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Rudolf Steiner on Citizen s Income

Sylvain Coiplet



Complex problems require complex answers. The demand for an unconditional citizen’s income, or a basic income for all, is one of those simple answers that do not solve any problems. At best, it is a solution that avoids the real social problem. Once implemented it would soon become apparent what it is that an unconditional basic income lacks – a serious consideration of the whole human being.

The unsocial element of unconditional basic income

Amongst the small number of anthroposophists who are interested in the social matters, most consider a citizen’s income to be the realisation of Rudolf Steiner’s 1905 formulation of the ‘fundamental social law’. However, anyone who studies the fundamental social law in depth would have to reject this assumption. An unconditional basic income for all would be anything but social.

The separation of work and income

“The well-being of a community working together will be greater, the less the individual claims the proceeds of his work for himself, i.e. the more of these proceeds he hands over to his fellow-workers, the more his own needs are satisfied, not out of his own work but out of the work done by others. Every arrangement in a community that is contrary to this law will inevitably engender distress and want somewhere. […] The important point here is that working for other people and obtaining a certain income should be two completely separate things.”

That’s what Rudolf Steiner said in 1905. However, with his formulation of the threefold social order, he doesn’t make matters easy. On the one hand he advocates a separation of work and income, which he ties to the expression of the fundamental social law quoted above, and according to which, only by overcoming egoism will social misery be vanquished. While on the other hand, he rejects an unconditional income for all:

“What matters here is that the concept of work should not be related to the concept of income in an arbitrary way, as it so often is today. A person receives an income not just for eating and drinking, or for otherwise satisfying his physical or spiritual needs, but because he works for other people.”

That this rejection also includes citizen’s income is apparent from the point made by Rudolf Steiner where he wanted to distance himself from a socialist, compulsory duty to work:

“It is of course the case that, due to social circumstances, everyone is forced to work, and merely has the choice of working or starving. A different obligation to work, other than one that arises out of these social circumstances, is not possible [in a social order] where the freedom of the human being is, indeed, a fundamental condition.”

These and other clarifications given in 1919 are happily overlooked by those who would unite Rudolf Steiner's fundamental social law with their demand for an unconditional basic income. They do not see that Rudolf Steiner wants to tie income to exactly one condition. For whoever accepts the fundamental social law, aspires to a social order where work would only lead to the necessary income, if it is undertaken for the well-being of other people.

Someone who mass produces and pushes the product onto the market by means of advertising, has in reality not worked for his fellow human beings, but for himself; he only had in mind his own profit. If society permits such little games, it inevitably leads to less wealth for others.

The same is true if everyone is allowed to draw an unconditional income without having to bother themselves with the needs of other people. Exactly like today, they will be able to work for themselves rather than for others. According to the fundamental social law, this must lead inevitably to misery and hardship. ??This would be the case for those who, while they receive a citizen’s income, are unable to acquire what they need, as it is not being produced, because, if anything is produced at all, it is something different. It would also be the case for the rest, who are not lucky enough to receive an unconditional basic income. ??

The second version of the fundamental social law

The fundamental social law, as it was formulated in 1905, is limited to a couple of aphorisms and is therefore easy misinterpreted. This applies to those for whom the current worldwide division of labour already exhibits enough selflessness, and extends to those who are of the opinion that egoism could be overcome through a communal coffer. In other words, an unconditional basic income is just a one of many misinterpretations.

However, this particular misinterpretation has the advantage of not belonging to old modes of thought, while at the same time aiming for a broad impact. This is a pretty rare thing in itself, and it may be a sufficient reason for many to publicly advocate a citizen’s income, while knowing the approach to be a mistake. However, there are enough honest supporters of a citizen’s income who really believe it to be a component of social threefolding. They are unaware that this belief has nothing to do with a consideration of the fundamental social law, rather it has to do with their own comfort.

Anyone who in one way or another takes the fundamental social law seriously, should put in the effort and work out for themselves what Rudolf Steiner said about it in 1919. For he returns to the original maxims once more, and this time he places them specifically in the overall context of social threefolding. In this way they become not only clearer, but also more practical.

