Faith: The Journal of the International League of Religious Socialists

Philippe Van Parijs
Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium


Arguably, Christ’s key message in social and economic matters is a call for a special concern with the poor, the powerless, the underprivileged. In a Christian perspective, therefore, a life is a better life if it is devoted to improving the fate of the worst off. And this tends to coincide with fighting for social justice. The content of social justice, however, is and must be defined in a way that makes no reference to any particular conception of the good life, in a way that does not discriminate between alternative views about what is valuable or moral. On its most defensible interpretation, social justice requires that all should be given equal rights and maximal resources to pursue their own conception of a good life.
The paper that follows was originally prepared for a meeting of the National Board of Belgium’s Christian Trade Union Confederation. It spells out this ‘liberal’ conception of social justice, shows how it provides the core of a powerful response to so-called neo-liberal thought and policies, and discusses how it fits in with a number of typically Christian concerns.
One implication of this conception of social justice, as well as of the notion of special concern for the fate of the worst off, within the boundaries of affluent countries, is that marginalisation, the rise of a society in which an affluent two-third majority ignores the interests of an excluded minority, is ethically unacceptable. What can and must be done about it? Let us be careful: the most obvious answer to this question is fatally counterproductive. Being committed to improving as much as possible the fate of the worst off does not imply that one should favour selective measures aimed specifically at them. Indeed, the very selectivity of the social policies currently in force in European countries is no small factor in the process of marginalisation.
To illustrate, take first the case of child benefits. These are means-tested or selective (i.e. restricted to those who ‘need’ them) in some countries, and non-discriminating or universal (i.e. given to all families with children, whatever their incomes from other sources) in other countries. However well meant, selective systems generate two perverse effects. The poor, who have to claim child benefits, are singled out as a special, stigmatised category. And many of them, with low skills and several children, are trapped forever in unemployment, because they are most unlikely to find a job that will pay so much as to make it worthwhile to forego the means-tested benefits.
An analogous argument can be and has been used to justify a basic pension, given to all as from retiring age, irrespective of past work performance. For a few years, however, a number of individual scholars and organisations throughout Europe have been discussing and promoting a more radical proposal. Let us not give just an unconditional grant to all the young (universal child benefit) and all the old (universal basic pension). Let us also give it to all people of working age. This proposal has many names (social dividend, Grundeinkommen, allocation universelle, reddito di cittadinanza, medborgarlön, etc.), but the name under which it has become known in the European discussion is basic income.

The state of the discussion varies a great deal from country to country. Only in one case — the Netherlands — has the discussion turned into a broad social and political debate. But in nearly all European countries there has been some discussion, especially in green, left Christian and libertarian socialist circles. 1986 saw the creation of a European coordination called B.I.E.N. (Basic Income European Network), whose regular newsletter reviews relevant events and publications throughout Europe.
What has attracted such a varied set of people around the basic income proposal? To understand the reasoning behind it, let us bear in mind that many European countries have a guaranteed minimum income for those without adequate labour income or social insurance (the latest ones to introduce such a system were Luxembourg in 1986 and France in 1988). But this guaranteed income is conditional, in the sense that it is restricted to those who have inadequate income from other sources and make themselves available for work. Basic income supporters want to un-conditionalize this income guarantee. An income given to all and not just to the worst off, they argue, would be better for the sake of the worst off. For (1) it would remove the humiliating stigma attached to the status of a claimant; (2) it would abolish the unemployment trap in which the low-skilled are kept by a conditional system ; and (3) it would improve the bargaining situation of every individual worker, especially the low-skilled, by enabling her/him not to accept just any job (s)he is offered. If the fate of the worst off is not just a matter of income, but also of dignity, of social participation and of power, basic income is what we must go for.
Issues of financial feasibility and ethical defensibility, transition scenarios, advantages and drawbacks relative to alternative strategies (employment subsidies, work sharing, etc.) have all been abundantly discussed. This is not the place to summarize these discussions, but only to conclude by stating a personal conviction. At least in the current technological, economic and political context of the European Community, basic income provides the core of what I believe is the most promising strategy against marginalisation, against the perpetuation and consolidation of a two-third society. It provides the core of a radical, yet realistic strategy demanded by both social justice and the concern with the least privileged, with their dignity, their participation in social life, their power.

