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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

Why big ideas never change society

Denis Clerc


Pourquoi l’allocation universelle, dont Philippe van Parijs a montre qu’elle permettrait de concilier justice sociale et liberté personnelle, deux objectifs souvent considérés comme incompatibles, demeure-t-elle ignorée des politiques publiques? Parce qu’elle impliquerait de tels bouleversements dans nos sociétés complexes qu’aucun gouvernement n’est prêt à prendre ce risque. C’est pourquoi mieux vaut s’en approcher a pas comptes, même petits.

Texte intégral

1Karl Marx was not catering for future generations, but he nevertheless had high hopes that the proletariat, with a good strong nudge, would one day bring exploitation to an end. Charles Fourier waited in vain all his life for investors, lured by the promise of a 30% return on investment, to finally build ”Phalanstères”, self-contained communities whose 1,600 residents could at last achieve perfect work/life balance. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon never did succeed in freeing people from the shackles of loan interest, as he had dreamt of doing so with his mutual credit schemes. And Philippe Van Parijs, for all the strength of his convictions, has still not quite managed to persuade any single government to introduce a Basic Income.

2It is not that the ideas put forward by these great social innovators are devoid of interest. On the contrary: the prospect of a freer, fairer and more fraternal society is quite tempting. Ideas such as these ignite the zeal and activism of those who strive to make them succeed. And yet the fruit, if it ever grows ripe, rarely lives up to the promise of the flower. Marx spawned Stalin, all attempts to build utopian communities like Phalanstères failed miserably, and mutual credit became just another bank, succumbing to the siren call of staggering subprime performance. Meanwhile, the only State to offer a Basic Income – namely Alaska – also chose Sarah Palin as Governor and is now the US State with the highest level of obesity in the world, a possible consequence of significant structural poverty. Does that mean that grandiose social concepts are nothing but idle dreams doomed to failure?

3That is what Conservatives of all breeds would have us believe: there are certain natural laws that govern human society, and it would be futile, or dangerous even, to try and change that. In today’s political vocabulary, the word ”reform” is used by those who want to cut state social protection, not by those who want to bolster it. Fortunately, there is another viable explanation. Human society is complex. There’s no invisible hand about to replace Providence as a guide to a better tomorrow. Society must therefore find its own way to this goal, and be ready to stumble sometimes. Grand concepts cannot take into account all this complexity, and their exponents who try to do so are building sandcastles that are bound to be toppled by all manner of mishaps. Any intellectual construct about an alternative society is inevitably marred not so much by risk – which can be calculated - as by radical uncertainty. Revolutions are like holidays: things never quite work out as you had planned or hoped. But, unlike holidays, there is no guarantee of a return to normality: they begin with lists of grievances, continue with bloody clashes and never ever lead back to the status quo. There is no such thing as a social eraser such as might allow you to create the perfect picture by rubbing out whatever doesn’t look right. On that basis, rather than thinking that these big ideas will one day become reality, it is better to move closer by stages, zeroing in through a process of trial and error.

4Make no mistake, you’ve still got to follow a few basic principles, because if you’re not sure of where you’re heading, you can drift off at a tangent. But these guiding principles are by nature more ethical than institutional: a fairer society, for instance, is what you get when you do away with inequalities. But economic constraints, particularly free movement of capital, can blinker us at the outset about where to go and how best to get there. It’s at those times that big ideas should make way for more modest, experimental approaches. Facing up to reality then helps us to find workable compromises that take us a bit nearer to the goal we had in mind, even if we’re still a long way off. Each of these compromises is open to criticism, because they bring progress as well as setbacks, and positive impacts as well as negative. But it is the nature of social policies - and of all public policies, perhaps – simultaneously to bring both benefits and harmful side-effects. And this is why they need to be gauged and evaluated, particularly in terms of principles of justice such as Rawls’, so we can go beyond the utilitarian accounting of pains and pleasures which Bentham dreamed about.

Basic income

5Basic income (BI) is one of the great social concepts. But it can never constitute a concrete social policy, because, just like the game of ’Pick-upsticks’ – where you attempt to remove one stick after another from the pile without moving the remaining sticks – tinkering with a single element can cause a general collapse. No ruler would ever take this risk. In the face of resistance and criticism, Philippe Van Parijs (& Yannick Vanderborght) have bravely defended BI, but they did so by increasing the depth and refinement of their project, rather than by making it more accessible in debate with their critics, and thus condemned themselves forever to sow on stony ground. It would have been far better to start from what was already in place and propose a series of reforms with a view to gradually reaching the objective, with no certainty of ever achieving it, but only hoping that each small step be an improvement from the point of view of the principles of justice.

