannot make the choices that are the benefits of liberty. Further, without autonomy the citizen is liable to be unduly swayed by others, and unable to reach her own conclusions about the needs of the community. Richard Dagger has defined autonomy as "the right to the protection and promotion of the ability to lead a self-governed life." (12)

Autonomy is not a dichotomous variable, however, something either present or absent. "Autonomy, like other abilities," Dagger explains, " is not something we either do nor do not have; it is something we may possess to a greater or lesser extent, just as the ability to speak English or play chess varies considerably among English speakers and chess players." (13) It is a continuum, therefore, and it is not necessary that every citizen have an identical amount; what is required instead is merely that no citizen should be below a certain threshold of autonomy. Above that, "increasing someone's autonomy by widening the range of choices available . . . becomes less and less valuable. Rather than maximize autonomy, either in a select few individuals or in some abstract sense, as if we could pile up units of autonomy, we ought to be concerned with bringing as many people as possible up to that threshold. The idea is to promote autonomy by recognizing the right of autonomy, not to produce more and more autonomy for its own sake." (14)

What must we as citizens have, then, to reach this threshold of autonomy? First, of course, we must possess certain basic civil liberties, such as those found in the Bill of Rights. We must be free from unjust criminal prosecutions; we must be free to speak our minds and write what we wish; we must be free to exercise freedom of conscience; our private effects must be shielded from arbitrary intrusions; and our property must not be taken without just compensation. Additionally, we must have a guarantee of political participation, participation in which each counts as one and only one. In a representative democracy, this means voting, running for office if we choose, petitioning government, and organizing with others to promote our views.

But it also requires something more, namely the ability to live without depending on others. James Harrington, the foremost of the English republican writers of the seventeenth century, included these among his "Aphorisms" regarding politics:

The man that cannot live upon his own must be a servant; but he that can live upon his own may be a freeman.

Where a people cannot live upon their own, the government is either a monarchy or aristocracy; where a people can live upon their own, the government may be a democracy. (15)

Or, as Richard Petit put it in more modern language, "To be independent in the intended sense is to have the wherewithal to operate normally and properly in your society without having to beg or borrow from others, and without having to depend on their beneficence." (16)

If you do not live upon your own, therefore, your citizenship is wanting. Not only are you not free of the domination your purse-string holders have over you; your capacity for developing the independence of mind needed for the expeditious and just conduct of public business is also called into serious question. You must have the capacities to make choices both in your private sphere and when you participate in public affairs.

Without question, the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has done the best thinking in this area. (17) He begins by laying out two concepts, "functionings" and "capabilities." Goods, he maintains, have four discrete aspects. There is first the notion of the good, say bread. We have a referent for "bread," defining it as a mixture of so much dough, so much water, and so forth. Second, there are the characteristics of goods, in this instance its color or nutritional value. Third, there is the function of the good, preventing hunger and providing nourishment in bread's case. Fourth, there is the utility of the good, that is, how much pleasure one derives from consuming it.

It is the "functionings" of the goods that are germane here. What we want people to possess is adequate health and vigor. It follows that to achieve an acceptable level of these "functionings," people must have the "capabilities" to secure certain goods. They need what Sen refers to as an adequate "capability set." In a modern society, part of the "capability set" will consist of non-material matters, such as the ability to read, to have access to knowledge, and the like. (18) Part of it, however, will be purely economic, the enjoyment of a certain standard of living. "In this approach what is valued is the capability to live well, and, in the specific economic context of standard of living, it values the capabilities associated with economic matters." Being free, therefore, he argues, requires a "basic capability set" composed of both economic and non-economic elements. Without this, one cannot be a citizen as republicans envisage citizenship.

