Opinion: Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income

My new book, Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory Of Freedom as the Power to Say No, now has a release date of February 28, 2013. Although I have edited or coauthored six other books, this is the first book I’ve written all by myself. It is also the first published book in which I begin to outline—however tentatively—my theory of justice. The basic income guarantee is intimately tied up with this theory of justice, and so I would like to take this opportunity to explain some of the background that led me to write it.

I don’t know exactly when I began thinking about the ideas that made their way into this book. The general philosophical outlook is something that has been bouncing around in my head for a long time. The outlook didn’t appear as a whole at any one point; it gradually developed. My interest in social justice began when I was a kid. My parents were politically interested, liberal Christians (a rarity these days). They, my brother, my sister, and I regularly discussed politics around the dinner table. Growing up in that context in the 1970s, I was optimistic about the progress the United States had made against racism, and I began to believe that the biggest problem remaining in most democratic countries is the horrible way we treat the poor.

The television series “Free to Choose,” by Milton Friedman, first introduced me to the idea of a guaranteed income, which is now more commonly known as the basic income guarantee. He presented it mostly as a way to simplify the welfare system, but having thought about it over the years, I began to see it as the centerpiece of a just society and a serious challenge to the Left: If we really care about other people in society, we should care about them unconditionally. The effort that has so far resulted in this book is a self-exploration of why I think this perspective is so important.

As I see it, from the hanging gardens of Babylon to the modern sweatshop, one social problem occurs over and over again in different ways: advantaged people force disadvantaged people to serve them. Can this be justified? I find the social contract answer extremely dissatisfying: it’s OK to force people to do things as long as you can imagine conditions under which they would have signed a contract subjecting themselves to force.

For some time I thought I was a libertarian, but I eventually came to see the Right-libertarians, who call themselves “libertarians” in the United States, in a similar light as social contract theorists. I find their answer even more dissatisfying: it’s OK for owners to force the propertyless to do things, because someone did something before we were all born to give owners special rights over the Earth and its resources, so that the propertyless have no right to refuse the duty to serve owners. Right-libertarians talk about freedom from force, but they invite everyone to ignore the tremendous amount of freedom-threatening force involved in the establishment and maintenance of property rights to the earth and all its products. Without rectifying this issue, “libertarianism” becomes the defense of privilege at the expense of liberty.

Although these issues were important to me, I didn’t do much direct work on social justice until the mid-1990s, when Michael Lewis, Pam Donovan, and I decided to have weekly breakfasts to talk about the progress we were making on our theses. These discussions usually turned to politics, and one day we found the one thing we could all agree on was an unconditional basic income guarantee. So, Michael Lewis and I wrote a paper on it that was eventually published (about ten years later and in heavily revised form) as “An Efficiency Argument for the Basic Income Guarantee,” in International Journal of Environment, Workplace and Employment.

One paper on the basic income guarantee led to another as well as to involvement with the Basic Income Earth Network and to writing the Newsletter for the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network. I read a lot of impressive literature on basic income, but none of it quite seemed to articulate the reasons I thought it was so important. So, I had to explore my ideas further.

In 2001, I held a half-year fellowship at the Chaire Hoover at the Catholic University of Lovain in Belgium. By this time I had realized that my interest in economics was secondary to my interest in social justice, and I decided that the best way to work full-time on social justice was to go back to graduate school and get a doctorate in political theory. Getting a second doctorate still feels like a crazy idea, but in hindsight, it was the right thing for me. I started at Oxford in October 2002, and by April 2006 I completed a doctoral thesis entitled “Property and the Power to Say No: A Freedom-Based Argument for Basic Income,” which is my initial statement of the theory of justice as the pursuit of accord. Many of the ideas in this book appeared first in that thesis—often in a slightly different form.

I have discussed these ideas with so many friends, colleagues, students, and mentors that I can’t possibly name everyone who has influenced this book. If I’ve discussed politics or philosophy with you in my lifetime, you might have influenced this book in some way. So, thanks.

Since leaving Oxford, I have continued to rework and extend the ideas from my thesis on and off while working on other projects. Not long after Laurie Harting of Palgrave Macmillan approached me about becoming series editor for their new book series Exploring the Basic Income Guarantee, I thought about turning my thesis into a book. In the spring of 2012, I set out to do that, but as I revised it, I found that the chapters in the first half were growing and splitting into more chapters.