6Philippe Van Parijs will probably reply by saying that this is by no means different from what he has always proposed. The welfare state has a long history, and did not emerge in a single day. First based on Bismarckian insurance mechanisms, it gradually incorporated a ’Beveridgian component’ (Van Parijs 1996). Today, what we need is just to take a few more steps towards a guaranteed income for all, which would be disconnected from employment. BI, he argues in the book he co-authored with Vanderborght (2005), would in fact add backbone to an incomplete and disparate welfare system, and even improve its redistributive character. Solidarity would be reinforced within a given generation, but would also be instituted between generations, since BI would be funded by taxing inheritance. Malibu surfers, sufficiently rich to give themselves up entirely to their favourite sport without having to work, and who, according to Rawls, ”should not benefit from public spending” (quoted in Vanderborght & Van Parijs 2005), and all other persons of private means would contribute to the scheme, thereby countering Rawls’ objection. The two authors stress that intergenerational justice could also be achieved by taxing income derived from the exploitation of non-renewable resources, or by taxing energy and greenhouse-gas emissions. This would then allow for the implementation of what some have called the ”double dividend”: a more complete social protection system, which would weigh less heavily on work, but more heavily on negative production externalities (Ghersi, Hourcade, Quirion, 2001). Such a system would take the interests of present and future generations into account. It is also true that Vanderborght & Van Parijs deal explicitly with the idea of a transition, referring to a proposal initially formulated by Godino (1999), taken up by the CERC (2002), and then implemented through France’s new minimum income law (2009). Note that this so-called ”activity” minimum income is only paid to households below the poverty threshold, provided at least one of their members has a job.

  • 1 This system has been partly tried in Sweden.

7However, in their minds such a transition aims at preparing a true revolution. In the long-term, what they want is to replace a conditional social protection system (contribution-based for insurance mechanisms, incomebased for its redistributive side, and adjusted to the age and to the number of children for family benefits) by a more general social protection system. In the framework of this individual, unconditional, and universal system, taxation would only serve to claw back BI from those who do not need it (such as the Malibu surfers). A true Trojan horse, BI would challenge all existing rules: individual instead of household-based benefits1, unconditional instead of conditional transfers, income tax instead of social contributions, flat-rate allowances instead of needs-based benefits. In other words, it really is a matter of creative destruction, to use Schumpeters famous expression – although here referring to another topic than the productive system he had in mind when he coined it.

Two types of obstacles

  • 2 A theory that aims at explaining how an active substance in an infinitesimally small dilution could (...)

8Very quickly, however, one might expect this transition to be faced with serious – and perhaps decisive – financial and social drawbacks. Let me first focus on financial obstacles. In the case of France, a BI of €500 per month (a bit more than the current means-tested minimum income) would cost around €400 billion annually. This is to be compared with the amount of taxes and social contributions that are currently levied (€800 billion annually). This gives a clear picture of the huge sum involved. Of course, tax levels dont have to be increased significantly to cover a sum of €400 billion, since a basic income would in part replace existing benefits. The size of the potential sum nevertheless shows that changing, albeit gradually, from these benefits to a basic income (and from the current tax system to an entirely new one) is not easy – indeed, perhaps impossible. We are not dealing here with something like "water memory"2, but with the infinitely great, with an idea that implies a radical and profound transformation of tax-and-transfer systems. Even a long transition might be perceived as unbearable, especially since every single step towards the end goal is likely to be significant. In the field of pensions, for instance, should we suppress mandatory social contributions and replace them with voluntary contributions – a system in which everyone would be free to determine the level of contribution needed to supplement their BI during old-age? Should we go from a tax system in which expenditure taxes (generally more regressive because of higher savings in the high-income brackets) are in a large majority to a system in which progressive income taxes become predominant?

