In a certain way, it is funny to see how a debate on an essential element of social policies can go on for decades. Then, implode because of the semantic confusion that was created about the idea that had hitherto been so passionately promoted. The essential element of social policies was “Income Security.” The idea passionately promoted was “Universal Basic Income.”
In 1986, a Belgian philosophy professor, Philippe Van Parijs, created BIEN, the Basic Income European Network, in which ‘European’ was later replaced by ‘Earth’. The idea was simple. The liberal idea of freedom could never become concrete because inequality of resources was too important. To promote more equality, the best idea was considered to be an equal sum of money given to everyone in society, whether rich or poor, working or not working, ie the Universal Basic Income. It was considered to be the condition for real freedom and real equality of opportunity. The payment had to be unconditional, i.e. without any means of testing. The main goal was to promote social justice.
The idea rapidly gained traction, with Eduardo Suplicy in Brasil, the Red Renta Básica in Spain, and many others, all over the world.
Very soon, basic income was coupled with a different vision, not only on social policies but also on society as a whole with labour markets organised differently and with an ecological perspective. People would be free to work or not work, would be able to do community work and stigmatizing social assistance could be abandoned. The State would stop being paternalistic and bureaucratic. Plus, cohesion and even harmony would be restored.
Numerous books and articles were written about ‘basic income’, especially at the beginning of the 21st century. In different countries and regions, a referendum was organised, such as in Switzerland in 2016 or the European citizen’s initiative in the European Union. They were all lost.
For all those wanting to fully understand the proposals, it was worrying to see the historic references that were used in the debate.
Most advocates of Basic Income referred to Thomas More, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and Charles Fourier. But none of these famous thinkers ever proposed to give all people the same sum of money. Neither did Milton Friedman nor Friedrich von Hayek, who did propose a guaranteed income for those who needed it, possibly with a negative income tax, but who certainly did not care about social justice.
It was not the only element that caused uncertainty about the proposal. Let me mention two of them:
First, there is an inevitable contradiction between basic income and social protection systems. Most developed countries, and a couple of poorer ones, have systems of social protection, with different logic and scope. But, they all provide some degree of health care, pensions, family allowances, minimum wages, social assistance for the poor and a range of public services such as housing, education, transport, culture, postal services, etc. All these social policies imply a certain degree of decommodification and have an impact on the amount of money people need to live a decent life. If you do not need money to go to a doctor or send your children to school, this makes a huge difference. The same goes for rents that are regulated and are not left to pure market rules.
Now, if the basic income is meant to allow for an ‘adequate standard of living' – as article 25 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states – it will be relatively important and will become totally incompatible with a welfare state in parallel, purely for financial reasons.
The discussion then logically shifts from the pros and cons of basic income to the choice between a welfare state and a basic income, which opens a totally different perspective.
Linked to this is the second uncertainty. How much should be paid to all citizens? All serious calculations indicate that for an ‘adequate standard of living’, the amount should be very high – around 1500 Euros in rich western countries, slightly above the poverty line – and in fact unaffordable for the strained budgets of States. Once permanently confronted with this impossibility, the main advocates of basic income lowered their ambition. Philippe Van Parijs thus admitted that it probably had to be lowered to around 300 to 400 Euros a month in order to be affordable. Obviously, this again opens a totally different perspective because it undermines the main argument of ‘real freedom’, which basic income at that level cannot be. Moreover, it opens a dangerous door to labour market abuses. Since people will have to continue to work to survive, they will be offered all kinds of flexi- and mini-jobs that can no longer offer any certainty, be emancipatory or lead to social citizenship. Moreover, as Polanyi so brilliantly explained with his example of Speenhamland, employers will feel no pressure to raise wages when public authorities would always be obliged to pay those workers. Wages will thus remain permanently low and workers will feel no need to organize.
Apart from these obvious problematic dimensions of the universal basic income, there are other problems that directly lead to the semantic confusion.
