A Dividend for All Persons
In our opinion, this is one of the most observant articles of all time.
Basic liberal rights and the environment:
The right to environmental utilization space as the foundation for a basic income
by Marc DavidsonAt the beginning of this year, in the Dutch daily and weekly newspapers fierce polemics raged about the pros and cons of a basic income. Liberals, in particular, raised objections to the possible introduction of a basic income. That could only encroach upon liberal rights, so they thought. However, if these liberals were to carefully scrutinize the ideas they propagate, they might well come to adopt a different view. Only the introduction of a basic income can restore a basic liberal right that has being violated for many centuries: the right to an equal share of environmental utilization space.
1. Liberal principles
Liberalism takes as its moral point of departure the idea that every individual should have maximum liberty to shape his or her life, as long as other people are not harmed in their liberty. Contrary to what is often thought, liberals therefore do not argue for unlimited liberty, but for clear limits to everyone's liberty. To quote the libertarian Robert Nozick: a person has the liberty to leave his knife wherever he wants, but not in someone else's back. One's own liberty stops where that of others starts.
Besides the right to self-determination over one's own body, the possibility of making use of nature is an essential part of man's liberty. Since the human community only has disposal over a finite planet, no single individual may make an unlimited claim on nature for himself.
This idea was already formulated long before nature was as scarce as we now know. In 1690 John Locke, one of the most important founders of liberalism, deduced this idea as a logical consequence of his liberal principles. According to Locke, every individual has the right to maximum freedom to shape his own life. In exercising this right the individual may claim a part of nature, as long as he - and this is of key importance - leaves enough, as good for others. No one person may make a greater claim on nature than any other person, since the opportunities offered by nature are no one person's personal merit. For example, when only a limited amount of land is available for two persons, and one of the two appropriates more than half the land, then, according to Locke, this is unfair. The second person is being too restricted in his potential to shape his life.
Locke himself did not yet take his theoretical 'proviso' that seriously. In 1690, the earth seemed so unbounded that its appropriation by one person did not really diminish the possibilities available to the other person. All in all, though, we can say that he was a far-sighted man.
2. Environmental utilization space
Since 1690, the necessity to do justice to the so-called 'Lockean proviso' has become far more urgent, because today, in the year 1995, nature has become incomparably more scarce. In his day Locke's speculations were concerned particularly with the limits to the availability of land area. Today, on our finite planet, we have become aware of the limits to the supplies of raw materials and the capacity of the earth to absorb waste matter.
In the case of land area there is a physical limit, since at a certain point the amount of land available runs out. In the case of the earth's capacity for absorbing waste matter the limit is situated at the point where human activities do not quite thwart future opportunities. If these activities give rise to more waste than the planetary ecosystem can digest, the earth will only be able to digest less in the future.
The total space provided by the earth for our use without our diminishing the possibilities for the future is called the environmental utilization space. The environmental utilization space includes not only the available land area, which was the primary concern of John Locke, but also, for example, the amount of fish that can be caught in the oceans without depleting overall fish stocks and the amount of carbon dioxide that can be discharged into the atmosphere without influencing the climate.
Although the concept of environmental utilization space was unknown to Locke - it was introduced into 'resource economics' in the Netherlands in 1991 by Klaassen and Opschoor - it fits seamlessly into his liberal ethics. As stated, according to Locke nature may only be appropriated as long as enough of the same quality is left for others. By appropriating more than one's fair share, one is curtailing the opportunities of others to shape their lives.
In the case of land area this is straightforward: the other person must be able to life or work somewhere. In the case of renewable resources too, however, it is readily elucidated. One can imagine, for example, a situation in which two people have at their disposal one pond, from which ten fish can be landed each day without permanently reducing the total number of fish. The total environmental utilization space of this pond is therefore the landing of ten fish a day. Each of these two people can then land five fish a day without unjustifiably encroaching upon the liberty of the other. If one of the fishermen lands ten fish, then the other can either decide not to catch any fish that day or still catch five fish and have less in the future. In both cases his opportunities are restricted.
So if the first of these fishermen catches ten fish a day, he is violating the right of every human to make use of no more and no less than an equal share of the environmental utilization space. In doing so, he is encroaching upon the liberal axiom, which states that every human being should have the maximum freedom to shape his own life.
Perhaps all this sounds familiar to those who are acquainted with the report Our Common Future, published by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1989. Without liberalism being taken as an explicit point of departure, it was precisely the right of each individual to use no more and no less than an equal share of the environmental utilization space that the Commission propagated when it summoned the international community to work towards sustainable development. A community should remain within the boundaries set by nature. Only in this way can the community develop sustainably, and only in this way, according to the Commission, can the ability of future generations to provide in their needs be guaranteed. And equal access to natural resources is a boundary condition for a truly stable world.
Few people will deny the urgency of the appeal made by the Commission Brundtland. As we move towards a new millennium we are far exceeding our environmental utilization space: we are emitting too much carbon dioxide, the oceans are being overfished, etcetera. Moreover, not everyone has equal access to the environment: the environment is owned by a limited number of individuals, whether it be agricultural land, natural gas reserves or the right to commercial fishing. On a global scale, in particular, the pie is shared extremely unequally: less than 20 per cent of the world's population are consuming more than 80 per cent of the natural resources.
