A Distributive Justice Assessment
Basic income could make things better by the lights of both feminist and distributively egalitarian social aims. It could significantly benefit the least advantaged members of society, who in gender-unequal societies are disproportionally women. The women who stand to benefit most from basic income are women with low earning capacity or low labor market attachment, including full-time housewives, many single mothers, many women with disabilities, and many refugees and non-Western immigrants (Robeyns 2000, 131). While gender egalitarian incentives for continued labor market participation seem to offer little direct benefit to women in low-paid jobs or jobs otherwise not worth retaining attachment to, unconditional basic income promises better financial standing and personal security for these women. This is a clear gain at the bar of egalitarian distributive justice, and this judgment is robust across different principles of justice that call for a benefit to the worst off citizens.13 Basic income offers gains at the bar of liberal egalitarian feminist justice, then, both as liberal egalitarian justice and as feminist justice.
On the other side of the ledger, basic income risks reinforcing the gendered division of labor. How is this cost to be assessed at the bar of justice?
Inequalities between women and men in time spent on caregiving impede further progress toward women’s material and social equality in work, politics, and social life generally. This occurs because time out of the workplace for caregiving affects caregivers’ earnings and career trajectories, but it occurs too because women come to be perceived as caregivers whether or not they are. Accordingly, much of the feminist criticism of basic income focuses on the risk that it will fuel statistical discrimination. Statistical discrimination occurs when employers (consciously or unconsciously) use aggregate group characteristics to make inferences about the likely behavior of employees, or prospective employees, about whom they know little else (Gittell 2009; Poeschl 2008; Ross- Smith and Chesterman 2009). Women’s vastly larger share of caregiving is one such characteristic. Women are (known to be) likelier than men to have serious commitments to caregiving so their time available for paid employment is reduced; thus, women, and especially mothers, come to be perceived as less committed employees. Partly as a result, they are less likely to occupy the most prestigious positions and they continue to earn less than their male counterparts even if they don’t take time out for caregiving (Coltrane 2009; Zippel 2009; Correll, Benard, and Paik 2007; Glass 2004). This is unjust by the lights of a widely accepted principle of justice: equality of opportunity. While basic income risks fueling statistical discrimination and thus diminishing equal opportunity by further entrenching the gendered division of labor (Robeyns 2000, 2001; Gheaus 2020), gender egalitarian policies can promote equal opportunity by eroding the association of women with caregiving.
Both basic income and gender egalitarian policies seem both feminist and distributively egalitarian, then, but both also have relative liabilities by the lights of liberal egalitarian feminist commitments of justice. Gender egalitarian caregiver support will promote equal opportunity between women and men but appears to disproportionally benefit advantaged women relative to the very least advantaged. Basic income will disproportionally benefit less advantaged women but risks reinforcing the gendered division of labor and thus frustrating equal opportunity between women and men in competitions for scarce positions in labor markets and in politics. Gender egalitarian caregiver support seems sub- optimal with respect to benefiting the unfairly badly off but preferable with respect to equal opportunity. Basic income seems suboptimal with respect to equal opportunity but preferable with respect to benefiting the unfairly badly off. How should we balance these considerations of justice?
We appear to find an answer in Rawls, who gives his version of equal opportunity lexical priority with respect to the prioritarian difference principle (Rawls 1999, 52-54). But whether or not Rawls would have stood by this answer in the context of our unjust society, it is the wrong answer in that context. Even if equal opportunity has overriding moral importance in a fully just society, it is implausible to think that it automatically wins the day in the actual circumstances we inhabit. In our circumstances, benefiting the least advantaged matters more than equalizing opportunity in competitions for positions at the high end of the occupational structure.14
Anca Gheaus argues for a particularly strong version of this claim (Gheaus 2020). In our unjust society, she argues, inequalities of opportunity for positions of advantage between more advantaged women and men matter very little or not at all from the perspective of justice. We therefore have little reason to care about the putative liability of basic income at the bar of equal opportunity or even to regard it as a liability at all. Gheaus advances two arguments for discounting equal opportunity in this context: First, many of the positions in competition for which women are disadvantaged are positions that confer an unjustly large share of social rewards. Nobody has a right to such positions, Gheaus argues; thus, women’s rights are not violated by virtue of the fact that their competitors have more opportunities for such positions. Second, in societies wherein most people are excluded from the positions in question, those who are competing for them generally already have had more than their fair share of opportunities; thus, they do not have a right to still more, and so no right is violated if their competitors have more opportunities than they do to attain the scarce positions in question.15 In short: the women in question do not have a right to the same opportunity as their competitors for the positions in question, either because the positions confer unjust rewards or because the women able to compete for them already enjoy richer opportunities than justice allows. Thus, Gheaus argues, if the case for basic income is otherwise strong, egalitarian feminists should endorse basic income even if it sets back women’s opportunities to attain positions of advantage
I agree with Gheaus this far: In very distributively unequal societies, a benefit to the least advantaged has more moral value than a benefit (of equal magnitude) to the relatively more advantaged; and this is true even if the latter (and not the former) is a gain at the bar of equal opportunity. The case is stronger still when the least advantaged are not only relatively worse off but very badly off by absolute standards as well. Easing the hardship of the very worst-off simply matters more than equalizing opportunity in competitions for highly rewarded social positions. I think this weighting of priorities holds even when the least advantaged are considerably better-off than they are now, but the case is clearest in our present circumstances, where improving the lot of the least advantaged means ameliorating the absolute bad of living in poverty. When we think about the tradeoff in terms of implications for distributive justice, then, gender egalitarianism seems clearly to be the less morally weighty social end, at least when the least well-off are very badly off. Assuming basic income has an edge in providing advantages for the least advantaged members of society, the weight of these considerations tilt in its favor.
Although right as far as it goes, I think this diagnosis of the tradeoff misses something important. It misses fundamental values of liberalism that are not subsumed by principles of distributive justice but that constrain our legitimate political pursuit of those principles. Thus, while Gheaus argues that feminists as feminists and feminists as distributive egalitarians can endorse basic income despite the risk of further entrenching the gendered division of labor, it is not only as feminist egalitarians that feminist liberals must assess the tradeoff in question. Concerns of equal opportunity do indeed give way to concerns of benefiting the least advantaged in our social circumstances, but infringing on equal opportunity is not all that is objectionable for liberals about the gendered division of labor and not all that favors gender egalitarian social policy over basic income.16 By the lights of the fundamental constraining values of liberalism, I’ll argue, poverty amelioration remains the prevailingly morally important social aim. But the fundamental values in question also impugn the gendered division of labor. By surfacing these values, we can see that benefiting the least advantaged citizens is indeed urgently called for now even at a cost to gender egalitarianism, and we can make better judgments about when the balance of considerations would begin to point in the other direction.