A Coherent Response To Neo-Liberalism

‘There is too much state and too little market. Within each nation and in international relations, the role allotted to competition - however imperfect — must urgently be increased, and the role reserved for bureaucracy - however democratic - reduced.’
This thesis is common to all the components of the vast intellectual movement which under the label ‘neo-liberalism’ began to expand in the early seventies and has left its mark on the economic and social policies of the entire Western world.
However, alongside this common thesis there prevails a great diversity among the statements, theories, doctrines and arguments which claim to be inspired by neo-liberalism or which are attributed to it. To find one’s way through all this, one could, for example, distinguish between statements given this designation on the basis of the discipline from which they stem - whether philosophy, biology, economics, political science or sociology -or on the basis of the more or less radical political position which they advocate - from minor reductions in tax rates to establishing what is sometimes called anarcho-capitalism, for example, through a general deregulation of the labour market or the privatisation of public banking institutions. I myself prefer to use a third distinction, which in my view is more illuminating and at any rate more relevant to my purpose. It focuses on the type of argument that is offered to justify an increased recourse to the market. The central contrast is between an instrumental neo-liberalism practised largely by economists which is generally more moderate in its implications, and a fundamental neo-liberalism, elaborated above all by philosophers and which is generally more radical.

The failure of the social democratic consensus

In order to understand my distinction you have to remember the politico-intellectual context from which neo-liberalism emerged. What it objected to, and what it eventually succeeded in bringing down, was the ‘social democratic consensus’, the quasi-unanimous adherence in the sixties to what has been diversely called the ‘mixed economy’, the ‘social market economy’, ‘welfare capitalism’, that is, a market economy giving an essential place to the welfare state on the internal level and to development aid on the international level. This adherence rested on the conviction that in welfare state capitalism, economic efficiency and social justice were not only compatible but also necessary conditions for one another. For not only is economic efficiency what permits the realisation of a social policy motivated by a concern for social justice. This social policy has in turn a beneficial economic impact: by ensuring a replacement income for the temporarily unemployed, it saves them from starvation until the time comes when they are needed again; bytransferring to the political level the decision concerning the distribution of a considerable part of the incomes and thus reducing the significance of industrial conflicts; and above all by stabilising effective demand and in this way preventing cumulative depressions. Governments thus apparently find themselves in the fortunate situation that they simultaneously can pursue all their central socio-economic objectives without having to dissociate them from each other; social justice through economic efficiency and economic efficiency through social justice.
‘What a grave error!’, say the neo-liberals who condemn this agreeable certitude as a sweet illusion. A grave error for two distinct reasons, which enable us to distinguish two neatly separate categories among neo-liberal arguments: those that refer to what I call instrumental neo-liberalism and those that refer to fundamental neo-liberalism.

Instrumental neo-Iiberalism and fundamental neo-liberalism

According to instrumental neo-liberalism, welfare state capitalism does not at all constitute the optimal compromise between economic efficiency and social justice. In regard both to efficiency and equality, its performance is in effect well below what it appears to be, in particular if you look at the long-term effects. Variants of this argumentation can be found in the monetarist critique of Keynesian policies, in the pleas of the advocates of deregulation, in the analyses of ‘supply side’ economics or in economic theories on bureaucracy and democracy. Whether it consists in monetary policy or in the guaranteeing of a minimum wage, in the regulation of advertising or in a policy of assistance to developing countries, intervention by the state not only interferes with the efficient functioning of the market, but also has the perverse effect of creating new inequalities instead of reducing them, and deteriorating the conditions of those who are worst off instead of improving them.
To adherents of fundamental neo-liberalism this critique is not carried far enough. For the social democratic consensus, in their view, needs to be denounced, not because it is incapable of combining optimally efficiency and equality, economic performance and social justice, but because it neglects a third value, which is the central one: liberty. ‘That which we have talked about since the beginning is liberty. Although a number of my proposals would have an immediate effect in improving our economic well-being, this would only be a secondary objective compared to the defense of individual liberty’. This statement was made in a memorable interview in Playboy magazine by the most celebrated neo-liberal thinker of the planet, Milton Friedman.
Moreover, we have no need of this quote in order to establish the presence of this dimension among the master-thinkers of neo-liberalism. To convince oneself that this is so, it suffices to glance at the titles of some of the works that have become key references for the entire movement. In order to justify capitalism, it is clearly liberty that is appealed to by Milton Friedman (Capitalism and Freedom), Friedrich Hayek (The Constitution of Liberty) and Henry Wallich (The Cost of Freedom), for example. A more systematic and rigorous elaboration of fundamental neo-liberalism came later, in the seventies, with the American libertarian philosophers. For most of them, the justification of capitalism is merely a conceptual affair and they do not find it necessary to bother with factual considerations: once you know what you are talking about when speaking of a free society, the justification of capitalism – or even of capitalism with at the most a minimal state – is no longer a matter for discussion: at least this is the view of those who attribute a central value to liberty. What distinguishes fundamental neo-liberalism from instrumental neo-liberalism is therefore not the targets of their arguments – state expenditures, Keynesian policies, the rigidities that result from regulation, etc. – but the ultimate basis for the arguments they advance: these various features of the mixed economy are to be criticised not because they are counterproductive with respect to their stated objectives of efficiency or equality, but because they restrict liberty.
I believe that there is a systematic and particularly powerful response to this double challenge which neo-liberals cannot possibly dismiss, because it attacks them on their own ground. I shall present it in two sections corresponding, in reverse order, to the two forms of neo-liberalism just described.