People reading and talking about ‘basic income’, without knowing the history and the framework of the current discussions, take the notion for granted at face value and think of a basic income for everyone who needs it, that is, a guaranteed minimum income with no bureaucratic and stigmatizing conditions. It brings the discussion to a totally different level, since it then is no longer ‘for all’, rich and poor, working or not working, but only for the poor and/or unemployed. Such a basic income is perfectly affordable and has to be promoted. But it has nothing to do anymore with the idealistic proposal of the ‘universal basic income’ defended by liberal philosophers. Even on the website of BIEN, different proposals of this kind could be found. The discussion became very difficult since no one knew any more what precisely anyone was talking about.
The message about this huge confusion finally got through and there is now a working group within BIEN to discuss the definition. From the simple unconditional cash payment for all, it became ‘a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement’. This is a serious weakening if not a total erosion of the fundamental idea of basic income and led to one scholar asking the obvious question. “Is one penny a week for all a basic income?” The answer is clearly “no”, but why?
There are other examples of the thick fog in which the whole discussion finds itself. One is the proposal for a ‘revenu universel’ of green Presidential candidates in the elections in France in 2022. Reading the proposal, it is impossible to find out for whom it is intended. However, there are good reasons to think it is not universal, but only for the poor or jobless. In previous elections the green proposal had changed throughout the election campaign, each time becoming less ambitious.
In South Korea, the progressive presidential candidate – who lost – also proposed a basic income. In a very interesting article in favour of the candidate and the proposal, the author finally concludes: “even if he wins, there will be no universal basic income in this country for a long time … for financial reasons.”
BIEN will have its conference end of September 2022 in Brisbane, Australia. For all scholars working on social policies, citizenship and democracy, one has to hope some clarity will be created since clear definitions are essential to rational debate. Ambiguity helps no one and too many liberals – think of the Silicon Valley CEOs – want to introduce some type of basic income in order to get rid of emancipatory social and economic rights. Give all people some money and do not bother us anymore.
The author of these lines is a fanatic advocate of social citizenship, linking a broad vision of social justice with environmental justice and – necessarily – economic transformation.
If the goal of the traditional idea of basic income is to give people income security, basic income is one of many possibilities but in fact less interesting than others. There are so many other mechanisms, such as a negative income tax, a guaranteed minimum income, a social dividend etc.
If one believes in the need for emancipatory solutions, the most interesting idea is to build on the old idea of the welfare state, considering our social and economic rights as commons, and linking this to a commons dividend on all our other common resources, such as water, all forms of energy, minerals, deep-sea resources, etc. We have been depleting nature in the past and this should stop if humankind wants to survive. Taxes should be paid by all those who extract the common resources and this money should be distributed at the global level. This is a social dividend.
At local, national, regional and global levels we need systems of social protection, based on rights and on solidarity because unconditionality and solidarity may be the most important difference between social protection and ‘basic income’. Unconditionality has never ever existed, anywhere. All societies are based on reciprocity, this is what makes and shapes our societies. Breaking this rule is destroying societies and it would be irresponsible to contribute to such a development. Moreover, and linked to this, is the fact that our welfare states, however imperfect they are, are based on the solidarity of all with all. They are based on horizontal and structural solidarity confirming and strengthening our interdependence. That is what a ‘social contract’ is about. Universal Basic Income is based on vertical solidarity from the State to the citizen, and another citizen and another citizen. This is revealed its fundamental liberal and individualistic ideology. It is not a coincidence, then, that UBI’s do not exist and have only existed in the past in two very limited and short-lived cases, Iran and Mongolia. All other ‘pilots’ and proposals concern other forms of basic income that are much more compatible with fully-fledged social protection and public services.
If the goal is social justice, there is no need to give money to the rich in order to help the poor. This is the basis of our current system, in another form. But it is a wrong hypothesis to think that helping the rich to make money will provide crumbs for the poor. These past decades have witnessed the opposite. Crumbs for the poor help the rich to get richer, while workers have to try to survive with bad labour conditions and poor wages.
For changing the world from an ecological perspective, we have to focus on our interdependence, on our collective needs and opportunities. We should not try to liberate ourselves from work, but we should liberate work itself, re-organising it and sharing it, as should be shared with all other resources.
With a war waging in Europe, the time has come to re-think our world, our international order and our solidarity systems, not on the basis of arbitrary political borders and so-called ethical principles, but starting from our common needs and resources, as well as rights.