Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

In search of a sane economy

Could degrowth, community, and basic income create a sane economy? An interview with one of the godfathers of the basic income movement, Phillippe Van Parijs.

Philippe Van Parijs
15 October 2019, 7.00am
An opencast mine in Welzow, Germany.
Patrick Pleul/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Phillippe Van Parijs is a philosopher at the University of Louvain and a founding member of the Basic Income Earth Network. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with him at the 19th Global Basic Income Congress in Hyderabad, India, to chat about how basic income might lead us to a more sane economy.

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: The basic income movement is split over what sort of community a universal basic income would produce. Would it lead to greater fragmentation of society, or to a utopia in which care for the other sits at the centre. What are your thoughts on this?

Phillippe Van Parijs: As with many questions about the possible effects of a basic income, the immediate answer is always to ask some questions in return. What level of basic income? What does it replace? How is it being funded? Where is it being introduced? There is no general question, and there is no general answer. Nevertheless, there are two important dimensions in the debate about basic income that are relevant to communal relations.

One is that, contrary to the standard sort of minimum income or social assistance scheme that exists in a large number of countries, basic income is strictly individual. Paradoxically, it is this characteristic that encourages communities. It encourages living together. This is because standard social assistance schemes take economies of scale into account. A person living on his or her own gets a benefit that is higher than what that person would receive if they were part of a larger household.

This doesn’t happen with basic income. You remain entitled to the same level of basic income even if you move in with someone else, and even if that person has an income from another source. That encourages people to live together as they will benefit from economising on housing, on washing machines, etc. The economics of scale found in joint living are not undercut this time by an income reduction. That's one dimension.

Basic income is more than a way of acquiring some purchasing power. It’s a way of empowering people.

The other dimension is related to the common charge that basic income is hostile to participation in the labour market because it's obligation free. The theory is that basic income would thus hinder a major mechanism for community formation, namely working with others.

I'm not among those who say that we are going towards a work free society, but I do see the potential for an increasing number of people to be excluded from the labour market in the future. The combination of globalisation and technical change generates a polarisation in earning power. As a result, an ever-increasing part of the population is at risk of falling under the threshold of poverty.

Basic income is a way of addressing these trends. It introduces an income floor. This can then be combined with income from work, or used to make combining employment with training and education much easier. This latter aspect is what will enable them to keep contributing to society in the form of paid work.

Basic income shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to the right to work. Basic income as opposed to means-tested schemes is a way of helping everyone to access meaningful work, and to participate in collective paid activities throughout their lives as long and as much as they wish.

You've written a great deal about the potential of an unconditional basic income for advancing freedom. Where do you think it could make the most change?

Basic income as commonly defined is unconditional in several distinct senses.

First, it is given in cash rather than in the form of food stamps, or free housing, etc. That's already one way in which you could say basic income is freedom-friendly. It says that the people, and not bureaucrats, are best qualified to decide what is better for them. If you give cash to people they'll decide what the best use of it is. That's one.

Second, basic income is strictly individual. No one needs to come and check with whom you live in order to determine whether you are entitled to a basic income or not.

Third, it’s universal. You get it whether you are rich or poor. That's also enhances freedom, because it means that if you get a job you don't lose the basic income. What frequently happens is that people are offered a job that pays somewhat better than their benefits, but they don’t dare take it because it will mean losing the benefits. That might seem strange, but remember that benefits are more stable sources of income than many jobs. If they end their benefits to take a job and then are sacked, they have a problem. Basic income is given irrespective of your income or employment status and so it won’t constrain choices in this way.

Fourth, it's not restricted to people who are willing and able to work. It's obligation free. If you give up your job because you think it is a lousy job, or because you are treated badly by your boss, you remain entitled to it. No administration can oblige you to take on a job if you don't want to take that job.

The combination of all these features means that basic income is more than a way of acquiring some purchasing power. It’s a way of empowering people, of enabling them to choose from among a wide range of options that otherwise would not be available to them.

You’ve just written a book with Yannick Vanderborght about how basic income could help us create a more sane economy. What do you mean by that?

What is a sane economy? An economy that is sane is an economy that doesn't make people sick, and doesn't make our planet sick. Basic income is a way of making the economy more sane. With respect to the health of people, it enables those who work too much to work less, allowing them to reduce their working time before they burn out or when they need to re-train. It's also a way for them to slow down at the moment that their children may need more of their time.

It's also a way of making our economy more sane with respect to the planet itself. Worldwide there are the problems of unemployment and the working poor. People on both the left and right regard these as problems. So what do you do? The traditional answer on both the right and left was, and to some extent still is, growth. We need growth because growth will produce well-paying jobs. If growth slows down there will be less jobs overall, and those that do exist will be less well-paid. So let’s go for growth and growth and growth.

This is crazy, as the relentless quest for growth gradually destroys our planet. Basic income pushes back again this by giving people an income that is independent of their contribution to growth. This would allow some people to take voluntary unemployment, involuntarily unemployed people to find jobs, and anybody to reduce their work hours. It’s a radical alternative to the standard way of thinking that would enable our economy to be more sane and to treat our planet in a less destructive way.

Some people go as far as to talk about basic income as a pathway towards degrowth. Are you of a similar mind?

I have sympathy for the values underlying the degrowth movement, but I think that its rhetoric and campaigns can often be over-simplifying. If you go to a country like India and look at the state of the public infrastructure, the level of remuneration for teachers, the overall level of poverty, you can see that degrowth isn’t the answer there. India still requires massive public and private investment to improve the standard of living. Degrowth cannot possibly make sense all over the world currently.

Nevertheless we need a sane economy that doesn't destroy the planet, and growth everywhere is definitely part of the problem. So I have a lot of sympathy for the more limited claim that we need to reduce the average level of consumption in the wealthy countries. This doesn’t have to happen evenly – those consuming least cannot be under the same obligation as those consuming most – but the average level of consumption must decrease.

We won't have a fair and sustainable world without permanent transfers from richer to poorer countries.

It's important to note that reducing consumption doesn't mean that the level of production in rich countries must decrease as measured by GDP. We must also realise that we won't have a fair and sustainable world without permanent transfers from richer to poorer countries. We can’t expect all parts of the world, even within a couple of centuries, to have reached a high enough level of production to lift their standard of living to what can be regarded as a decent level. That means we must combine degrowth of consumption in the wealthy countries with continued growth of production, and then accept that part of that value must be redistributed to other countries.

That's another way in which basic income is crucially relevant when we think about a sustainable and desirable future. The form taken by transnational transfers must be extremely simple. It cannot be a means-tested transfer to the poor, it cannot be linked to some sort of enforceable obligation. So, the only form it could take is the form of an unconditional dividend. This could be presented and funded in all sorts of ways, such as a worldwide carbon dividend, but this is the way in which we must think about the future. Production growth must continue all over the world, consumption in wealthy countries cannot, and transnational transfers must grow in importance.

Politically we are far from this becoming a possibility. That's why I attach great importance to the current debate within Europe about the Eurodividend. The idea of having a modest basic income funded at the level of the European Union, which would work as an individual, transnational, redistributive system. This has never existed in the world. It is one of the many utopias we must strive to realise.

This feature on universal basic income was financially supported by a grant from Humanity United.

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