A Response

‘You attribute the utmost importance to liberty’, we may say to the fundamental neo--liberals, ‘and you reproach the social democratic consensus for ignoring it in its exclusive search for efficiency and equality.’All right. But what is liberty? It is, you say, the absence of coercion by others or by the state, or, more precisely, the absence of any restriction on our legitimate rights of ownership over ourselves and our external possessions. You readily admit that this requires a more precise definition of the way in which you become a legitimate owner of these possessions: exchange, gifts, inheritance or the appropriation of something which hitherto belonged to no one, namely natural resources. This last case is the trickiest, as you no doubt agree. And you are deeply divided over how to define the conditions under which natural resources may be legitimately appropriated. But it is not in this wound that we want to give the knife another turn in order to make you surrender. For your position is vitiated by an even more fundamental fault which it suffices to bring into the open to undermine your credibility.
In order to grasp the nature of this fault, let us imagine an island which is the legitimate property of one person and which is inhabited by a number of people whose sole property is their labour force. Under such circumstances, the owner of the island can force these persons to work under odious conditions for a very poor salary. There is however nothing in principle that prevents the society in question from being regarded as a free society in the libertarian sense. From the moment that the existing rights of ownership -where one person owns everything while the others own nothing but themselves - are the result of voluntary transactions based on a legitimate appropriation of natural resources, this is, in their view, a sufficient basis for saying that people are free, since they can do what they want with their property. This kind of example, whether fictitious or real, shows how libertarians juggle with the concepts. While freedom demands that one should have the right to do as one pleases with oneself and one’s legitimate property, it is not limited to this. It is not only a question of having the right to do as one pleases in that sense. It is also a question of means. It is because they lack these means – while enjoying this right –  that the propertyless inhabitants of our island cannot live their lives as they would like to, that they are not free in the real, not justformal sense, which is important to us.
What then is a free society? It is certainly a society which guarantees all its members a total formal freedom — the freedom of the libertarians, the right to do as you please with that which you legitimately own. But it is a society which defines the rights of ownership over external property in such a way as to give everyone the greatest possible real freedom. It is, more precisely, a society which guarantees those who have least of it the greatest possible real freedom, the most extensive means to do as they please with their lives. Such a position, which is very close to various expressions of the liberal position, in the American sense of the term, but without being strictly equivalent to any one of them, could be called real-libertarian. Along with the libertarian position - the fundamental version of neo--liberalism - it attaches exclusive importance to the freedom of all. But in contrast to it, it maintains with great force that it is a matter of real freedom, and — since it is said to concern the freedom of all — real freedom for those that have least of it.