Moreover, the capability set and the functionings it produces vary significantly from one society to another. Merely to have a roof over one's head, one set of clothes, and three bowls of gruel a day cannot fulfil the functioning requirement in a modern, prosperous society. Adam Smith himself addressed this point in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations:By necessaries I understand, not only the commodities necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without. A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful state of poverty, which, it is presumed, no body can well fall into without extreme bad conduct. Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them . . . Under necessaries, therefore, I comprehend, not only those things which nature, but those things which the established rules of decency, have rendered necessary to the lowest rank of people. (19)

Sen made the same point two hundred years later regarding peoples' basic standard of living in modern rich countries.

Can they take part in the life of the community? Can they appear in public without shame and without feeling disgraced? Can they find worthwhile jobs? Can they use their school education? Can they visit friends and relations if they choose? It is a question of what the persons can do or can be, and not just a question of their earnings and opulence, nor of their being contended. Freedom is the issue; not commodities, nor utility as such. (20)

Thomas Jefferson saw as clearly as Amartya Sen the link between republican citizenship and a base line of economic independence, and was more than willing to use public policies to bring people up to that level. Daniel Boorstin has argued that Jefferson was deeply concerned throughout his public career with how best to use government to provide the conditions for people to reach their potential. (21) Joyce Appleby adds that as early as 1784, he wished "to use constitutional and statutory measures to make the poor independent." (22) He proposed, for example, adopting a 50 acre property qualification for the right to vote in Virginia-and giving every landless adult white male 50 acres.

Jefferson's praise of the role of independent small farmers is often painted as a nostalgia trip, a utopian fantasy that, if it were ever feasible in the past, certainly was not in the emerging commercial republic of his middle age. A laudable ideal, perhaps, but hopelessly naive as a social blueprint in the early nineteenth century. But that is simply inaccurate. Jefferson in fact looked forward to and actively supported the commercialization of agriculture. "Working with a completely commercial mode of agriculture, Jefferson projected for America a dynamic food-producing and food-selling economy which promised the best of both worlds: economic independence for the bulk of the population and a rising standard of living." (23) It was the expansion of the stock of available arable land that was the key to securing the republican ideal of small farmers into the foreseeable future. If the land could be provided, Jefferson was optimistic about the American future of commercialized agriculture. In 1817 he wrote to a French correspondent that his optimism was "built much on the enlargement of the resources of life going hand in hand with the enlargement of territory, and the belief that men are disposed to live honestly, if the means of doing so are open to them." (24)

In sum, to be a citizen one must have a certain basic level of economic well-being, and that level must be judged by the standards of each society. Without it, no person can be free, and when people are not free the republican polity disintegrates. Adrian Oldfield has summed it up this way:

For activity of any kind, including that involved in the practice of citizenship, people need certain resources. Some of these have to do with . . . civil, political, and legal rights. Others have to do with economic and social resources. Without health, education, and a reasonable living income, for instance, individuals do not have the capacity to be effective agents in the world, and the possibilities of a practice of citizenship are thus foreclosed in advance. Such rights and resources have to be secured for citizens, for citizenship is an egalitarian practice." (25)

Richard Petit put the same point more briefly. "If a republican state is committed to advancing the cause of freedom as non-domination among its citizens, then it must embrace a policy of promoting socioeconomic independence." (26)

A good case can be made, of course, that poverty is an evil in itself and requires a moral response. Every major American religious tradition, in fact, includes that position, to one degree or another. Catholicism, mainstream Protestantism, evangelical Protestantism, and Judaism all concur that poverty is a blot on God's world and that there is a duty to respond, disagree though they may about the causes of poverty and the appropriateness of public versus private means of addressing it. (27) The point here is different. Poverty is an evil because of its political consequences. By stunting the mind and warping the spirit, it makes people unfit for republican citizenship. Since the freedom of all citizens is dependent on the health of the political system, which in turn is dependent on the continuing practice of citizenship, the viability of a republican polity is threatened, and ultimately destroyed, by the threat of poverty.

