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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

The guaranteed income as an equal-opportunity tool in the transition toward sustainability

Warren A. Johnson


Dieser Artikel skizziert den Abriss eines Grundeinkommenssystems, das in reichen Landern als erstrangiges Hilfsmittel im Ubergang zu menschlich sowie okologisch nachhaltigen, frugalen Formen der Wirtschaft dienen konnte. Die heutige Soziale Demokratie gibt ihren Burgern viel zu wenig Wahl, wenn es darauf ankommt, zu entscheiden, unter der Macht welcher wirtschaftlichen Mechanismen sie leben wollen. Daher ist es uns wichtig, ein Argument vorzutragen, dem zufolge der Begriff von Chancengleichheit ganz erheblich verbreitert werden musste – weit hinaus uber den Begriff, den unsere Gesellschaften heutzutage im Rahmen ihrer Sozialpolitik implizit benutzen. Im Anschluss ziehen wir die Konsequenzen aus einer solchen Verbreiterung: es musste ein Economic Transition Income (ETI) geben, das die Burger dazu verleitet und ermutigt, ihre Wunsche nach SystemAnderungen in Taten umzusetzen und mit alternativen wirtschaflichen Vorkehrungen zu experimentieren. Unserer Ansicht nach wurde dieses Grundeinkommen in der jetzigen okologischen und sozialen Krise das Ideal einer wirklich gerechten Gesellschaft verkorpern.

Texte intégral

1In this short paper, we want to sketch an argument in favor of a guaranteed income scheme as a tool for a transition toward more humanly and environmentally sustainable, frugal forms of economy in wealthy countries. The first part presents the case in favor of broadening the notion of equality of opportunity significantly beyond what today’s social democracies are offering. Then, in the second part, we draw the implications from this in terms of an "Economic Transition Income" (ETI) which would, in our view, embody the ideal of a genuinely just society in this time of ecological and social turmoil.

Broadening equality of opportunity

2For many decades, and certainly ever since the advent of the postwar welfare states, one of the official functions of the State has been to optimize its citizens’ insertion into the cogs and wheels of the capitalist economic machine, even when we work as civil servants or as third-sector, nonprofit employees. Ultimately, everything is financed via private profits. Most of us simply don't realize how much our daily creativity, dynamism, allegedly out-of-the-box thinking, and originality are actually piggy-backing more or less invisibly on the rock-hard reality of capital-driven money creation and profit generation. This means that monolithic bottom lines (ones whose evaluation criteria are sometimes quite unrelated to the very meaning of our activities) de facto rule the day. The question is: Do we agree they should? Or might we not come to the conclusion that this limited variety of choices, or rather this great variety of choices within a limited spectrum, isn’t compatible with the democratic ideal, after all?

3We think we do need to come to that conclusion. Our democracies need to honor an ethos of "econo-diversity" which, so we believe, lies at the heart of fully-fledged modernity. A free economy is a genuinely plural economy, one whose inner plurality does not hang exclusively on capitalistic bottom lines and private-profit structuring mechanisms (see Arnsperger 2010 & 2011).

4As citizens of self-declared democracies, we can demand econo-diversity by appealing directly to the ethos which our public institutions so proudly boast. Here is how we might address our political and economic elites: ”We, the people who are in search of a meaningful human life and who realize that part of that meaning flows from the way we work, produce, spend, save, consume, and invest—we, the people of this country/ region/ town that officially prides itself on being democratic, demand that this industrial-financial capitalism in which we are living bestow upon us the right to experiment with ways of life that may be non-industrial and even non capitalist. We see this as a fundamental human right. If the incumbent economic and political institutions, as well as the legal rules, of this industrial-financial capitalism in which we are living deny us the real and full possibility of conducting such experiments in a viable and sustainable manner, we will interpret this as a deep discrimination, a blatant violation of the notion of equality of opportunity that is rightly seen as one of the pillars of our democracy.”

5This demand points to a pretty fundamental overhaul of what we believe the State should be doing for us. The various public authorities’ main task should be to secure for all citizens an equal opportunity of access to a realized and effective, non-growth-obsessed, frugal, or convivial existence, lived on a 1:1 scale in real time and on real ground. Not as an obligation but as an ever-open possibility. This is what democracy should be used for today, and not just as a tool to slavishly steer the mechanisms of a growth-dictating capitalism which blinds people to many of the deeper existential potentials they carry inside them—potentials that go un-experienced because of a lack of opportunities for actual economic and social experimentation. Lying at the base of the need for a transition today is the pluralistic exigency of an egalitarianism of real-life economic experimentation.

