A BIG Justification Under Capitalism

It is sometimes argued that a basic income guarantee (BIG) would be unfair because it requires no reciprocation from the recipient. If we are to hold to a principle of reciprocity, it might be worth briefly considering how the principle ought to be applied in the present social system. In a system of private property ownership, it would seem that the reciprocity argument against basic income is false. Would-be recipients are already reciprocating, before any such introduction of basic income, by agreeing to go along with the private-property system. Why should individuals, especially those not born into private property, respect private property rights unless they are compensated for their acceptance of the arrangement? If we are going to appeal to reciprocity, the onus of reciprocation should be on those who derive property income.

Property owners receive a legal entitlement to income streams without a productive contribution being required in return. Most notably, landlords receive rent not as the result of productive activity but by the fact of their ownership of land, housing and commercial buildings; rentiers receive interest income due to mere ownership of money, stored in the form of savings; and capitalists receive profit because of ownership of the means of production. All these income streams derive from ownership, not productive contribution.

If there are going to be private income flows not tied to productive activity, as there always are under capitalism, they should really be the equal entitlement of all. At the very least, reciprocation should require that some of the income flowing to property owners in the form of rent, interest and profit be treated as everyone’s entitlement. These unearned entitlements, after all, are based in the system of property rights.

What are these property rights? They are nothing but a social creation, and as a social creation they can be dismantled at any time. If property owners don’t want these unearned entitlements dismantled, they should start reciprocating.

Under capitalism, reciprocity requires basic income.