To be sure, even at its most generous the reach of who could be considered a citizen in the historical republics was quite restricted-to a small coterie of property-owning males who stood ready for military service. However, republican theory loses none of its cogency when the definition of citizen is expanded to include all adults. Rather than limit citizenship to those who already have the educational attainments and a degree of personal prosperity, the question for modern societies is how to make all adults fit for citizenship The framework for political organization civic republicanism embodies can be as relevant to the politics of today as at those historical moments when it was dominant, if steps are taken to make citizenship a condition of every adult.

We must be at pains to point out that securing an acceptable level of material well-being for all is not a sufficient condition for keeping a republic, merely a necessary one. Republican citizenship requires that citizens utilize their well-being responsibly and for wise ends. They are free to be foolish and intemperate, but a republic cannot endure if they are. Rereading Harrington's aphorisms, the use of the word "may" in both of them is striking, and far more than merely suggestive. Here, of course, is where the role of education in the promotion of virtue becomes critical, but that is another avenue entirely. For the moment, we must address ourselves solely to the best mechanism for securing a basic level of material well-being to every citizen. First, however, we need to take up the issue of equality and inequality.


Republics, we have established, must address the problem of poverty. Further, the attack on poverty must be mounted by the state, for to leave it to private efforts is to leave its eradication uncertain. Citizenship must be preserved by removing citizens from poverty, opening up the vistas of choice that are the essence of freedom. But what about equality of choice? Citizenship is by its nature egalitarian, as each person has to count and measure as one and only one. Does it follow that republican governments must secure material equality among its citizens? In a word, no.

A viable republic will, instead, have to adhere to three conditions. First, it must free all its citizens of the stain of poverty. Second, it must establish and maintain what Richard Petit calls "structural equality" among the citizenry. Third, it must soften the extremes of material inequality.

The issue of poverty has already been addressed. Passing on, we need only pause momentarily to dispense with the structural issue. What is required to meet this criterion is complete legal and political equality. When people appear before the courts and other institutions of government, they must be treated as equals. No citizen may stand outside the law, or have special rules apply to him. The principles and practices of the law must be shaped and applied in a completely non-arbitrary fashion. Turning to political equality, it is essential that political participation be conducted on the basis of one person one vote. No citizen may be denied the right to participation (in all its guises) and none can have more voice than another.

Let us turn now to the matter of material equality. As with poverty, a moral case can be made for material equality, but that is irrelevant here. In political terms, furthermore, an arguable case can be made that a republic would function better if there were material equality among its citizens. None would surely then have to bow and scrape. They could all eat at the same restaurants, afford similar clothes, and ride in the same section of the train or plane; and the similarity of their economic condition would bind their interests tightly together. If a society existed, then, with absolute, or even rough, pre-existing material equality, a republic would be an ideal and natural choice for the political system. However, republican political theory is not designed merely to provide a guide to what would be desirable in a social utopia; it is designed to be a program for the real world.

Therefore, two factors must be kept in mind. First, a market economy is the natural outgrowth of republican political structure. If people have even qualified property rights, then they must have the right to dispose of their property as they see fit. Transactions among private parties will thereby automatically characterize much of the economic activity in a republic. Because people have different endowments and different luck, inequalities in the possession of property will be an inevitability. Such inequalities are simply a natural by-product of a market economy, and it cannot be otherwise. Since there is no way to maintain republican freedom without an accompanying market economy, we must accept that some economic inequality is going to be a fact of life in a republic.

Second, any attempt to legislate material equality would vest far too much power in the state to suit republican tastes. It would lead, that is, to imperium, which would demolish what you were trying to save. This is because the magnitude of the undertaking would create a state the scale of which would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tether it to republican political institutions. Besides, how could it be done? If some people have a certain skill (say, hitting a little white ball with a stick) which others do not, and if people are willing to pay to watch those with the skill demonstrate it, how would you achieve material equality? You could not physically endow everyone with the skill. So, you would have to lower the skill level of those with it to make abilities equal. At my physical peak, for example, for Barry Bonds and I to be equal at the plate, he would have to have 25 pound weights attached to each wrist and bat blindfolded (at least). While the republic might not collapse if everyone was made equal in sports, if you did this to artists, musicians, dancers, and various other talented individuals, what a drab and oppressive world it would be. Or, you could make the recipients of the largesse fork all of it over to a common pool, to be distributed to everyone. But would not at least some of the incentive go away? And what about the rules, regulations, and bureaucracy that would be required? At the same time, there are entrepreneurs who do serve the greater good while pursuing riches for themselves. New products and better ways of doing things spring from people whose creative abilities lie in these areas. To deprive them of the reasonable fruits of their labors hardly seems fair, and would surely lessen their propensity to tinker in the garage. No, a republican state that tried to utilize governmental power to enforce anything approaching material equality would likely not survive.

