Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

To paraphrase Tom Paine, these are the times that try people’s brains. When he wrote his words (ending with “try men’s souls”) people were losing heart. The solution they had chosen to attempt — building the world’s first nation-state that would start out in the world with its form of government based on Liberal values — was in danger of failing.

Now the way of life those brave people ultimately succeeded in establishing is facing an unprecedented challenge. It appears to be in very real danger of collapsing. Even the Great Depression did not engender more fear of that kind for our Liberal way of life: liberty for all and democracy.

Today, we are not (yet) experiencing an acute event. We are experiencing, with growing doubt and fear, the results of accumulating stresses.

At bottom, the problem is that the foundation of our nation, our society, our Liberal way of life is coming apart. If we fail to solve that problem, collapse is inevitable.

[Postmodernists have exposed the fallaciousness of ‘foundationalism’ as a claim of universality for any moral value to govern governance. Here our concern is, at most, Liberal society where it already exists.]

To frame the problem in those terms is not mere rhetoric. Nor is it being alarmist. It is cold, hard reality.

It is axiomatic that a solution cannot be smaller than the problem is. Likewise, to render a solution to an unprecedented problem requires unprecedented thinking. A sufficient solution to the challenge we face today can only be a new idea so big and deep that everyones first reaction will be to step back from it.

The only sufficient solution for the problem at hand is for us to reconstruct the foundation of our Liberal society. Accomplishing that task would not only preserve our way of life, however. It would allow us to take our nation to new heights of justice and well-being for all. For all of that, equality is all we need.

The foundation of our nation — of Liberal society — is Liberalism, the meta-ideology that has liberty and equality as the ‘twin pillars of justice’ for society. The various political ideologies within Liberalism, from libertarianism to conservatism to (political) liberalism to democratic socialism, emphasize one or the other of those values to different degrees. To be within Liberalism, though — to be a Liberal — is to recognize the necessity of both liberty and equality in the just governance of society.

We are learning how unstable as a basis for the governance of society that conceptual construct can be. Spaces between points of emphasis are becoming unbridgeable chasms.

This solution begins with a new understanding of Liberalism: equality, properly understood, creates the maximum possible liberty that co-existing human beings can share. That is why equality is all we need.

The economy presents the biggest, if not deepest gap separating Liberals. More equalitarian Liberals see accepting the outcomes of the economy for the sake of liberty as an affront to any notion of human equality. More libertarian Liberals see reconfiguring the outcomes of the economy for the sake of equality as an affront to any notion of human liberty. In this essay we’ll see how equality (properly understood) can be applied to the existing economy — with astonishing results — to close even that divide.

Despite a claim of maximum liberty, more libertarian Liberals will understandably be especially wary of this approach to Liberalism. Being Liberals, however, they most certainly do acknowledge the need for equality in a just society. For starters, equality underlies equal liberty for all. Like all other Liberals, they are in favor of political democracy; after all, liberty for all cannot be assured without it.

Like everyone else, all Liberals take democracy to be based on equality. That point of universal affinity gets us moving in the right direction.

I contend that heretofore we have failed to understand correctly the actual relationship between equality and democracy. To understand that relationship correctly is to see how equality makes liberty as a separate Liberal value superfluous.

Everyone recognizes that there are two parts to Liberal democracy: political speech and (other) political rights. Political speech falls within a broader right of freedom of speech; political rights pertain to participation in the political system per se: the rights to vote, to run for office, to petition the government, and to (peaceably) assemble (which legitimates organizing into political parties, etc.).

Of those narrower political rights, all are not granted to all citizens. Historically, voting and running for office were formally restricted even in Liberal societies on the basis of property, gender, and race at one time or another. Today, the only remaining general restriction is age. While the acceptable age for this or that form of participation in the political system is debatable, no one doubts that age itself is a legitimate restriction. (Being a felon or ‘too out of touch with reality’ are not general restrictions.)