9What about social obstacles, then? At the bottom of the income distribution scale, the possible substitution of means-tested social transfers by a universal BI will probably lead to a reduction in purchasing power, unless the benefit is set high enough. In this case, however, problems will arise at the top of the income distribution scale, since higher marginal tax rates will be required. The rich will have to ”reimburse” at least what they have received but do not ultimately need. Otherwise, ”Malibu surfers” would gain from the reform. For all these reasons, BI is not only an ethical project: it is also a technical and social challenge that only a small number of political actors will be ready to take up. It is certainly attractive for people who are not in charge, because they can easily make broad statements of principle and design ambitious global projects. However, BI is highly likely to become a nightmare for those who have to face existing constraints while minimizing social discontent. Our concern, as Sen (2009) highlights, must not be to pursue the right society, but a less unjust society.

10Here is an example. The establishment in France of the ”Revenue de solidarité active” (RSA) rests on the idea that, in the absence of a labour market equitably rewarding all its contributors, it is better to supplement low incomes rather than to risk controlling the labour market. We are still a long way from a BI, but we are getting closer: like ”free and compulsory” education for all, and healthcare provided as a ”universal service”, a BI is now guaranteed for all those who don’t currently earn that much. And this income is higher for people in employment than for those who don’t work. This forms part of the package of economic rights to which every French citizen is entitled (with the unfortunate exception of those between 18 and 25 who don’t have children). Unlike BI, this minimum income remains meanstested and, from this point of view, they are poles apart. But it is a step in the right direction. This relatively modest (€1,5 billion) step was first aimed at simplifying a complex system, which generated significant ”inactivity traps”. It raised several implementation problems. Admittedly, these problems might arise precisely from the fact that the RSA is conditional: they would not have arisen without (or with a softer form of) conditionality. Maybe, but one can expect that other difficulties would have arisen instead, such as those mentioned above. Our societies are very complex, and reforms can only be incremental; even in this case, one cannot be certain of being able to bring them to fruition.

11Of course, we should not refrain from searching for better solutions that could lead us towards a less unjust society, one in which individual freedom and autonomy would be enhanced. This can only be achieved by a process of trial and error. And, who knows, the BI might just turn up one day, doubtless different from what its originators had in mind, but better suited to the constraints and challenges of the day. And, on that day, a collective of researchers will most probably do justice to Philippe Van Parijs, who was, if not the originator of the concept, at the very least its most tireless analyst, and who illustrated perfectly the saying attributed to William the Silent, Prince of Orange: ”It is not necessary to hope in order to undertake, nor to succeed in order to persevere.”



CAILLĒ, A. & GODINO, R. (2009), Réenchanter le travail, Paris: La Découverte.

CERC (Conseil de l’emploi, des revenus et de la cohésion sociale) (2001), Accès a lemploi et protection sociale, Paris: La Documentation Française.

CLERC, D. (2003), « L’idée d’un revenu d’existence : séduisante et … dangereuse », Comprendre, 4: 201-207.

CLERC, D. (2009), La France des travailleurs pauvres, Paris : Hachette.

GHERSI F., HOURCADE J.-C. & QUIRION Ph. (2001), « Marche international du carbone et double dividende : antinomie ou synergie ? », Revue française déconomie, 16 (2) : 149-177.

GODINO, R. (1999), ’Pour la création d’une allocation compensatrice de revenu’, in R. Godino, T. Jalmain & T. Piketty (eds.), Pour une reforme du RMI, Notes de la Fondation Saint-Simon, 104: 7-20.

SEN, A. (2009), The Idea of Justice, London : Penguin.

VANDERBORGHT, Y. & VAN PARIJS, Ph. (2005), Lallocation universelle, Paris : La Découverte.

VAN PARIJS, Ph. (1991), Quest-ce quune société juste ? Paris : Le Seuil.

VAN PARIJS, Ph. (1996), Refonder la solidarité, Paris : Cerf.

VAN PARIJS, Ph. (2003), 'L’allocation universelle, une idée simple et forte pour le xxie siècle', Comprendre, 4 : 155-200.


1 This system has been partly tried in Sweden.

2 A theory that aims at explaining how an active substance in an infinitesimally small dilution could have any therapeutic effect.


Denis Clerc is an economist, founder and former director (until 2000) of the coop that publishes the monthly magazine Alternatives economiques. He is an expert in poverty issues and a former member of the French Council for Employment, Income and Social Cohesion, a public body that was headed by former President of the EU-Commission Jacques Delors. His books include Déchiffrer léconomie (Découverte, having now reached its 17th edition), La France des travailleurs pauvres (Alternatives économiques, 2009) and La paupérisation des Français (A. Colin, 2010).

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

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