Nevertheless, too much inequality in material possessions is an equally serious problem. Again, both the moral case and the economic efficiency case against too much inequality, powerful though they may be, must yield to the political case. Severe inequalities in material conditions, to put it straightforwardly, can destroy the very bases on which legal and political equality are built. This is true for three reasons.

First, when citizens enjoy vastly different incomes, they begin to lose the sense of seeing each other as equals. When housing, clothes, vacations, food, and so forth differ enormously, people invariably become detached from those who are on the other side of the chasm. Their experiences cannot help but disconnect them, and they begin to see fellow citizens as somehow the "other," different from themselves, unapproachable and perhaps vexing. Everyone need not be able to afford an identical house, but the square footage and the acreage on which it sits should not be too far apart. If it is a matter of choice, of course-citizen A spends his discretionary income on a large house while citizen B enjoys expensive wines in a smaller house-that is altogether different. That very act of choice makes them similar. Second, too much economic inequality can lead to skewed political participation. Any form of clientelism is obviously incompatible with republicanism. However, even far short of that, marked economic inequalities open up the possibility that some can, if not the guarantee that they will, buy ever larger megaphones to amplify their voices. In a healthy republic, every citizen's views need to be heard and considered, much as in a Quaker meeting. If one group of citizens can drown out others' voices, then a republic cannot be maintained. It is inevitable that economic power is going to lead to political power. And with the disparities that accompany a market economy, it is also inevitable that in a republic some are going to have more wherewithal to invest in the political debate than others. But that gap should be narrow rather than large. If we cannot eliminate megaphones, we can at least restrict their size.

Third, vast economic inequalities impair the public institutions that are a vital component of republican life. Republics require more domains than the courtroom and the polling station where citizens meet as equals, unaffected by wealth and income. Public parks, for example, are much more than attractive and pleasant locales. They are places where citizens can see each other and interact as equals. When those with superior wealth erect their private enclaves to enjoy tennis, picnics, and the outdoors, a link in the citizenship chain is broken. The same is true for public transport and public schools. When people do not see their personal fate linked to public institutions, they lose interest in them. Why should, I, the wealthy begin to think, pay for these facilities which I do not use? When that happens a vital thread of a common citizenship is cut. Of even more central concern is the military. Citizen service in the military is the hallmark of a republic. When the army becomes largely a semi-mercenary force of those for whom it presents an attractive economic alternative, one of the central vestiges of citizenship is removed.

Republican theorists down through the ages have, consequently, been concerned with the political implications of economic inequality. James Harrington, for example, proposed an "agrarian law" that would limit the amount of land someone could own, a law "designed to control the distribution of land in such a way that there should always be enough free proprietors to constitute a many." (28) Throughout his writings, he speaks of the need for "balance," and part of that balance was in the distribution of material resources. Charles Blitzer explained that "Harrington is disturbed by the existence of extremes of wealth and poverty and prefers a more equal distribution of small holdings. But his justification was not a moral one; rather he argues that it will be economically efficient and productive as well as politically desirable." (29)

In the United States, James Madison, according to the respected historian Lance Banning, seconded Harrington believing "that power follows property [and] that great extremes of poverty and wealth are incompatible with freedom." (30) During the Revolution, Jefferson wrote to Madison that "Legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property." (31) In 1792 the Republican party oriented National Gazette published an article critical of policies that would serve to "increase inequalities of wealth, and to undermine the character of the people." (32) Banning sums up the ideology of the early Republican party leaders as follows:

America had come to be defined, in part, in terms of its relatively equal, agrarian balance of property. Republicans held it as a first principle that private morality and public virtue depended on the maintenance of this distribution of wealth, a distribution profoundly threatened in their minds by the rise of the monied favorites of a Federalist administration. (33)

At the end of the day, then, inequalities of wealth corrode republican politics. They separate citizens one from another, lead to disparities in political participation, and weaken public institutions. While an attempt to effect absolute, or even near, economic equality among citizens would indeed pose a serious danger, failing to adopt public policies to soften the gargantuan inequalities that invariably result from the normal operation of a market economy is equally dangerous. While the state must tread cautiously in this area, therefore, it must not hesitate to tread. Adam Smith can be adduced again in support of this point.

Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency to the society? . . . [W]hat improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. (34)


UBI has been defined by Philippe Van Parijs as "an income paid by a government, at a uniform level and at regular intervals, to each adult member of society. The grant is paid , and its level is fixed, irrespective of whether the person is rich or poor, lives alone or with others, is willing to work or not." (35) Loek Groot and Robert van der Veen shorten this to "an income granted unconditionally to all on an individual basis without a means test or work requirement." (36) My definition of living wage is a wage that will provide someone who works full time year round with a decent standard of living as measured by the criteria of the society in which he/she lives.

The first major difference is the work feature of the living wage. Advocates of UBI down play the importance of work, Parijs saying that we need to avoid "work fetishism." To be sure, work can be onerous, unpleasant, degrading and productive of stress. But then anything that is good can have a down side. Most people-intellectuals and survey respondents alike-seem to agree that on the whole, the virtues of work, both for the individual and for society, outweigh the drawbacks. (37) For present purposes, those attributes of work that relate to republican citizenship need to be stressed.

First, work provides structure and routine. The tendency to entropy pervades human activity as much as it does the physical world. Only a precious few of our fellows can keep their lives on course without structure and routine. Stories from the Depression almost always stress this. People were lost without routines, and an aimlessness soon infected every corner of life. Orderly life began to crumble. Or, listen to the advice of retirement counselors. Only retire, they stress, if you have something you want to do.

Second, work gives many if not most people a sense of accomplishment, which invariably makes people feel better about themselves. Third, and closely related to the second, work provides a sense of identity. We all know what the question "What do you do?" means. I play softball and putter around in my wood shop is not the type of answer most people expect. Of course, this can be overdone; but the feeling that "I am this" cannot be ignored either.

Fourth, work forces us to confront the social world. We learn how to interact with others and how to perform in groups, formal and informal. We learn what society's expectations of us are; we also develop expectations of certain behaviors from others. This leads to greater mental health and better social adjustment.

All of these aspects of work contribute to better republican citizenship. An ordered life, a sense of daily accomplishment, an identity that is important to oneself and others, and an ability to interact easily with others all contribute to the kind of character traits needed by republics. They make liberty meaningful and lay the groundwork for confident and intelligent participation in public affairs. By laying the emphasis on work, then, the living wage wins one over UBI.

Some proponents of UBI counter that these same character traits can be developed through engaging in voluntary service, and that UBI will make voluntary service more common by reducing the hours many people need to work. Without question, the first part of this contention is mostly true. Voluntary service might not provide quite as much structure as regular work because of the very fact that it is voluntary; nonetheless, it certainly is beneficial on all the other counts. In addition, of course, society is made better in the process. However, it is surely open to question how much of an upsurge in volunteering would be unleashed by the institution of UBI. A good test: How many retirees devote their time to these activities now? Some, to be sure, but not an army. In any event, most likely those who would volunteer to serve in soup kitchens or care for neglected children already possess the traits needed for healthy citizenship.