I finally realized that the book would be an extension of the first half of my thesis—concentrating on an exploration of the theory of freedom I call “effective control self-ownership” or “personal independence” and leaving the development of most of the rest of justice as the pursuit of accord for later works. Effective Control Self-Ownership is a theory of freedom that makes the freedom from directly or indirectly forced service central to an individual’s standing as a free person. The book defines, derives, and defends this theory of freedom in the context of the contemporary literature on freedom and justice. It examines the implications of the theory and argues that a basic income guarantee is an important tool to maintain personal independence in a modern society.

Now that the book is almost ready to be released, I still feel that it is tentative in many ways. I could spend years revising it, but it is best to get it out. Although tentative, it is a sincere expression of my beliefs on the issues discussed at this point. I hope to explore these ideas much more in the future.

-Karl Widerquist, Mojo’s Coffee House, New Orleans, Louisiana, August 2012; revised onboard a flight from Dallas to London, November 2012

Karl Widerquist

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist has written 820 articles.

Karl Widerquist is an Associate Professor at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University. He specializes in political philosophy. His research is mostly in the area of distributive justice—the ethics of who has what. He holds two doctorates—one in Political Theory form Oxford University (2006) and one in Economics from the City University of New York (1996). Before coming to Georgetown he was lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Reading (UK) and a Murphy Fellow at Tulane University in New Orleans (LA). He has written or edited six books. He is the author of "Independence, propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No" (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He is coauthor of "Economics for Social Workers" (Columbia University Press 2002). He is coeditor of "Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research" (Wiley-Blackwell 2013), "Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend: Examining its Suitability as a Model" (Palgrave Macmillan 2012), "Exporting the Alaska Model: Adapting the Permanent Fund Dividend for Reform around the World" (Palgrave Macmillan 2012), and "the Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee" (Ashgate 2005). He is currently under contract to author or coauthor two more books: "Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy" (Edinburgh University Press 2014) and Justice as the Pursuit of Accord (Palgrave Macmillan 2015). He was a founding editor of the journal Basic Income Studies. He edited the USBIG NewsFlash for 15 years and the BIEN NewsFlash for five years. He is one of the founding editors of Basic Income News on the basicincome.org website. He has published more than a twenty scholarly articles and book chapters. His articles have appeared in journals such as Political Studies; the Eastern Economic Journal; Politics and Society; and Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Most of what he has written is publicly available on http://works.bepress.com/widerquist/


  • This book is very relevant to citizen-ownership democracy and citizen income. As proclaimed by past and present democratic leaders and even communist leaders, citizens are the owners of their countries. Every citizen, rich or poor, owns an equal share of the country’s wealth. In theory, there are no propertyless citizens. In reality, the state keeps all the wealth from their common properties, forcing the poor citizens into propertylessness.

  • Edward S

    Karl Widerquist writes: “Effective Control Self-Ownership is a theory of freedom that makes the freedom from directly or indirectly forced service central to an individual’s standing as a free person.”

    One can compare that concept with the definition of forced labour set down in Forced Labour Convention of the International Labour Organisation, adopted in 1930 (Convention No. 29). That Convention states in Article 2.1: “For the purpose of this Convention the term ‘forced or compulsory labour’ shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

    As I read it, the inclusion of the phrase “under the menace of any penalty” means that the Convention is restricted to “direct” forced labour. Without that phrase, the ILO C.29 definition would be consistent with Widerquist’s concept.

    I have long felt that one cannot be sure that a person has offered him- or herself voluntarily for work or a service if that person
    does not have an acceptable alternative; i.e., the means to cover his or her basic needs.

  • Congratulations. Can’t wait to read it. Good luck.

  • Ivar Hermans

    Do you know about the concept of “social threefolding”? e.g. see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_threefolding
    It looks like it can provide some structuring thoughts on the subjects you raise.

    Indeed people have to become more independent and participative in determining what happens with the product of their labor, instead of accepting that “employers” can freely decide over the produced gains in their own interests and even against the interests of the community. Conversely, employers will negociate such “independents” in order to get (from the community) sufficient capital, land and infrastructure for their enterprises in the economy (to produce for the actual needs in the community).

    This is the missing “third fold” in the current society structure where economics and politics call the shots, without an appropriate guarantee that in all social processes the “human and community interest” is taken in account.

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