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Welfare and Reciprocity: Should We (Really) Feed the Surfers?

Figure de Kite-Surf

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Should society feed surfers? ‘Surfers’ are people who choose to stop contributing to social life through work in order to devote themselves to leisure activities. The question has been asked in these terms ever since Philippe Van Parijs, a Belgian philosopher and economist, suggested to John Rawls, author of the Theory of justice, that a universal income would be consistent with his thinking. Rawls disagreed, replying that ‘those who surf all day in Malibu would have to find a way to support themselves and should not receive public funds’. In defence of a universal and unconditional income, Van Parijs wrote in 1991 ‘Why Surfers Should be Fed: The Liberal Case for an Unconditional Basic Income’. He argued for surfers’ right to adopt this lifestyle, although he did not necessarily endorse it. It is worth revisiting this debate over the conditionality of the welfare system thirty years later. Indeed, the issue came back to the fore when Emmanuel Macron proposed during his campaign that the active solidarity income (RSA) be conditioned on ‘an obligation to devote 15 to 20 hours a week to an activity that would lead to professional integration’.

A Recurring Debate Across Borders

Since 1989, France has offered a minimum integration income (RMI) and then the RSA in a logic of reciprocity (rights and duties). The law of December 1988 establishing the RMI provides that ‘any person who, because of his or her age, physical or mental condition, or the state of the economy and employment, is unable to work, has the right to obtain adequate means of support from the community’. In terms of duty, the law provides that the recipient must ‘commit to participating in agreed-upon integration activities and actions’, and that the recipient’s failure to comply with the contract may lead to the suspension of allowance payments. After lengthy debates, the 1988 law ultimately remained rather vague about the recipient’s concrete obligations since these are linked to an integration contract drawn up after the rights are secured. When the bill was debated, some of the socialist members of parliament had argued for unconditionality as a solution to compromise with the opposition, enabling quasi-unanimous adoption of the bill.  Nineteen years later, in 2017, the issue resurfaced within the Socialist Party itself during primaries to select a presidential candidate. When Benoît Hamon proposed an unconditional universal living wage, he was criticised by his opponent Manuel Valls, who warned of a ‘do-nothing society’. Abroad, the question was notably raised in Finland during an experiment conducted in 2016, as well as in Switzerland where, after being rejected in a 2016 vote, the issue reappeared on the agenda in 2021 via a second popular initiative.

Food stamps, Brooklyn Deli (South wWilliamsburg). Crédits : Clementine Gallot, CC BY 2.0, Flickr

Paradoxically, alongside the growing debate over a universal unconditional income, a movement to tighten the conditionality of social assistance emerged in most Western countries. In France, conditionality increased when the RMI gave way to the RSA in 2008. In the United States, the Trump administration increased the conditionality of food stamps. Other examples of increased conditionality include the Universal Credit in the United Kingdom (2012) and the Hartz IV law in Germany (2005).

Work Ethics and Reciprocity: Shared Values?

The World Value Survey is an international project that explores values and opinions through nationally representative surveys in nearly 100 countries. Respondents are asked to rate their level agreement with the statement: ‘work is an obligation to society’. Out of 79 countries covered in the latest survey, the average (unweighted) share of respondents who ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ is 70%. The share is below 50% in only 5 countries: Russia, Andorra, New Zealand, Ukraine, and Armenia.

Other surveys tell us about Europeans’ ideas about economic and social justice. Two elements stand out: first, they support an income floor even if it means reducing the average income; second, they reject letting others live at their expense(1)Parodi M. et M. Forsé, 2002 : « Homo œconomicus et spectateur équitable », Revue de l’OFCE, n°82..

It turns out that the social policies of all the member countries of the European Union align with these ideas. All of them now offer a guaranteed minimum income, and all of them make these incomes conditional on social or professional integration efforts. The debates are therefore less about principles than about sums and conditions. There is a considerable difference in generosity across the sums granted in each country. The two extremes are Bulgaria, which provides an income equivalent to 17 percent of the median wage (on average across different types of households), and Denmark, which offers 61 percent of the median wage – a gap of such magnitude that it raises questions about the very nature of the benefit.

Reciprocity and Social Justice: Should We Feed the Surfers?

The defence of an unconditional income is generally associated with the idea of universal income. Most proponents of the latter put forward the idea of common ownership of exogenous resources that do not depend on labour (land, raw materials, etc.). Thomas Paine, Thomas Spence, Charles Fourier, Joseph Charlier, and more recently Philippe Van Parijs thus justify universal income systems. There are two reasons why property rights to external resources are useful to universal income backers. First, a property right that does not derive from contributions can justify egalitarian sharing, or common ownership, since no one can take credit for it. Second, property justifies an unconditional right. In our capitalist economies, the wealthy have the right not to work, even if they are able-bodied and of working age, so why not surfers, assuming they have a legitimate property right?La défense d’un revenu inconditionnel est généralement associée à l’idée de revenu universel. La plupart des défenseurs de ce dernier mettent en avant l’idée d’une propriété commune de ressources exogènes qui ne dépendent pas du travail (la terre, les matières premières…). C’est sur ces arguments que des systèmes de revenu universel ont été justifiés par Thomas Paine, Thomas Spence, Charles Fourier, Joseph Charlier, et plus récemment Philippe Van Parijs.

