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Should surfers be ostracized? Basic income, liberal neutrality, and the work ethos


  • Simon Birnbaum

    (Stockholm University, Sweden)


Neutralists have argued that there is something illiberal about linking access to gift-like resources to work requirements. The central liberal motivation for basic income is to provide greater freedom to choose between different ways of life, including options attaching great importance to non-market activities and disposable time. As argued by Philippe Van Parijs, even those spending their days surfing should be fed. This article examines Van Parijs' dual commitment to a ‘real libertarian’ justification of basic income and the public enforcement of a strong work ethos, which serves to boost the volume of work at a given rate of taxation. It is argued (contra Van Parijs) that this alliance faces the neutrality objection: the work ethos will largely offset the liberal gains of unconditionality by radically restricting the set of permissible options available. A relaxed, non-obligatory ethos might avoid this implication. This view, however, is vulnerable to the structural exploitation objection: feasibility is achieved only because some choose to do necessary tasks to which most people have the same aversion. In light of these objections, the article examines whether there is a morally untainted feasibility path consistent with liberal objectives.

Suggested Citation

  • Simon Birnbaum, 2011. "Should surfers be ostracized? Basic income, liberal neutrality, and the work ethos," Politics, Philosophy & Economics, , vol. 10(4), pages 396-419, November.
  • Handle: RePEc:sae:pophec:v:10:y:2011:i:4:p:396-419

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