How can discrimination based on age, even among adults (as in the age requirements for holding various elected offices), be squared with ‘equality’? Here’s the thing: properly understood as a value for justly governing society, equality does not mean ‘the same for everyone’. It does mean that in all human relations every person’s status as a being worthy of consideration must be taken into account: respect of a basic kind.

The universality of freedom of political speech illustrates even more clearly how equality generates a requirement of respect for all citizens — i.e. all being taken into account — in the democratic political process. All are affected by the outcomes of the political process, so all must be free to participate in it.

To get to Liberal justice most broadly, let’s go from there to John Locke. He was the first Liberal. He literally wrote the book on it: Two Treatises of Government (1689). Locke argued for human equality in the first one; for him it is in effect a precondition for a just society. In his second treatise, however, Locke explicitly has liberty as the predicate of justice: justice is liberty.

Locke famously started his dialectical argument for liberty as the predicate of justice by asserting that injustice is “being subject to the arbitrary will” of another person. Therefore, the opposite of that — not being subject to the arbitrary will of another person — is justice. Since, prima facie, that is also a state of liberty, Locke concluded that liberty must be the predicate of justice.

Really, though, justice is more immediate than that. If injustice is being subject to the arbitrary will of another person, the most immediate inference for justice is that everyone is required to refrain from subjecting any other person to one’s own arbitrary will.

That is mutual respect (of a basic kind). It maximizes liberty as a practical matter. To act otherwise is to violate the precondition of a just society: equality.

Properly understood, then, liberty is the product of Liberal justice — mutual respect — not its predicate. Therefore, liberty does not have to be a separate value within Liberalism. Equality is all we need. Through its requirement of mutual respect, equality generates of itself an equal liberty for all.

The obverse does not hold. Liberty cannot of itself generate the value of equality.

Unlike equality per se, mutual respect can be positively applied to the existing economy. In short, I have discovered how, by extending mutual respect to our existing economy, we can make our nation more just, with more liberty, while making life materially better in this nation for everyone — and especially for those who have been living in poverty.

To be clear, I’m not talking about any kind of socialism. Socialism would use redistribution to achieve its goals. This proposal does not involve redistributing anything.

With this proposal we could, however, absolutely eliminate unemployment and poverty (at no cost to anyone), as well as all taxes and public debt, while making the economy self-regulating (with built-in safeguards against inflation) and increasing sustainability (even without additional regulations or any changes in behavior) — with, to be clear, still no limit on income or wealth. We could still choose to forego any of those benefits, but if we could achieve all of them without cost, why wouldn’t we?

[I do have an M.A. in economics. My Thesis was in political economy, where economics and philosophy intersect. It included an extensive “Review of the Literature” of the academic debate concerning ‘distributive justice’ that was initiated by the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. I have spent my adult life reading and studying, within academia and outside it, history, philosophy, and economics.]

How did I come up with such a startling proposal? I got there by wondering how we could have a really just economy. I looked to political democracy for a possible template.

Many people have considered, more or less rigorously, an analogous relationship between the market-based economy and democracy, money and political rights. It occurred to me that political rights are necessary to participate in the political system. In the same way, money is necessary to participate in our existing economic system. [People in non-Liberal nations who are arbitrarily denied political rights can still act politically, but with the potential for consequences that can be dire.]

Moreover, just as all citizens are affected by outcomes of the political process, no citizen has any choice but to participate in the economy. Even panhandling is, after all, an economic act.

Political rights (like all rights) are abstractions. That means they are absolutely free and can be shared by an unlimited number of people. To ‘distribute’ them is to place restrictions on eligibility for them. Even though the right to run for this or that office is not universally granted even to all adults, equality-based democracy is still a just process.

In pondering all that I arrived at what I call the “democratic distributive principle:” whatever is being formally distributed among its members by society must be subject to universal criteria, universally applied. To be a just criterion it must be universally applicable; to be applied justly it must be applied universally.

Age is such a criterion. That is why age is a just restriction on political rights while those other historical restrictions are not. That age is a proxy for maturity (emotional stability, accumulated knowledge, etc.) is a good reason for using it as a discriminator, but the justness of age as a restriction rests on its universality. (Also, any of us can become felons or lose our fingernail hold on reality.)

