Can Limitarianism Save the World?

An Interview with Ingrid Robeyns

Ingrid Robeyns is a professor of philosophy and holder of the Ethics of Institutions Chair at the Ethics Institute at Utrecht University, and was recently awarded a 2 million euro grant from the European Research Council to pursue her research on "limitarianism".

Robeyns studied Economics and Philosophy and obtained her doctorate at the University of Cambridge, followed by residences at eminent universities such as Columbia University in New York, the London School of Economics and Oxford University. Her work in philosophy focuses on ethics and normative political philosophy, specifically on various questions of justice and other societal values, often in combination with interdisciplinary research.

This conversation took place mere days after the publication of the Paradise Papers: some 13 million files leaked to the press that detail the ways that companies and individuals avoid tax through offshoring and artificial structures. Some of the world’s biggest multinationals featured in the leak, including Apple, Nike and Facebook, as well as some of the richest people in the world, from the Queen to Bono.

—David Maclean


DM: What is limitarianism? How would you define it and what distinguishes it from egalitarianism?

IR: Limitarianism is a view on how resources should be distributed. So like egalitarianism, it is also a view about how distribution functions in society and how people stand in relation to each other—but that is in itself rather unspecified, so philosophers like myself flesh it out in many different ways. Where it differs is that limitarianism is only a partial view in that it stresses that rather than everyone having the same amount, no one should have more resources than a certain upper threshold or limit—which could be money, natural resources, or greenhouse gas emissions. So it’s basically saying just as we believe no one should live in poverty or have access to insufficient resources, the opposite is equally true: no one should have more than a defined amount of particular resources.


DM: Would it be correct to say then that libertarianism is the opposite of limitarianism?

IR: They would certainly be strange bedfellows. Yes, I think limitarianism is the ideological enemy of contemporary libertarianism because the latter only imposes very limited constraints and a very minimalistic view on the role of governments. Limitarianism, on the other hand, imposes absolute constraint at the top of the distribution and often includes much more demanding duties for the government.


DM: You briefly touched upon its place within the existing canon, but what are limitarianism’s antecedents within philosophy?

IR: I think the most contemporary literature on egalitarianism would come close to recommending limitarianism since their goals and values are so closely twinned with one another. But limitarianism is compatible with many different views of what you do below the limiting threshold. Take, for example, a model of financial limitarianism or constrained capitalism, where you say that no one should be ultra-rich: that still leaves possibilities about what you say for those who are not rich. You might add to this by saying, "Okay, no one will be ultra-rich and no will one be poor", and in between the two, you have some measure of equality or an opportunity principle.

Aristotle and the Stoic philosophers shared the view that we shouldn’t accumulate wealth beyond what we need to lead a virtuous life, so they are some notable predecessors from classical philosophy. However, you might well find that Aristotle's justification for limitarianism would be based on a perfectionist account of human beings that aligned with his virtue-ethics.  However, it could equally be agnostic on the idea of what a virtuous life is, and then you need a non-perfectionist justification for limitarianism. So that’s one predecessor, but I would think that many of the more left-leaning philosophies would have sympathies towards limitarianism.


"If democracies are in trouble then that might be because we’ve taken them for granted."


DM: That brings us on to your project, ‘Can limitarianism be justified’. Would you be able to give a brief background to the development of the FAIR Limits project and what it aims to achieve?

IR: So we only started this September and it’s a 5-year project consisting of me, two PhD students and two postdocs. At present, we’re still working on the literature review and assembling the reading. There is a paper I wrote that was published in the NOMOS series on the topic of wealth, alongside a number of historians, legal scholars and other philosophers. That paper was a programmatic paper in that it laid out the main ideas and their justification, as well as potential objections, and ends with a research agenda. For example, what would be the implications for organising the design around financial limitarianism but also for controlling our modes of consumption and production, particularly with regards to ecological limitarianism. So in the project, we try to bring those two together: the ecological and the financial – and those two areas are twinned in questions about whether limitations on growth can be justified morally and what does this mean for a desirable economic system we should have. That’s the question that I hope to shed some light on and defend a position on at the end of the project. In the case of ecological limits, I think the climate ethics literature is quite united on the point that there should be aggregate limits to our usage of ecological resources and that is now politically endorsed by the Paris Agreement. But then there is also the question as to what limits individuals should have and how do you get individuals to stay within those limits. People within Europe, North America and Australia are living lives way beyond those fair limits in terms of ecological resources – I would go as far as to say that is a fact, even though there seems to be a growing body of people who no longer believe in facts. I also think that in the area of the use and distribution of ecosystem resources it’s not so difficult philosophically to justify that there should be limits because no one of us can claim that the earth is from us – that any of us have a right to a larger share to it than others. In the economic field it's different, because then one might say, ‘Well, I’ve created this wealth and hence I deserve it’, and there it will be more difficult to argue for financial limitarianism.


DM: That certainly seems to be the attitude of many of the world’s most powerful entities, and it’s become a bit of a wry truism that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. In précis, what’s your own take on the problem?

IR: Even if you live an average life in Europe or the USA, you can still take personal measures to stay under fair financial and ecological limits by reducing your carbon footprint by travelling less. So there’s plenty of things that individuals can do, but of course, the problem is that these individual measures are like drops in the ocean if the societal structures don't change. As an example, that would mean taxing flights and taxing the use of cars to achieve what economists call 'internalising the externalities', whereby all the damage that fossil fuel-based travel and industrial production causes are calculated in the price. And that is really not that difficult if you have coordination between governments, but getting them to cooperate and set their house in order is, of course, the real challenge. And that’s actually where I’m quite pessimistic because one of the many problems with contemporary capitalism is the influence of companies in what should be democratic processes. I think that most ordinary folks would want to save the planet and preserve it for future generations, but the power that global corporations have in deciding that they don’t want those measures is so much greater, and hence why we remain stuck. So you end up with a state of benign indifference where people say, “There’s no point in me doing more because the structures have to change for it to make any impact”. I think this kind of fatalism is very dangerous, and instead, this should spur us towards addressing these issues at their root, rather than solely at the level of individual actions.