Another dimension for comparing the UBI with the living wage is the problem of dependency. It was argued forcefully above that citizens cannot be dependent on others, since that is destructive of liberty. In any system of UBI a certain number of people are going to pay for the others, and it will not be difficult to identify the payers and the receivers. Naturally, some people will change categories as they age or their economic fortunes change. But in the short run, which is what matters most in politics, the dividing line will be evident. This fact cannot help but affect how people feel. It may be a sad commentary on human nature, but in such a situation resentment grows on both sides. Moreover, the higher the payments under UBI the greater the level of resentment would be.

If the UBI were set high enough to remove people from poverty, what its devotees obviously hope, it would have the further deleterious effect of spawning a culture of dependency in the recipients. All the pathologies of the old American AFDC program would develop, with the calamitous political consequences they brought in their train.

Republican citizens, recall, need to be able to look each other in the eye. None can be dependent on another, and a UBI, by the straightforward mechanism of a public budgetary transfer, would make some dependent on others (unless the amounts were trivial, in which case, what would be the point?). By providing payment for work performed, the living wage removes any possible social, and hence, political, stigma from what is received. The earner of the wage can look anyone in the eye, both because of the source of the income and the fact that it is adequate to allow him or her to live a decent lifestyle.

There is also the related problem of political vulnerability. Suppose the UBI were high enough to be a meaningful part of the income of the poor. Suppose further that social values were such that the grant was kept reasonably generous. But the poor are still vulnerable; they have no guarantee that the public budgetary process will always be so benign. They would be in the position of servants who worked for a generous master. Well off, relatively anyway, but subject to his or her whim. A citizen's economic well-being simply cannot be in the hands of others, even a sympathetic political majority. The living wage has some problems in this area also, of course. It would have to be set by statute, and that would inject political majorities into its determination. However, the setting of a wage level would be two or three steps removed from direct budgetary politics, blunting somewhat the us/them divide. Further, those who work would have a far stronger political claim than those who do not. These two facts do not remove political vulnerability, but they do reduce it somewhat.

Thus, any attempt to create a UBI which would move people without any other source of income above the poverty level would be beset by problems. The first is that the dollar figures become huge very quickly. Accordingly, a UBI at such a level would magnify all the difficulties sketched above. A living wage would be a much more palatable tool for attacking poverty, and much less costly to the economy. Its chief problem is, of course, that there would need to be a supply of jobs available for all those who wish to work. During periods of economic boom, this would be a minor matter. When recessions struck, however, this would present a serious issue. The only realistic approach would be either public sector jobs or subsidized jobs in the private sector. (38) Personally, I would tend to public sector jobs, real jobs I stress, not answering the phone at the drug rehab center. Subsidized private sector jobs would create too many incentives for firms to pressure politicians to continue the subsidies when the recession ended. (39)

When it come to softening inequality, the living wage wins again. Because everyone gets the same UBI, there is no compressing of income skews. In fact, a UBI could actually increase inequality. Affluent people would have more money to invest, and the long term impacts of accumulation versus spending would exacerbate the wealth gap. A living wage, as I define it, would at least keep everyone in sight of the mean.

In short, if we apply civic republican ideals, the living wage is preferable on every score to the UBI. Nevertheless, there is something attractive about the UBI. I believe we could get the best of both worlds by combining what I would call a Universal Service Set (USS) with a living wage.

Two key principles would underlie this approach: 1)No one will be allowed to live in poverty and 2)with only rare exceptions, no cash will be paid to anyone without work. (40)

The USS would be universal and free at point of service. There are four services I would provide here. The first of these is health care. A public health system would provide medical care to every citizen. The second is education. Public educational institutions would offer quality education at no cost from kindergarten through graduate and professional school. (Naturally, this would also include vocational training of all kinds.) The other two services are food and housing. How these are provided would depend on individual circumstances. For the elderly, parentless children, and those suffering from disabilities, a clean, well-staffed, and humanely run institution might be best. For others, temporary public housing units might be best. I believe we might even consider public food facilities, where anyone could receive a basic, wholesome, nutritious meal at any time without cost. We might have to think about clothing, but that is a detail. Those who cannot (or will not) take care of themselves will therefore have their basic needs met.