In 1919 it becomes clear how Rudolf Steiner conceives the transformation of the economy in the light of the fundamental social law. He talks not only about fraternity within the economic life, but also draws out the consequences by showing the way to a needs-oriented economy. This involves the transfer of corporate advertising budgets to representative consumer bodies, and the complete renunciation of strikes as forms of industrial action, in favour of boycotts, which are not at the consumer's expense. But Rudolf Steiner does not limit himself to the question of how producers can be made to work for others rather than for themselves. He also addresses the question of how the producer is able to receive from others what he needs to live.

How can people be supported by the labour of their fellow human beings? Here Rudolf Steiner is not talking about an unconditional basic income for all, to be financed through taxes, but about an indirect influence on price levels of consortia that are above everyday business, and which make sure that each industry sector has neither too few nor too many employees. Only in this way can incomes be set so that they are neither too meagre nor outrageously high. Rudolf Steiner speaks of an economic fundamental:

“[The healthy price relationship of manufactured goods] must be so that each worker receives as much in counter value for a product, that he can satisfy all his and his dependents' needs, until, through the same process of labour he has made a similar product. Such a price relationship cannot result from official decision, but must be the result of a living co-operation of associations active within the social organism.”

This economic fundamental presupposes that, not only individual, but also business egoism, are overcome. Today investors look forward to rises in dividends and gains in share value, when demand for a product increases. And the employees would be the last to reject a rise in salary, were one to even ask them. People take what they can get, without considering that this is at the expense of their customers, and of producers in other industry sectors. It would never occur to someone like Gerhard Schröder to talk about me-first mentality in such a case (the former chancellor has recently criticised what he sees as a prevalent selfish attitude in German society). Even though a healthy price relationship presupposes that such surpluses be completely allocated to the expansion of production capacity – this includes retraining costs, which these days are happily shifted onto the state. This is practical solidarity, exercised where it really does hurt.

It is no surprise that advocates of a citizen’s income either maintain that such a transformation of the economy is unrealistic, or they expressly reject it. This is sadly true not only for declared opponents of social threefolding, such as Michael Opielka (a former prominent policy advisor to the German Green Party). But also many of those sympathetic to social threefolding would rather confuse the fundamental social law with a citizen’s income, than dare to talk publicly about associations, and so face up to today’s business world. The latter should stick to its old ways, and let the government save us from it.

The limits to the fundamental social law

Rudolf Steiner would, perhaps, have been the last person to have believed that, with transformation of the economy, everything would be sorted out once and for all. For him, constructing a social economy was only one of three tasks. The other two tasks have nothing to do with the fundamental social law, although they certainly are a part of the threefold social whole. The fundamental law is social in the narrow socialist sense; while threefolding is social in the larger sense.

If the fundamental social law, as an economic law, doesn’t deliver the unconditional element of a citizen’s income, how do matters stand with the other two constituent parts of society – the rights life and the cultural life – in relation to a citizen’s income?

An unconditional basic income as insensitivity

Rudolf Steiner’s rejection of an unconditional basic income for all is often shrugged off by his followers, with the argument that, with current high levels of productivity, he would see the matter differently. However, one hundred years later and despite an increase in productivity, people still have feelings, and that is what matters here. Feelings that can be hurt when some can evade work, and others have to do the work for them. Even if these are feelings of a shrinking minority and the shop can stay open without them.

This reality of human sensitivity led Rudolf Steiner to consider that working hours should be determined democratically. Anthroposophists, such as Götz Werner (a public advocate of a citizen’s income and a well-known public figure, the founding owner of a large German pharmacy chain), ignore these feelings and want to leave it up to the individual to decide how much he or she should work. This merely illustrates the kind of anti-social ideas anthroposophists can arrive at, if they don’t expend the effort to acquaint themselves thoroughly with the rudiments of social threefolding.

However, for Rudolf Steiner it is clear, that in regard to the question of labour, human nature and democracy have to reach a compromise so that unfair advantage can be avoided. Rational order enters the feeling life through the interpersonal element of voting in a democracy. This is true for Rudolf Steiner despite the assumption that a threefold social order would lead to a drastic reduction in average working hours. These few working hours need to be distributed fairly. The few pious anthroposophists who see this as a debasement of their humanity can be quietly outvoted.