DM: One of the stated aims of the study is to reevaluate the government as an agent of justice. Do you think that the government should be doing more in instigating change from above, or do you think that grassroots movements are better at effecting social justice?

IR: I think that in the contemporary political philosophy in the analytic strand, which is where I’m working, we have had a rather naive view of the government. By that, I mean that we have been thinking about what would be a just society and then would just come up with a proposal of principles and institutional design to say “This is what we need”, and then we thought that as philosophers our work is done. But the problem is that we have this entirely idealised view of a government which is both able and willing to do those things. For the former, I think there is a problem in the internal functioning of the government, so some governments are simply unable to tackle issues effectively because of conflicts with their own interests. And then with willingness, I think that government doesn’t often do what the demos want but rather what particular powerful groups want it to do. To solve this, I think we need to investigate two routes: firstly, to look at non-governmental actors, and to think about how the government should change. An example here in the Netherlands is a group called Urgenda, an network-type organisation consisting entirely of high-powered individuals and business leaders, who invited citizens to joined a lawsuit against the government over its inaction on climate change — and they won.

Secondly, and this is where I think there is more of a philosophical question to ask, is in the area of financial distribution. There are some philanthropists that invest their money in good causes and are very effective, but they are also in a certain sense replacing what should be democratic processes. So I can see why people criticise these individuals, but I also think that given how ineffective and sometimes corrupt some governments are that we should in some sense be glad to have them. We should try to reclaim the government for the people, but I mean that in an informed rather than a populist way based on hollow rhetoric and misinformation. If democracies are in trouble then that might be because we’ve taken them for granted. As citizens, we have increasingly started to regard ourselves as consumers with our own private projects and less as citizens; I think that is something that each of us should reconsider—whether we really can just delegate the running of the democracy and society to the people we elect.


"In the liberal tradition of the 1980s, we had the communitarian critique of liberalism that was quite quickly dismissed, but I think in hindsight that we may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater" 


DM: A recent report on inequality claims that we have tipped into a new Gilded Age, with inequality rising faster than anyone could have predicted. And then, of course, there were the Paradise Papers which revealed the lengths that the rich go to in order to protect their money from taxation. Do you think the argument that wealth trickles down is no longer plausible?

IR: Well, of course, that argument, which has been trumpeted by economists over and over, is demonstrably false. And it’s nothing compared to a more just and equitable restructuring of society. So, of course, they should just pay their taxes— it seems laughable to have to say it. Taxes are there to support the vulnerable and organise our collective affairs, and taxes should be paid in proportion to the ability-to-pay principle: that those who are stronger should carry more of the burden. But of course that’s not what is happening, so the ultra-rich have a number of strategies to get out of paying tax, as we’ve seen with the Paradise Papers. The academic Jeffrey A. Winters has been doing empirical research on what he labels ‘wealth-defence mechanisms’—the methods by which the richest individuals protect their capital with off-shoring being just one example.  So I can’t help being cynical when these people say that they are concerned that the rest of us don't like this state of affairs. People always have justifications for unjust actions that are just rationalising the problem away, but I really believe that it’s difficult to justify anyone being ultra-rich. You can justify some inequalities between people, as far as they are the consequences of personal choices, but only a very limited range of them. 


DM: One of the key aims of your project is to change the paradigms of distributive justice by engaging in dialogue with nonliberal philosophies like Confucianism and indigenous philosophies. I was curious about what particular ideas these philosophical traditions bring to the table.

IR: I think that in philosophy departments in Europe and North America, we should try not to silo these non-Western philosophies in a separate department. We live in a globalised world and economy, so a global viewpoint would help us to gain a better understanding of it. After all, we all live on one planet and so we need to think together about how we want to deal with the problems that affect us globally. So we should be in dialogue with these other points of view.

The Maori, for instance, have a totally different view of the relationship between humans and nature that runs contrary to our own, which tends to view the natural world in terms of its resources. Economists then give estimates of what these resources are worth, based on their value in the market. But for the Maori, this is a very strange way to look at nature, because they view nature as having a maternal relationship with humans wherein we exist within and are dependent on nature—which of course stresses a completely different ontological worldview. In the view of economic distribution, you have more collective cultures where Ubuntu philosophies—in which people define themselves in their relationship to others—privilege society above the individual. In daily life, I think it’s a caricature to say that Westerners are all individualists because we obviously do care about our friends and our families, but there is some truth to it in that our thinking is very individualistic. We always feel that our relationships with others should be freely chosen and that we are always free to exit them, which is, of course, a kernel of the liberal tradition where you have this freedom as the most important value that we may have to bring into balance with the more relational and caring aspect. In the liberal tradition of the 1980s, we had the communitarian critique of liberalism that was quite quickly dismissed, but I think in hindsight that we may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. It was perhaps true that these were not the strongest of philosophers trying to make the case for communitarian thinking, but it seems obvious from the way that we’ve organised our collective lives that this individualistic way of thinking doesn’t serve us either. My hope is that we will learn from these non-Western philosophies and that they will help us to better understand our own biases and assumptions so that we may make some real progress.


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Image credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

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