6The crucial aspect of this broadened equality-of-opportunity concept is that citizens ought to be given the enforceable entitlement—i.e., the real freedom—to freely choose not just some intra-capitalist life style (e.g., becoming a marketing agent rather than a bank director, or creating one’s own capitalist software company instead of working for Google) but to choose between an intra-capitalist way of life and an extra-capitalist one (e.g., moving to an ecovillage and exchanging goods and services within a network of user of mutual-credit currency, instead of staying in the hypercompetitive agrochemicals company with whose salary one can consume all one’s fill). And, very crucially, if equality of opportunity is to be more than just a word, this latter choice—between a capitalist and a non-capitalist way of living, working, and doing business—should be accessible to citizens without there being excessive or disproportionate costs for them, both in terms of massive income loss (although they may well, in some cases, be content with less purchasing power if this buys them a qualitatively better life) and in terms of a loss of basic rights (such as health care, social security, free education for their kids, a pension, etc.).

7All too often, so-called marginal actors in the economy are relegated into a secondary status because they are simply not recognized as playing an important social role—that of being at the forefront of multifarious, creative, difficult, sometimes even hazardous, real-life experimentation. The fact is that one of their basic human rights, which is to apply their own evaluation criteria and their own brand of bottom line in a viable everyday life, is simply not respected. The frequently heard criticism that says these people are dropouts, and that they do not contribute their skills and energies to solving societys problems, is totally wrong. They are doing a task that is essential for our future, developing new skills and ways of living that will provide models for others as necessity pushes more of us in that direction. Nothing could be more important. The pioneers are opening up new economic territory where subsequent settlers can join them. They are broadening the choices available to people.

A guaranteed income scheme to accompany the transition

8For such a process of transition toward more sustainable forms of economy to get on the rails, a deep overhaul of the current incomere-distribution logic of our social democracies is called for. (The main points below are expanded on in Johnson 2010 & 2011.)

9The industrial-capitalist world will not be able to afford the luxury of annual economic growth much longer. We need to devise simpler, more cooperative ways that can be supported by renewable energy. So shouldn’t we try to take seriously the call for reasonable frugality? (This point was already central in Johnson 1973.) This is not a mere regression; to make simpler, more cooperative ways good once again, people will of course be creatively using the knowledge gained in the modern era. The most important technologies—medical care, communications, the knowledge industries, and many others—can undoubtedly be made sustainable, but not the perpetual ”getting and spending” reflexes constantly required by the now dominant system logic.

10A frugal economy will still be a market economy. Prices, supply, and demand are not per se culprits to be rejected. They have to be harnessed toward sustainability rather than growth. The division of labor will remain valuable especially in the smaller, more local markets that encourage the use of nearby resources to make life easier in smaller communities. However, money circulation and trade will occur on the backdrop of a different view—that of an economy no longer set on competitively providing as few as possible (costly) jobs in an ever-growing economy. The frugal economy will be an econo-diverse network of communities experimenting with frugal ways of life, a loose network of local economies producing primarily for the local population. There will still be some long-distance trade, but with transportation having become so expensive, there will be far more of decentralization, i.e., increasing de-globalization and re-localization.

11Frugality will have to go along with decreased purchasing power, meaning that in the sustainable niche people will have to make do with lower real incomes. Otherwise we will only perpetuate short-term consumerism. But happily, a rejection of consumerism is precisely what motivates those who venture into frugality. Those who really strive in the mainstream financial and industrial capitalist economy are unlikely to be those who will first move toward frugal ways. The most constructive way of engineering the transition would be to allow both ways to co-exist as the economy slows, rather than squeezing down everyone’s incomes right


13How gradual, smooth and, therefore, bearable will the transition be? Will it encourage the cooperation that has always sustained cultural evolution, or will it foster the Darwinian hell of a survival of the most aggressive? The sustainable niche is not the end of work, nor is it the realm of idle hippies. It will mean less productive and hence more abundant work (i.e., less unemployment) and less consumption, but also a shared commitment to neighbors, with more regard for the well-being of all, rather than trying to stand out from others in a large, impersonal economy. Critical resources will be carefully protected while keeping their use to the minimum possible, and with a high regard to preserving both the beauty and health of environment that everyone is dependent on. But beyond that, those who gain a taste for frugality and its advantages should be able to count on public support when taking the plunge into a different way of life.

14This will only be possible if the mainstream economy remains healthy, since that will make it possible to assist those who are creating of sustainable ways of life. Ideally, therefore, the sustainable economy would function in parallel with the mainstream economy as it declines—hopefully slowly enough so as to stretch out the time available for those who are still accustomed to the mainstream economy. Income support should be low enough to appeal to people who want to live simply, yet high enough for them to get by that way and develop a preference for frugality over unsustainable ways, while being able to count on health care and education.