Supplementing the USS would be a statutory living wage set, in my version, as a percentage of the mean income of the top five or ten percent of incomes. (41) Setting a living wage in this manner draws on the UBI inspired insight that payments should go to individuals regardless of family size and without means tests. To be effective, of course, such a policy would require a public jobs program, at which anyone could show up to work. If Bill Gates drops by, he can work, and be paid.

By combining a USS with a living wage, therefore, we could eliminate poverty, soften inequality, and encourage the development of a viable republican citizenship.


1. See, for two major examples, Michael Sandel, Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996) and Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

2. The best and most thorough analysis of republican political theory is Phillip Petit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

3. Petit, Republicanism, 52.

4. Petit, Republicanism, 133.

5. Quoted in Lawrence Glickman, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of a Consumer Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 61.

6. Quoted in Petit, Republicanism, 41.

7. Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose: A Personal Statement (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1980).

8. Quoted in Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 357.

9. Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 304.

10. Tocqueville's views on civic republicanism are discussed in Oldfield, Citizenship and Community, chap. 6.

11. Mary Ann Glendon has put this argument well in her Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: Free Press, 1991).

12. Richard Dagger, Civic Virtues: Rights, Citizenship and Republican Liberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 32. "Self-governing," it should be pointed out, stops considerably short of the concept of "self-actualization" used by psychologists such as Abraham Maslow.

13. Dagger, Civic Virtues, 30.

14. Dagger, Civic Virtues, 194.

15. Quoted in Charles Blitzer, ed., The Political Writings of James Harrington (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1955), 4.

16. Petit, Republicanism, 158.

17. See "The Living Standard," Oxford Economic Papers, 36 (November 1984), Supplement, 74-90; Commodities and Capabilities (Amsterdam: North Holland, 1985); and "Capability and Well-Being," in Martha Nusbaum and Amartya Sen, eds., The Quality of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

18. Sen, "Living Standard," 78.

19. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (London: Methuen, 1911). Edited by Edwin Cannan. Vol. II, 354-55. (Originally published 1776)

20. Sen, "Living Standard," 86.

21. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960).

22. Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism, 301.

23. Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism, 270.

24. Letter to Barre de Marbois, June 14, 1817, quoted in Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism, 319.

25. Adrian Oldfield, Citizenship and Community: Civic Republicanism and the Modern World (London: Routledge, 1990), 27-28.

26. Petit, Republicanism, 159.

27. See Barend de Vries, Champions of the Poor: The Economic Consequences of Judeo-Christian Values (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1998) for a discussion of the mainstream Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish positions and Ronald Sider, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999) for the evangelical Christian perspective.

28. J.G.A. Pocock, The Political Writings of James Harrington (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 47.

29. Charles Blitzer, An Immortal Commonwealth: The Political Thought of James Harrington (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 233.

30. Banning, Sacred Fire of Liberty, 40.

31. Quoted in Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism, 300.

32. Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978).

33. Banning, Jeffersonian Persuasion, 204.

34. Smith, Wealth of Nations, I, 80.

35. Philippe Van Parijs, "A Basic Income for All," Boston Review, October/November 2000.

36. Loek Groot and Robert van der Veen, "How Attractive is a Basic Income for European Welfare States?" in Groot and van der Veen, eds., Basic Income on the Agenda (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000), 13.

37. See Alan Wolfe's review essay, "The Moral Meanings of Work," American Prospect, September/October, 1997 and Robert Lane, The Market Experience (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), Part V.

38. A subsidized jobs program is discussed in Edmund Phelps, Rewarding Work: How to Restore Participation and Self-Support to Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

39. Plus, there are the enormous administrative difficulties of operating a fair subsidy system

40. The most obvious exception would be those with disabilities.

41. I am currently writing a book tentatively The Case for the Living Wage advocating this approach.

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