WorldTraveller101 / Wikimedia Commons

Are people who do not wish to contribute still entitled to an income? One answer can be found in Van Parijs’ argument, which features two types of individuals: ‘Lazies’ and ‘Crazies’. The latter want to work but need external resources, such as land, while the Lazies prefer not to work too much. Following the philosopher Ronald Dworkin, Van Parijs argues that it is fair for Crazies to compensate the Lazies for land use at market value. This solution respects the non-envy principle (no one envies the other’s basket of goods since they have the same basket of goods), and according to Van Parijs, allocates true freedom in an egalitarian and nondiscriminatory way that respects everyone’s preferences.
However, this solution is not entirely satisfactory. If, for example, new lands were discovered, the scarcity rent from which the Lazies would benefit might decrease. They would therefore lose out even though the resources they co-owned would increase. If the land became abundant, without any scarcity, its market value would be zero, as would the income legitimised by the shared ownership of this resource.
The second issue is that if the Crazies decided to work less, the Lazies’ pensions would decrease, since they depend on the Crazies’ work. Clearly, if all the Crazies stopped working, nobody could survive: the Lazies can only choose not to work because the Crazies work.
The Lazies ultimately benefit from the existence of the Crazies, while the existence of the Lazies is costly to the Crazies. Some compare Lazies to parasites, but the appropriate image is that of ‘free riders’ who benefit from an action without contributing to it. This brings us back to the question of reciprocity. Such a relationship between workers and free riders goes against the Kantian imperative: ‘Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law’. In other words, the question is the acceptable threshold of ‘economic separatism’ to provide an income to members of a political community. If a limit is not set, given that capitalist property has no boundaries, one could imagine a capitalist moving to Mars and continuing to receive dividends.
Is another arrangement possible? Yes, if one considers common ownership of external resources to be limited to the right of use (usus). With this arrangement, if resources increase, income does not decrease. There is no free rider phenomenon. This does not necessarily imply that workers’ incomes are strictly proportional to their productivity: they can cooperatively choose other modes of remuneration. Nor does it imply that those who do not work are not entitled to any income. The argument is limited to saying that the principle of common ownership of external resources should only entitle someone to income if that person is willing to work with these resources. The land would collectively belong to all workers. Any payment to inactive people – to ‘surfers’ – would then be based on principles other than common ownership of external resources, such as need or dignity. The argument can justify equal sharing of social resources (education, health, mobility…), as well as a minimum income enabling social integration or non-disengagement.
In the end, the fundamental question is what to run with: a universal dividend or a guaranteed social income? And of the latter is chosen, what should the conditions be?

What Conditionality? How to Justify and Implement it?

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Despite differences between European countries, surveys of values and opinions about the welfare state tend to show that citizens behave like homo reciprocans: respondents favoured a social minimum that covers basic needs, while also supporting a system of rights and duties. However, these two points are partially contradictory: if the social minimum is justified by needs, it should not be conditioned by duties. This contradiction was recently addressed by the German Constitutional Court, which ruled that part of the guaranteed minimum income could not be suspended as a sanction for lack of integration efforts.

In a reciprocal dynamic, the more citizens think that those on welfare are making an effort, the more they approve of a high minimum income. The risk linked to the unconditional nature of social minima is that the image of imaginary or real surfers will erode the reputation of social minimum recipients and the consensus around guaranteeing them a decent income.

A completely unconditional social minimum would then run the risk of spotlighting the few cases of abuse (surfers). In order to pragmatically address this while maximising true freedom for the most disadvantaged, it might be worth considering an automatic social minimum and an ex-ante unconditionality that would reflect a presumption of reciprocity. It could only be suspended ex-post in the event of manifest abuse, as a kind of anti-surfer clause.

 Guillaume Allègre, OFCE

Guillaume Allègre  is an economist in the Department of Studies at French Economic Observatory. His main research topics focus on taxation, social policies and inequalities. His recent publications include Revenu universel  : L’état du débat"  ("Universal income: The state of the debate") in collaboration with Henri Sterdyniak, Ebook, OFCE, 2017 and Des parasites au paradis ? Revenu universel, minima sociaux et réciprocité, ("Des parasites au paradis? Universal income, social minima and reciprocity, Working Paper, OFCE, 2021


1 Parodi M. et M. Forsé, 2002 : « Homo œconomicus et spectateur équitable », Revue de l’OFCE, n°82.


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Welfare and Reciprocity: Should We (Really) Feed the Surfers?