The greatest possible real freedom for all

One of the greatest attractions of the real-libertarian position we have just sketched, is that it permits the elegant integration of the importance that we intuitively accord not only to freedom but also to equality and efficiency. It protects freedom - including the dimension which is today, rather vaguely, called ‘human rights’ - against the risks that a restriction of interest to equality and efficiency alone would entail. But it simultaneously gives an essential place to equality - more precisely to the concern for the poorest, for those who have the least means - since it logically implies that the only justified inequalities of real freedom are those which benefit its very ‘victims’. Finally, it also necessarily integrates considerations about efficiency, since the extent of the means that can be put at the disposal of all, depends to a large extent on the productive efficiency of society. Precisely because of its capacity to integrate these three types of considerations, the real-libertarian position proves to be very strong when faced not only with the libertarian position but also with the egalitarian or utilitarian positions, based, respectively, on an exclusive concern for equality and efficiency. When these positions are carefully clarified and their practical implications made explicit in a systematic way, it becomes evident that each of them will find it very hard, in view of the difficulties it gives rise to, to avoid sliding towards the elegant compromise constituted by the real-libertarian position.
Does such a position, in contrast to neo-liberalism, lead to the justification of a capitalist system considerably tempered by the welfare state and by development aid in the form that we know today? This is not to be taken for granted. One can certainly admit that, essentially for reasons of technological dynamism, this real-libertarianism induces a presumption - but no more than that - in favour of capitalism and against socialism, be it centralised or self-managing. One can also admit that on both the national and the international level, it is certain to imply a massive and permanent redistribution of incomes earned on the market. But the form that this redistribution should take cannot be the one we know today, which is subject to numerous conditions, but should consist of a (totally unconditional) basic income, financed on the widest possible scale that is politically feasible and fixed at the highest level that is economically sustainable. This is not the place for me to attempt to present in a rigorous manner the argumentation - much more complex than I initially imagined - that leads from the real-libertarian principle to these specific institutional implications. The intuitive link between the greatest possible freedom for all and the largest possible basic income is sufficiently clear for me to be able to move on to the other, instrumental component of neo-liberalism.

Case by case

In its instrumental version, neo-liberalism, let us recall, reproaches the mixed economy for serving its goal of an optimal combination of economic efficiency and social justice in a disastrous manner, if we consider the long-term effects. Thanks to the criterion which emerges from the previous discussion we can now examine this reproach from a new angle, within a more precise frame of reference and above all, in a spirit of openness which you can permit yourself when you can lean on a firm and coherent position of principle which prevents you from slipping towards total capitulation. When neo-liberals argue that this or that component of the welfare state - for example Keynesian policies or a minimum wage legislation - is reducing economic efficiency or reinforcing social inequalities, you must certainly submit their arguments to a critical examination. But even if their arguments are conclusive, this does not necessarily imply that the institutions which they criticize should be condemned. For there is nothing in principle that prevents an institution which generates inefficiency or even one that generates inequality, from helping to increase the real freedom of those who have least of it.

There is of course nothing that permits us to state a priori that everything in the mixed economy, as we know it today, would conform to our principle of the greatest possible real freedom for all. By mentioning basic income I have already admitted that this is not the case, that the greatest possible real freedom for all presupposes that all - and not, as is the case today, only those who enjoy the privilege of wealth - could have access to an income (a modest one, to be sure) independently of all employment and of the will to accept one. And this is not all. It is also possible that certain regulations which constrain the market and certain subsidy and taxation policies create rigidities and distortions which cannot be justified by the increase in the real freedom of the worst off. For each one of these regulations and policies this may be the case. But the opposite is also possible. In each case one should be open to what experience and research allow one to presume about the possible impact of a measure (or of its withdrawal) on the maximal sustainable level of the basic income.

These are the broad outlines of what seems to me to be a credible and coherent response to the neo-liberal challenge, for persons or movements who, like you and I, consider concern for the worst off to be of utmost importance. This response, let me recall, has two components:

  • Freedom is certainly important. But it must be real freedom of all.
  • On the question as to whether the various state interventions - with regard to taxation, transfer payments, education, industrial policy, labour law, etc - satisfy this criterion, one can only respond case by case, and not a priori. And on one point at least -the introduction of a basic income - there is an important difference between the mixed economy as we know it and what is required by maximum basic income for all.

I will now briefly examine some of the most serious principled objections which could be made to this response.

Three Challenges

Liberty or subsidiarity?