15We focus here on one possible such scheme, a welfare reform measure providing an incentive for recipients to find work by allowing them to keep a portion of the support as their incomes rises. By the time a modest income base is reached the support has declined to zero. This is often referred to as a ”negative income tax” (NIT). We prefer, however, to use instead the acronym ETI, for Economic Transition Income. This highlights the crucial fact that we view this scheme as a tool in a dynamic movement toward systemic change.

16The ETI would help those wishing to move in sustainable directions and could be used by those who gave up jobs in the mainstream economy to gradually build sustainable ways of life. Creative individuals could be among the first to use ETI payments as they explore new avenues of living sustainably, but so could those who wanted to try traditional ways that are difficult to uphold now, especially in intentional communities formed around shared values.

17An important additional benefit of the ETI would be its contribution to keeping the overall economy in balance while maintaining a stable labor market—which is essential for a smooth transition. This could be done by altering the amount of ETI payments, much as a central bank adjusts interest rates. If, for example, more workers were needed in the mainstream economy, the ETI payments could be reduced enough to draw those marginally involved in the sustainable economy back into the mainstream economy. The more likely problem, at least in the beginning stages of the transition, is apt to be a surplus of people still seeking work in the slowing mainstream economy, threatening to drive wages down and trigger a deflationary spiral. In such circumstances, the ETI payment would have to be increased to entice workers into exploring the sustainable territory, since that will require a certain amount of resourcefulness when there are, as yet, few actual past experiences to draw on. This is where the efforts of the pioneers will be so important.

18Along the process, acting on the ETI (instead of just pocketing it and remaining in the unsustainable economy) will become less of a venture into unknown territory, and more one of learning from others. Young people are especially apt to pass information around as they compare the sustainable alternatives with the choices they have in the mainstream economy. As the sustainable pluri-economy evolves, it will offer a steadily greater range of opportunities to be explored, contributing to a snowballing transition in sustainable directions. These opportunities will be seen as adding to the range of alternatives available in the sustainable niche, but will also leave the mainstream economy more secure because it will be less vulnerable to deflationary forces.

19As the difficulties of getting started in the sustainable economy are reduced with more experiences and more people joining it, the ETI payments will decrease automatically, if for no other reason than more people are receiving them, which also means that fewer people are working in the mainstream economy to generate the tax revenues to pay them. As time passes, the sustainable economy will be able to continue more on its own, with lower ETI payments and then none at all. At all times, however, those receiving the assistance will have to accept that the payments will fluctuate with the needs of the overall economy, especially the tax revenues that can be generated as incomes in the mainstream economy will slip along with the energy available to it.

20Hopefully the transition will be as slow as possible, and with rising incentives for using energy ever more efficiently to stretch out the time it is available. How well this proceeds will depend on the ongoing health of the mainstream economy. If this health can be maintained, the sustainable pluri-economy will become the place where most dynamism is focused on the fascinating task of finding the ways of life that work best in the emerging circumstances, and on using renewable forms of energy as effectively as possible. Conservation taxes, ETI payments, and existing fiscal and monetary tools should be more than enough to keep the transition on track between inflation and recession, and with balanced budgets. The guaranteed income will then genuinely act as a transition income. This will be all the more easy as the vast amounts of money going into trying to keep the mainstream economy growing are reduced as sustainability replaces growth as the goal. The pace of change will slow as sustainable ways emerge that have the capacity to go on indefinitely while making reasonably frugal use of resources.

21The issue would not be so much one of cost, since the income support to the ”frugalists” would have to be quite modest to assure that the ways of life created could be supported with renewable forms of energy. Public budgets could be balanced as the building of sustainable ways of life gets under way. The main motivation in all of this will be to create livelihoods that have ongoing value, as opposed to a job that often provides little beyond a paycheck. A key to economic survival will be to learn how to get by with a lower real income. There are many opportunities to do this, and they will become important as needing less income increases the range of economic opportunities available.

