What's Wrong With a Free Lunch? (New Democracy Forum)

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Our politicians insist that we live in a time of unprecedented prosperity, yet more and more Americans are pointing out that the richest 1% of our society holds more wealth than the bottom 90% put together. In this timely book, economist Philippe Van Parijs has a simple plan for addressing not only poverty but other social ills: everyone would be paid a universal basic income (UBI) at a level sufficient for subsistence. Everyone, including "those who make no social contribution-who spend their mornings bickering with their partner, surf off Malibu in the afternoon, and smoke pot all night."

Van Parijs argues that a UBI would reduce unemployment, improve women's lives, and prevent the environmental damage caused by overproduction and fast growth. At the heart of his proposal is the intention to secure real freedom for all, because it offers the greatest possible opportunity to those with the least opportunities. He acknowledges that an idle surfer might not deserve a UBI, but that the surfer's good luck would be no different than the good fortune enjoyed by those who benefit from the current distribution of resources.

Responses to this controversial proposal vary: Some are in favor of a basic income, but only if it's tied to work. Others find the entire proposal unrealistic and unaffordable. Almost all agree, however, that it is time for us to talk about this issue.

NEW DEMOCRACY FORUM: A series of short paperback originals exploring creative solutions to our most urgent national concerns. The series editors (for Boston Review), Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, aim to foster politically engaged, intellectually honest, and morally serious debate about fundamental issues-both on and off the agenda of conventional politics.

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About the Author:

Philippe Van Parijs teaches at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. He is the author of Real Freedom for All.

From Publishers Weekly:

In the short essay that is the starting point for this invigorating exchange of ideas, Belgian political theorist Van Parijs (Real Freedom for All) proposes that all adult members of society be guaranteed a basic subsistence income, arguing that such a policy would promote real freedom and solve societal dilemmas like endemic poverty and unemployment. Van Parijs is convinced that once citizens feel assured of their basic survival, they will apply themselves according to their true capacities and interests, better serving society as a whole. His proposal elicits spirited responses, pro and con, from the 15 prominent economists, sociologists, political scientists, lawyers and public policy theorists (including Nobel laureate Herbert Simon and economist Edmund Phelps) gathered in this smart and accessible forum originally published in the Boston Review. Eager to provoke debate, Van Parijs accuses those who value employment under any conditions, no matter how demeaning, of suffering from "work fetishism." Although some commentators clearly want to pummel and bury the "free lunch" idea, others take it seriously and consider its possible practical outcomes. Still others persuasively use Van Parijs's thinking as a platform to advocate other social policy changes. In a mere 160 pages, this book demonstrates intellectual engagement at its best. (May 8) Forecast: Although policy makers and social theorists are the primary audience for this book, the variety and prominence of its contributors, not to mention the foreword by Nobel laureate Robert Solow, may help it find a well-deserved readership outside the classroom.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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