3. Basic income
The right to an equal share of the environmental utilization space does not immediately imply that everyone should also necessarily make an equal use of this right. What is at issue is merely the equal opportunity to make use of that space. Society must be able to guarantee this opportunity to every individual. A solution was already proposed in 1796 by the English philosopher Thomas Paine. In Paine's day, the scarcity of land was already becoming more manifest. Contrary to John Locke, Paine was spurred to pursue more seriously the liberal idea of a right to an equal share of nature.
In 1796 Paine published the pamphlet Agrarian Justice, in which he denounced the unequal distribution of land ownership. According to Paine, with the introduction of the system of individual land ownership people were deprived of the natural right to make free use of the earth. What he proposed was to compensate this original right. Paine suggested that every owner of land should pay rent to a collective fund and that every member of the population should receive unconditionally from the state an equal share of this fund.
To translate Paine's idea to the issues at stake at present requires a shift of focus from land ownership to use of the environment. Instead of rent in exchange for land we then arrive at rent in exchange for use of the environment. From the liberal heritage it then follows directly that everyone who makes use of the environment and in doing so generates income should pay accordingly. The level of this 'environmental rent' should be such that there is as much demand for environmental utilization space as there is available. If the revenues from this 'environmental rent' is then distributed equally among the community, a basic income comes into being that is exactly sufficient to give everyone the opportunity to rent an equal part of the environmental utilization space.
A simple example illustrates how this would work. Imagine that the Netherlands decides to move back within the borders of its environmental utilization space. As part of this move, the goal is set of reducing the country's carbon dioxide emissions to 75 million tons a year (about 40% of present emissions). This goal can be achieved by introducing a tax on the emission of carbon dioxide of, for example, 200 guilders a ton ($125). By doing so, a fund is generated of 15 billion guilders annually. From this fund every Dutchman receives 1000 guilders a year, providing him the opportunity to emit 5 tons of carbon dioxide, which exactly matches his personal environmental utilization space. Although not every Dutchman emits 5 tons of carbon dioxide, everyone's equal right to do so has thus been guaranteed.
By introducing taxes on the use of the environment and returning the revenue to the community as a basic income, the right of every person to an equal share of the environmental utilization space is guaranteed. The consequences to society will go beyond mere protection of the environment and guaranteeing the basic liberal rights of the citizen, however. In fact, it will also have an interesting side-effect on employment, a topic that has ranked high on the political agenda for years.
At present the government finances its expenses primarily from taxes on labour. However, these taxes serve not only as a source of government funding, but also unintentionally as a regulatory levy: the high taxes on labour have as a consequence that labour is being increasingly eliminated from the economic process of production. The environment, on which hardly any tax is raised, is thereby being used ever more intensively, with all the familiar negative consequences this entails. Introduction of a basic income, financed from a tax on use of the environment, will allow the taxes on labour to be lowered substantially. As a result, not only will the environment be used less intensively, but labour will also be deployed more in the process of production.
For other reasons, too, introduction of a basic income will benefit employment. Social payments and the official minimum wage can be reduced by an amount equal to the basic income. As a result, scope will be created for many jobs that are presently too expensive, owing to the high official minimum wage.
For the latter reason, especially, over the past year a fierce debate has raged on introduction of a basic income. In this debate the liberals, in particular, raised a fundamental objection to introducing a basic income: it would be unfair for part of the community to work for the income of another part of the community, without the latter having an obligation to work for their money. However, this argument is only relevant as long as the basic income is financed from taxes on labour, but not if it is financed from taxes on use of the environment. Liberalism does not have any fundamental objections to rent being received for putting capital goods at someone's disposal. Since the basic income proposed here is nothing but the rightful rent for making environmental utilization space available, in this case the liberal counterargument is seen to be unfounded.
Notwithstanding the possible positive influence on employment of recognizing everyone's right to an equal share of environmental utilization space, in the short term trends in social prosperity should not be estimated too brightly. Economic growth must be related to the scope provided by the environment. For this reason our level of consumption will decline substantially. Of course, in doing so, our long-term prosperity will indeed rise. However, economic motives should never be decisive in the question of whether an equal right to environmental utilization space should be recognized. In the same way, in former times economic consequences could never be the deciding factor in the question of whether slavery or child labour should be abolished. Where there is a right, justice should be done. "It's not a charity, but a right I'm pleading for", Thomas Paine added in 1796 to his plea for the introduction of a basic income.
It is beyond doubt that our society stands on liberal foundations. When it comes to many basic liberal rights, there exists little or no difference of opinion. Examples include the freedom to trade goods among one another and the right to freedom of speech. However, until the right of every human being to an equal share of the environmental utilization space is recognized, not every person will be offered the maximum liberty that liberalism advocates. In my opinion, this right can only be guaranteed if taxes are raised on use of the environment and if the resulting revenue is redistributed in society as a basic income. Two centuries ago Thomas Paine pleaded for introduction of a basic income, proceeding from the same arguments. Today, the necessity of such a redistribution has become inevitable. Reason enough for liberal Holland to give very serious consideration to introduction of a basic income.
This essay originally appeared in 1995 in a Dutch periodical called Milieu.
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- The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Calls for a Universal Basic Income
- Jeff Smith's Classic Earth Share Manifesto
- The Sky Trust, A Plan for a Universal Citizens Dividend
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