22In the ETI scheme, the State only pays the gap between what one is earning and the guaranteed income level. Of course, there is always the chance that the bulk of the population will just pocket the income guarantee and either continue playing the financial and industrial capitalist game, or drop out of it through permanent inactivity. This is known to be one of the main arguments against any sort of unconditional income support. We’re not minimizing this risk. However, we believe the argument as it is most frequently voiced draws too much on assumptions inherited from mainstream economic theory: People are naturally lazy, they want to work as little as possible while getting the highest possible income, and given half a chance they’ll slouch in front of the TV with a beer or a Coke (paid for with dole money) instead of investing in socially or economically worthwhile activities. Our own take on the human condition is that this description of many people’s behavior is indeed empirically valid, but that it betrays the alienating effects of capitalism and consumerism more than it reflects a deeply entrenched ”human nature.” We start out from the conviction that, given the chance and the right framework conditions, most people will indeed embrace alternatives, linked to both economic democracy (see next post) and to a reasonably frugal life. The presumption behind the ETI mechanism is that appropriate income redistribution can act as a ”transition pioneer trigger.”

23Sure enough, this requires that such a guaranteed-income scheme be viewed as part of larger package in which includes the circulation of ideas and the creation of public forums (inside and outside of mainstream education institutions) where the alternatives to the current system are discussed. More generally, the ETI has all the more chances to trigger extensive emigration toward the frugality frontier if our extended concept of equality of opportunity of section 1 has become a well-circulating intellectual and political currency—that is, if enough citizens have started to realize that what is currently being sold to us under the name of equal opportunities is a needlessly truncated notion.

24In that sense, our proposal seeks to remedy one aspect we feel is defective in more liberal-minded defenses of basic income, such as Philippe Van Parijs’s ”real-libertarian” case as expounded in his monumental opus Real Freedom for All (Van Parijs 1995). Our approach remains squarely liberal in that we do value individuals’ free decision as to which sort of economic life they want to realize for themselves. However – and here the reader might rightly detect a strain of very mild paternalism (akin to the kind that presides over the norms of compulsory schooling in our societies) – the will to experiment needs to be triggered. Van Parijs’s citizens are not nearly critically reflective enough and aren’t seeking alternatives actively enough. We firmly believe that it is socioeconomic experimentation on a real-world, real-time scale, carried out under conditions of non-reciprocally destructive coexistence, which alone will make it possible for reasonable citizens (whatever their persuasion, be it capitalist or non-capitalist) to opt for this or that way of economic life.

25Full equality of opportunity never has meant that anyone could do whatever he or she chooses without facing any of the limitations linked with the fact that there are other models being experimented in parallel. Full equality of opportunity requires, rather, that each citizen be endowed with the maximally possible economic means, as well as the necessary social and legal resources, in order to be able to experiment his or her values and to promote the corresponding evaluative and normative criteria in a viable everyday life. We don’t seek to impose a narrow view of the good life, nor do we want to prescribe the precise content of reasonable frugality. However, we do harbor the conviction that in a genuinely free society, citizens reflective capacities and experimenting desires need to be triggered and fostered in such a way that whatever way of life they choose is not merely the result of industrial-financial-capitalist forces. Whatever economic life one chooses to live ought to be a free choice, not a systemically dictated pseudo-choice.

26Clearly, without some sort of guaranteed income, many citizens today who would like to make the transition to a frugal life will be afraid to do so, because they might lose most, or too much, of the (direct and indirect) income support currently associated with participating in the capitalist social democracy. A guaranteed-income scheme is a crucial centerpiece of any genuine equal-opportunity policy that includes the chance to act on one’s ”alternative” choice.



ARNSPERGER, C. (2010), 'Revenu d’existence et promotion de la sociodiversite', Mouvements, 64: 100-106.

ARNSPERGER, C. (2011), Lhomme économique et le sens de la vie: Petit traite daltereconomie, Paris: Textuel.

JOHNSON, W. A. (1973), 'The Guaranteed Income as an Environmental Measure', in H. Daly (ed.), Toward the Steady-State Economy, San Francisco: Freeman, 175-189.

JOHNSON, W. A. (2010), Muddling Toward Frugality: A New Social Logic for a Sustainable World, 2nd edition, Weston: Easton Studio Press. [Original edition: Boston, Shambhala, 1978.]

JOHNSON, W. A. (2011), The Gift of Peaceful Genes and the Sustainable Revolution, Weston: Easton University Press, forthcoming.


Warren A. Johnson (Ph.D. in resource planning and conservation, Michigan) is Professor Emeritus at the geography department of San Diego State University, where he has taught classes in world regional geography, natural resources, human ecology, and energy. His research interests cover, in addition, cultural geography as well as the overarching question of the kind of social and economic logic that is needed if the world economy is to become sustainable. His books include Economic Growth versus the Environment (Wadsworth, 1971), Muddling Toward Frugality (Easton Studio Press, 2010, 2d edn.), and The Gift of Peaceful Genes (Easton Studio Press, 2011).

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

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