When the institutional implications of the real-libertarian position are made explicit, one sees clearly that the latter is at the same time ultra-individualistic and ultra-universalistic. It grants each man and each woman the same unconditional rights on the widest possible scale. In this it places itself in total opposition to the ‘principle of subsidiarity’, which still permeates many of the social policies of our countries. This principle was given its first systematic formulation in the work of the Calvinist political thinker Johannes Althusius (1603) and later (after the encyclical Rerum Novarum, 1891) became an important element in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. It consists in stating that each aspect of the ‘social question’ should be resolved at the lowest possible level of the hierarchy of collectives: the neighbourhood community or the professional association should intervene only when the family does not manage to look after its members; the municipality should intervene only when the smaller organisations are not sufficient; and the same applies also to the province, the state, and to the international community. How do you justify such a principle of subsidiarity? How can you support the thesis that the social policy, which it legitimizes, is superior to the one that is derived from the real-libertarian principle? I see two possibilities.
The first one consists in emphasising how anonymous the assistance is which is given within the framework of a universalist system. To take up a distinction by Pierre Rosanvallon, what is accomplished by such a system is a cold solidarity that is in glaring contrast to the traditional warm solidarity of communities, the destruction of which it morwver contributes to. A relationship of warm solidarity built on generosity on the one side and on gratitude on the other, is replaced, as the result of the development of a universalist system, by a relationship built on the one side on a recalcitrant submission to the burden of taxation and on the other on an egoistic insistence on rights. A social policy guided by the principle of sub sidiarity can of course not be based solely on warm solidarity, but it can pride itself upon preserving it to the largest possible extent and upon applying a lukewarm solidarity or even a cold one only if the warm solidarity is missing or found to be insufficient.

This first justification does not appear to me to carry great weight. Of course it may be regretted, all other things being equal, that the transfer payments which ensure all their means of existence are no longer a manifestation of the practise of virtue (charity, generosity), but have become the occasion par excellence for the practising of vice (in this case tax fraud). But then all other things are not equal. For it is precisely the compulsory nature of the taxation which makes it possible to grant an unconditional right to an income to everyone and thus make the worst off independent of the goodwill of others. The dignity of the poorest, inseparable from their freedom, is reason enough to deprive the rich of an opportunity to display their generosity, even more so since there is nothing that prevents them from doing more than what is imposed on them by the tax administration.

There is a second manner in which one might attempt to justify the principle of subsidiarity. A system of transfer payments according to this principle implies through its very structure that the higher instance does not intervene, except in the case of ‘failure’: when others do not manage to ensure the well-being of those around them. The normal case, in other words, does not require any intervention. Since an intervention implies taking special measures, it may also offer the occasion for an enterprise of (re)moralisation. Granting social assistance could easily be coupled, for example, with a demand that the beneficiary should make a serious effort at finding work and/or taking adequate care of his family.

This justification appears to me to run into the three following difficulties. First of all, such a remoralisation may be found unfair if it is only directed towards the worst off and makes use of the state of need in which they find themselves in order to impose on them lessons of professional and family morals which the wealthier are spared. Next, one could also doubt the efficacy of an enterprise which, far from reviving the ancient virtues, has every chance of just inducing conducts which imitate virtue but are driven by the fear of losing the material advantages for which they are the condition. Last and foremost, defending subsidiarity by reference to the life it would make possible to impose presupposes that one ignores what is the point of departure of the real-libertarian position and of a ‘liberal’ position in general: the fact that our society is a pluralist society in which there is no consensus on what constitutes a ‘good life’. In such a situation, the ‘liberal’ attitude consists in refusing to impose a particular conception on others, in paying equal respect to every one, in giving each person the greatest real freedom to lead his or her life in his or her way, with the sole obligation to respect the similar freedom of others. The lazy and the selfish, in this perspective, are entitled to the same unconditional income as the others, neither more nor less, even though there is of course no guarantee that they will receive the same total income as the industrious or the same affection as the altruist. Nothing in all this will shock the moral intuition of most of us. I can therefore move on to a second objection, which I have to admit I find more troublesome.

Free but miserable?

The principle of maximum real freedom for all articulates elegantly, I have said, the importance we intuitively ascribe to freedom, equality and efficiency. But the efficiency concerned is economic efficiency, the capacity to produce the material means which constitute the substance of real freedom for all. It is not the efficiency measured in terms of the actual well-being of people. Is it not possible that a world in which all are maximally free could also be a world in which all are pathetically unhappy?