Could that distributive principle be applied to money? For that to be possible money would have to be, like rights, available for an unlimited number of people and free.

This is where I boldly went where no one had gone before in economics. I came up with the idea of a “democratically distributed income” (DDI). It would be available for an unlimited number of people, without cost. That could be achieved by making the total of that income the supply of money (as currency) for the economy. (A DDI could be instituted, in the U.S., with a single Act of Congress.)

I realized right away that I had stumbled upon what could be a truly great idea. With much effort, I have fully developed my understanding of that idea and its implications for the economy — and for justice.

It would be possible to have a DDI that would be based solely on age. Every citizen that age or older would be eligible for the income, no matter what.

(Limiting the DDI to citizens is equivalent to limiting political rights to citizens. A legal minimum wage for non-citizens would be a separate issue. At the same time, any nation could institute a DDI, with the same results for every nation that did.)

Paying the DDI to every (adult) citizen would not solve the problem of poverty. Poverty is having an income that is insufficient relative to prices. If every adult citizen received the DDI, prices would adjust upward accordingly (absent some kind of generalized controls on prices — which the DDI most emphatically does not have — with all the issues and likelihood of ultimate failure that would entail). Relative to prices, everyone would be in the same position one was in before the DDI was established. [A tax-based universal basic income (UBI), which all such proposals in circulation today are, would have a different set of issues — with paying for it at the top of the list.]

On the subject of eliminating poverty, the amount of the DDI is something to be determined. In relating this idea, however, to eliminate poverty yet maximize its accord with existing prices I base the amount of the DDI on the current median income. Here in the U.S., for everyone being paid the DDI that would translate to, say, $15/hr.; $600/wk.; $2,600/mo. (or $2,400/mo. plus an additional annual payment of $2,400 — included with the December payment, which would be fun — to make it equal to $600/wk. for 52 weeks). That would be a tad more than the current median income for an individual in this country. If we also eliminated taxes, $600/wk. would be more like $750 or so /wk. in income, on average, today.

Again, we could continue to have poverty if we wanted it, but if we could eliminate it without cost or redistribution — or injustice — why not do that? Eliminating poverty would require restricting the distribution of the DDI, limiting eligibility for the DDI to particular categories of citizens.

Restricting the DDI to certain categories of citizens would be the equivalent of restricting the right to run for particular offices to adult citizens of particular ages. To eliminate poverty those requirements for eligibility must allow for the DDI to be available for every citizen who is at least old enough to have a job, even though all would not be paid it. (Also, it must be possible for anyone who might so choose to forego it, as anyone can forego exercising political rights). [Some democratic nations do require citizens to vote, but none require all eligible citizens to exercise every political right.]

I eventually realized that we could have a DDI that would meet all of those requirements if we had three categories of eligibility for it. The first two categories are perfectly straightforward. The third requires a bit of explaining.

The first two categories of citizens who would be eligible for the DDI would be retirees and people of working age who were too incapacitated to work any job. In short, this income would replace, in the U.S., Social Security (eliminating that whole problem).

The third category of people eligible for the DDI would be people employed in minimum-pay positions. In other words, the DDI would be the minimum income for employed citizens. It could be paid as an hourly wage or a salary, for full-time or part-time work. (Everyone being paid more than the minimum pay would continue to be paid in full by one’s employer, as at present.)

To be clear, the monetary remuneration of citizens employed in minimum-pay positions would not come from their employers. Their pay would be the DDI. (The administrator of the DDI is taken up below.)

Employers could designate any position to be a minimum-pay position, but in a free labor market they would be compelled to offer benefits to compete for minimum-pay employees. (Only in-kind benefits could be allowed, not monetary allowances). While the DDI would be the same for everyone being paid it, the value of benefits offered would reflect conditions in local labor markets.