Democratic working hours are not a duty to work

When in 1919 Rudolf Steiner speaks to an audience of mostly Marxist workers about democratically determined working hours, it is easy for us to misunderstand him. For at that time, the Russian Socialists were trying to introduce an obligation to work. So Rudolf Steiner had to explicitly distance himself and to emphasize that such a duty to work could not be implemented without locking the workers in barracks. Just imagine all the different schemes people would think up to avoid such duty. So, what is the difference between democratically defined working hours and a duty to work?

For Rudolf Steiner, it is crucial that the level of income should be set according to the working hours, and not the other way round. Work is not a commodity that can be produced in arbitrary amounts. If someone needs workers, it must be understood that, within the working hours determined democratically for each industry sector, sufficient income can be generated for these employees. If this cannot be done, then he must shut up shop, unless other businesses can jump in to lend a hand, although there would be no law obliging them to do so. The law only stipulates that income levels need to be sufficient, so that nobody is forced to work more than the democratically defined number of hours.

There is therefore no obligation to work. Whether an individual works or prefers to go hungry, is his business. Perhaps he can find a sympathetic patron, who thinks him a genius. The spirit may place itself above democracy, but in such cases the individual has to pay for himself as he cannot ask the state to support him.

As in his earlier 1905 formulation of the fundamental social law, Rudolf Steiner also speaks of a separation of labour and income in reference to the democratisation of working hours. However, the line of argument is different.

The fundamental social law concerns the inherent logic of the economic life. The object is to understand the consequences of the division of labour, and to aspire to a form of economics where work is indeed carried out for others, rather than to obtain an income by devious means, without considering the needs of others. When Rudolf Steiner speaks of labour here, he is referring to work for others, the ideal he is aspiring to. On the other hand he uses the word 'income' in the customary sense, and as such, the question of a self-service (citizen’s) income is called into question. To separate work and income means, to decide to work and to obtain from others something that can no longer really be called income. The term ‘livelihood’ would be more appropriate.

When in 1919 Rudolf Steiner again speaks of a separation of labour and income, he is now referring to overcoming labour conceived of as a commodity, which would result from the separate membering of the economic life and the life of rights. He was able to do this because in the meantime he could publicly advocate social threefolding as a comprehensive idea. This doesn’t alter the fact that he wanted to overcome egoism in the economic realm, nor is the fundamental social law called into question, although it is placed in the context of social threefolding. Here it is not only the economic realm, but also the rights realm which needs to find its real being.

[Author: the following text has not been completely formulated yet]

A justifiable basic income

What does the rights life discover, when it finds its real being? Not only the way out of slavery, but also, for example, the abolition of child labour.


A conditional citizen’s income for certain people, who Rudolf Steiner lists in his “Kernpunkte der sozialen Frage”, does feel like something that would be the decision of a true democracy, if it no longer prostituted itself.


External criteria that can be verified by the government; however, a conditional citizen’s income for some catholic priests who are engaged for the benefit of communities cannot be checked. Work can be simulated. This is shown by our economy today, where it often only appears to be the case that work is done for others.


The unconditional basic income as evidence of lack of thought

Many people see citizen’s income as a litmus test for today’s spiritual life. Do the number of jobs available and today’s education provide so much that enough people would want to go to work, despite having a citizen's income? One should just give it a try. Perhaps it will then become clear that, even here, things have to change.

Apart from the fact that this would involve a rather trivial experiment, the fact that people are advocating an unconditional income already demonstrates how matters stand with our own spiritual lives. People like to talk about the fundamental social law and about a selfless separation of labour and income. But such talk is a wish for unconditional self-fulfilment. Although the hidden egoism is, perhaps, not even the biggest problem. For what should one think of a spiritual life that is so shaky that it can’t stand up for itself?

An unconditional basic income is a feeble-minded theory


This text has not been completely formulated. It is intended has the introduction to a collection of quotations by Rudolf Steiner on the subject of a basic income. These will be published in 2007.

Sylvain Coiplet

Translator: Simon Breslaw

Deutsch: Rudolf Steiner über das Grundeinkommen