At first sight this is impossible, unless you adopt a grossly paternalistic attitude. For how can you make people unhappy by giving all the maximum possible means to pursue their happiness? Maybe if we assume that they are too stupid to understand what makes them happy and that we - spiritual masters, intellectuals, technocrats, and the like - know better than they what will make them happy. Even if this paternalistic presupposition were correct in a considerable number of cases, it would not in any way shake the strength of the real-libertarian position: it is not society that should make people happy, but they themselves. All that can be demanded from society is that it provide each of them as much as possible with the means of realising this happiness.

There is, however, a subtler version of this objection which does not rest at all on the premise that people are incapable of making the choices that would make them happy, but rather on the more plausible hypothesis that there are in social reality some adverse aggregate effects of great amplitude. To take a familiar example: if everyone chooses, on the basis of his or her clearly understood self-interest, to buy and utilize a car, the aggregate result of these choices (traffic jams and pollution included) may very well be worse for everyone than if everyone had chosen to dispense with the car. To use the economic jargon: in the presence of externalities, individual rationality could generate collective irrationality. And in the face of this loss of welfare it is this time not possible to retort that it is up to everyone to fashion his welfare on the basis of the maximum objective means which society puts at his disposal. For it is precisely the objective means which we are talking about in this case: the exercise by everyone of this individual freedom has destroyed the real freedom to move about peacefully in the centre of the city without having to avoid cars or breathe their exhaust-gasses.

The failure of this first response immediately suggests a second one. If it is real freedom that is affected, it is because in the presence of externalities, such as pollution, real freedom cannot be captured simply as a monetary endowment and because a public intervention is therefore required in the name of the same real freedom for all, either in order to make everyone pay the ‘true price’ of his choices, or simply to ban certain practises when this appears to be more appropriate. It is not at all inconceivable that concern for maximum real freedom for all could justify preventing Danish farmers from using fertilizers which, when discharged into the sea, are strangling, via a proliferation of algae, the entire Norwegian fishing industry.

So far so good. We may admit that environmental externalities could in principle be treated in this fashion without needing to deny the innumerable technical difficulties such a treatment would call forth. There are, however, other phenomena which could also be described as externalities but for which it is considerably more problematic, it seems to me, to find an adequate treatment. The case in point most frequently discussed is the phenomenon of ‘relative frustration’: if by enlarging the space for what is perceived as possible the level of satisfaction is reduced, it is quite possible that the pursuit of maximum real freedom for all would have disastrous consequences in terms of well-being. But precisely in order to show that this is not the only case in which the problem arises, I will present yet another example which, though more limited, is no less relevant.

Let us for a moment suppose that it is essential for the well-being and equilibrium of each person that there is a place where (s)he has his/her roots. This is the place where (s)he has spent his/her childhood. When (s)he returns to it, (s)he meets again his/her parents, neighbours, acquaintances, in brief a community where (s)he feels that (s)he belongs. Let us also suppose that there are many people who wish to make use of the opportunities which geographic and social mobility offer them. They move far away or simply to the other end of the town, to live with a spouse, buy a house or find a job. Each one of them does this, despite the fact that (s)he also attaches the greatest importance to preserving his/her roots. For either the others stay behind, and in that case the roots remain, and (s)he can depart in peace. Or else, the others depart as well, in which case the roots vanish in any case and it makes no difference either way if (s)he stays. This generates a perverse effect in the sense illustrated above. If many reason this way – and from the preferences we have postulated it would be irrational for them not to do so – there would no longer exist any community to which people could return. At most there would remain some buildings resembling those they can remember, but which would be for all time inhabited by strangers.