In order to make the DDI universally available it would be necessary to guarantee a job for every citizen of working age who was able and willing to work for that income. People could choose not to work, but the only money available for them would be private charity. Also, people could be employed but poor, such as the proverbial ‘starving artist’ who labors at one’s art for (so far) meager monetary returns. More broadly, people could be ‘singularly self-employed’, i.e. anyone providing any good or service who was neither the employee nor the employer of any other person, or members of bona fide partnerships, in which shares of the profits were negotiated among the members. All of the above would earn whatever their efforts and the market would allow. Still, every person old enough and able to work who wanted a ‘regular’ job would have to be guaranteed to have a job.

That could be achieved by having government (ideally local government) as an employer of last resort. In a market-based economy, to be guaranteed a job that job must be cost-free. That means the last-resort jobs offered by government could have the DDI as pay, but could not require any additional investment or include benefits. Within those parameters, there are no particular requirements for or limitations on such jobs. Without benefits, those jobs would not increase competition for minimum-pay jobs in the rest of the labor market (though their existence would reinforce the need for employers to use benefits to compete for minimum-pay employees).

Finally, it would be as easy as not to pay the DDI to one parent or legal guardian in a home with at least one dependent child living there. The income would be the same no matter how many children were present.

Implementing that home-employment option would have a huge impact on the labor market in general, but then raising children is the second-most important job there is in civilization. (Producing food is the most important.) Anyone who has ever championed ‘family values’ would presumably be in favor of that option. [It can also be noted that, for people who are wondering how people will get paid an income in an economy so technologically advanced that the need for human beings in the production of goods and services will be greatly limited, the DDI could (eventually) be extended to two parents/guardians.]

The same process as the DDI could be used to fund government (at all levels, at the current per capita level of total government spending, forever) without taxes or public debt. It would be funded as part of the operation of the monetary system. Again, we could keep paying taxes and incurring public debt if we wanted, but we could eliminate both.

The DDI could be implemented by any central bank with a legal mandate to “minimize” unemployment commensurate with “acceptable” inflation, such as the one included in the charter of our central bank (the Federal Reserve System — the ‘Fed’). With this system in place there would be none of either. [To eliminate taxes/public debt in any nation with a central bank the law would have to be changed to allow the central bank to fund government directly.]

Another option would be to establish a new Monetary Agency. It would have no discretionary authority, but would merely administer the DDI. It would be separate from and independent of both government and the banking system. Given that in the U.S. the Social Security Administration already makes monthly payments to retirees and disabled people, it could be extracted from government to become the Monetary Agency.

So, by virtue of a better understanding of Liberal justice we can not only save, but improve our Liberal way of life. Some more equalitarian Liberals won’t like that it fails to take anything from even the ‘one percent’, but this proposal would improve all citizens’ lives materially, and the poorer one is now the greater one’s relative benefit would be. At the same time, eliminating taxes (thus reducing the presence of government in people’s lives) would increase liberty. The economy would be the one we have now, but, with a different way of supplying it with money, self-regulating and more sustainable. To that end, this monetary proposal can be considered in strictly economic terms, with no reference at all to justice. (The DDI can be called, more neutrally, an “allotted income.”) Still, whether justice were an explicit goal or not, to implement a democratically distributed income (by whatever name) would make the distribution of money in the Liberal economy as just in its structure as the distribution of political rights in Liberalism’s democratic political process has become.

For more about a DDI see “Same Economy, Way Better Outcomes for Society.” The DDI could be extended to create “A Fully Just Economy.” I also have a Web site (such as it is) that gives the fullest account of that economic paradigm: ajustsolution.com (Page: real justice /economy)’ scroll down).

Final note: My studies have taught me that the postmodernists are correct. Ultimately even equality is invalid as the foundation for a just society. Unlike postmodernists, for me that is because it is a belief. It is a belief some people do not share. For those people to live in a society founded upon a belief in equality is to have that belief imposed upon them by others. That in itself violates the value of equality for all. Fortunately for equalitarians, there is “Mutual Respect: The Only Ethic for Justly Governing Society.” In that account of justice mutual respect as the ethic of justice follows from observation within material existence, not any belief. That validates favoring and advocating for mutual respect as the ethic of justice and its implications for society based on a belief in equality.