If the suppositions we have introduced through this example bear a sufficiently strong resemblance with reality, you will realize that it is possible for individuals who are both maximally free and clear-sighted to become much more unhappy than they would be in the absence of maximum freedom, because of the general lack of roots which this freedom generates. Just as in the case of the environmental externalities, it is a real freedom which is attacked, in this case the freedom to preserve one’s roots. But there appears to be a difference. One may perfectly well demand of the polluter who deprives another of his/her real freedom to fish that (s)he should pay the ‘true price’ of his/her choice; such a demand does not contradict the concern for the real freedom of all. On the other hand it seems unwelcome from a real-libertarian point of view to restrict someone’s mobility in order to preserve someone else’s freedom to maintain his/her roots. Are we then not on a slippery slope along which we shall be led to demand similar restrictions on anyone who abandons his or her spouse (thus depriving the latter of the real freedom to cohabit!), indeed on any person who is the object of a love which he/she does not want to reciprocate?

Not sufficiently universalist?

Let us leave this second difficulty unresolved and move on to a third one.
While advocates of the principle of subsidiarity accuse the real-libertarian position of being overly universalist - that was the first objection - others criticize it for not being sufficiently universalist. At first sight, this may appear strange. For how is it possible to be more universalist than by according to all, irrespective of sex, race, religion, nationality, intelligence or social origin, the greatest possible real freedom? To this question there are two replies.

The first one, which is the least radical one, emphasizes the interests of future generations. Maximising the freedom of the members of the present generation could severely reduce the options left open to those to come. ‘True’, a real-libertarian could reply, ‘if we contribute to the depletion of natural resources, we have to compensate this through capital accumulation and technical progress in such a way that the level of productivity will at least be kept intact. Since technical progress cannot be decreed and since in a market economy the level of accumulation is endogenous, it is at the level of the rate of depletion of natural resources that the adjustment ought to be made, through adequate taxation.’

A little reflection, however, prompts yet another difficulty. Since how much must be left to the next generation depends on the latter’s size, which in turn depends on the rate of reproduction of the present generation. The fewer children that are born, the lesser constraints will be imposed by the concern to protect the real freedom of the following generation and the greater is, consequently, the real freedom which can be guaranteed to each member of the present generation. Let us suppose that the birth rate could be influenced without any recourse to repressive methods, e.g., by apportioning the basic income according to age: at a given average level it may be assumed that a grant that rises with increasing age helps keeping the birth rate down, both because the increase in family income as a result of a birth is then lower and because it is less necessary to have to count on one’s children for support in one’s old age. Will a real-libertarian position imply the adoption of a policy of this type, which will discourage fertility as much as possible without encroaching on anyone’s formal freedom?

I move on to the second, more profound reason why the real-libertarian position may be judged to be insufficiently universalist. Like its utilitarian, egalitarian or libertarian rivals, this position focuses on the interests of the members of the human race alone. But what makes humanism fundamentally more moral than racism or sexism? Why should we take no account of the freedom or at the very least the interests of the other species - for their own sake, independently of their instrumental value for the real freedom of man? The adherents of ‘animal ethics’ maintain that it is inadmissible that no moral importance should be attached to the sufferings inflicted on members of other species for no other reason than the interest of man. A yet more radical position is adopted by the supporters of ‘deep ecology’, who think that each site innature, even if it does not shelter any living creature, has a dignity which constrains man and which is not to be violated on the ground that doing so would contribute to the increase of real freedom for all (human beings).

And yet unreplaceable?

On this third issue, I will confine myself once again to mentioning the challenge and stressing its importance without attempting to provide an adequate response. The real-libertarian position integrates with rigour and precision, it seems to me, a number of fundamentally evangelical values such as a privileged commitment to the poorest - and of typically modern values - such as the concern with the rights of the individual - which underlie the judgements we make, whether Christians or non-Christians, about particular situations, developments, acts or policies. Both on the level of the internal functioning of our western industrialised societies and in connection with development issues, it offers a powerful alternative to neo-liberalism with the double advantage of attacking neo-liberalism on its home ground - freedom - in connection with its fundamental component, and of invoking a precise normative criterion - maximum real freedom - in connection with its instrumental component.
Strength in the debate with the neo-liberals does not however imply invulnerability. And by reviewing some of the most serious objections to the real-libertarian position, I wanted to display the scope of the intellectual challenges that must be met, if they can at all be met. While finding it of the greatest importance to pay attention to these challenges, I nevertheless suspect that the position they have as a target will eventually prove unreplaceable.

Top of page
Top of page
Top of page
Top of page
Top of page
Top of page
Top of page
Top of page
Top of page

This site was created and designed by Andrew Hammer
©2001 ILRS