I agree with Philippe Van Parijs that a Universal Basic Income (UBI)
is a morally attractive arrangement, and think he provides a normatively
compelling argument for it in terms of real freedom and social justice.
But I also believe that it is a mark of a good theory to be able to
offer a theory about itself. In this second-order component, the theorist
must answer, among others, the question: Why do so many people oppose
my theory? Why isnt it universally shared, given its overwhelmingly
evident plausibility? Shared, that is, by a sufficient number of people,
both elites and non-elites, to implement its prescriptions.
One answer to this question might be provided by an ad hoc list
of propositions: People need to get used to the idea; they have to overcome
their moral prejudices and intuitions; they are misled by interested
parties into believing that the social costs of a UBI will be unbearable
and that the benefits are dubious. These observations are obviously
well taken. They suggest some strategies for improving the chances for
a UBI to be successful: try to convince people, talk to political elites,
demonstrate that the idea has fallen on fertile ground already in some
countries, do more realistic econometric analysis on all kinds of second-order
consequences, design and conduct large scale experiments, and the like.
All of this is actually being done, and with considerable success, most
prominently by Van Parijs himself and other people involved in the Basic
Income European Network (BIEN), various national research institutes,
advocacy groups, and some left-libertarian political parties.
But while interest in and openness towards UBI schemes are generally
on the rise, and not only so in the OECD world, nobody would seriously
claim that the reality of Basic Income (in the demanding version specified
by Van Parijs) is just around the corner anywhere. Why not? I want to
suggest an answer and derive a few (second-order) policy implications
for proponents of the UBI idea.
As Van Parijs has argued, the ultimate justification for UBI is freedom:
the freedom of individuals to say "no" to employers and state
agencies (to say nothing about spouses) without being punished through
material deprivation. As a general rule, the anticipation of freedom
causes fear. As is the case with other instances of achieving freedom,
this fear, although it can be passionate and exaggerated, need not be
outright paranoiac. It can be based upon reasons. So, who has which
reasons to fear what from the freedom that would follow on UBI? In numerous
debates and confrontations I had on the desirability and feasibility
of Basic Income, I have encountered various kinds of fear.
1. Employers fear that their control over workers will be weakened,
as workers would have a livable withdrawal option. A UBI makes it more
difficult for employers to recruit workers for "bad" jobs,
and requires employers to increase wages if they still want to fill
2. Employees fear that a UBI will require a rate of (direct or indirect)
taxation that in turn will involve a downward compression of the scale
of net income; similarly, the UBI, they fear, will serve as a pretext
to replace the wage-graduated "social wage" that employees
receive as pensioners, or in the case of unemployment, with a flat-rate
transfer. Wage differences will thus no longer, or not to the extent
they are used to, translate into differences in income transfers, and
the relative loss of income will have to be made up for through savings.
3. Prospective UBI recipients fear that the level of their income,
including the rate of increase of their income, will be contingent upon
political decisions and fiscal constraints, and thus be determined in
the future by majorities who may or may not endorse and remain faithful
to the idea of economic citizenship rights.
4. A great variety of individual and corporate actors fear that the
moral underpinnings of a social order that is no longer shaped by the
"productivist" assumptions that (employed or self-employed,
at any rate market-rewarded) work is "normal," free lunches
"anomalous," and the demand of "something for nothing"
It seems to me that proponents of UBI must take these fears seriously.
To suggest otherwise would be to ignore the deep traces that more than
one hundred years of the hegemony of industrial capitalism have imprinted
upon ideas, intuitions, and expectations. In fact, these hegemonic forces
have forged an inter-class alliance founded on a work-centered normative
belief system that appears to be largely immune to revision, even under
the impact of the manifest changes of social and economic realities.
Numerous and prominent policy intellectuals advocating "welfare-to-work"
schemes believeor at any rate espouse the belief and encourage
people to adopt itthat the only device by which modern
societies can both integrate individuals and at the same time
grant them a measure of autonomy is the labor contract. Although we
can no longer ensure every adult a permanent job that pays a decent
wage, this empirically obsolete vision of "normality" is more
firmly entrenched than ever at the normative level. Proponents of a
UBI have been rightly disgusted by this perversity, but they have yet
to find a way of coping with it in politically productive ways.
So what might be done? I suggest that efforts to implement a UBI should
be governed by principles of gradualism and reversibility.
The idea is to provide a context in which people can change their preferences
through learning, as in the saying that the appetite comes with the
eating (rather than with coercive feeding). Instead of thinking about
the UBI in terms of "before" and "after," we need
to conceptualize and promote it in the dynamic terms of less and more.
This intellectual and political mode of experimental approximation could
move along the following pathways.
As is well known, in an eventual steady state of a fully implemented
UBI even the "surfer" or the "bohemian" would be
entitled to a subsistence level citizen (or even resident) incomea
scandalous anomaly by todays prevailing standards that proponents
of UBI are usually quick to mitigate by speculating that nobody is likely
to adopt the idle life of a surfer for any length of time. But another
strategy of response is possible. Note that in most OECD countries and
their social policy systems, numerous types of people in various situations
and activities are effectively entitled to tax- financed income transfers,
at a subsistence level or even higher. Single parents of infants belong
in this category, as do people performing mandatory military service.
The same applies to families, university students, andwithin the
European Union and as long as the Common Agricultural Policy lastsfarmers.
Institutionalized exemptions from market labor (or the exclusive reliance
of market rewards for labor) are numerous and perfectly legitimate.
One gradualist strategy, then, would be to expand the list of groups,
conditions, and activities that are legally eligible for such exemption.
Political initiatives to promote such expansion are all the more promising
as the "third" or "voluntary" or "self-help"
sector of private foundations, cooperatives, and neighborhood organizations
begins to play an increasingly visible role both as a social phenomenon
and as a policy device to unburden, as well as increase the effectiveness
of, state-provided services. To be sure, such "participation income"
(as Tony Atkinson has influentially termed it) is still not "unconditional,"
but rather contingent of non-market services performed. But the more
popular, normal, and widespread the sector of such voluntary activities
is going to become, the more effectively can the authoritarianism of
external bureaucratic control be fought.
As is equally well known, a fully implemented UBI would eventually
reach subsistence level (and preferably also both legislative irreversibility
and continuous adjustment to current market income); it would also be
free of any means testing; and it would be effectively paid to all citizens/residents.
But these three features constitute as many axes of gradual approximation.
More specifically, one could think of starting with an income supplement
that does not cover the subsistence level but would still open up a
withdrawal option in terms of hours of work. One could make means-testing
less stringent and also invert the means-test from one measuring lack
of means to one measuring the presence of (significant) assets, with
the implication being that all citizens except those with assets
above a specified level receive a basic income.
In his presentation here, Van Parijs does not mention that the UBI
is not just universal, unconditional, and subsistence-covering, but
also permanent. It is individually paid from adolescence to the end
of life. The temporal extension is a further dimension of gradual approximation,
and indeed an especially promising one. Elsewhere I have argued for
a "sabbatical account" (of, say, ten years) to which every
adult person is entitled and upon which she can draw at any time (after
the age of, say, 25 years) in the form of chunks of time of at least
six months, and use the free time, which is covered by a flat-rate income,
for whatever purpose she chooses. This scheme can be understood as a
temporary basic income. The freedom of choice as to when, as well as
how much of it, to withdraw will help to reduce the labor supply at
any given point in time. It will also allow employees to (threaten to)
withdraw from particularly undesirable jobs and working conditions,
and it will provide opportunities and incentives to restore skills and
other aspects of human capital. Instead of "banning" people
from the labor market, they are provided with the economically tolerable
option of opting out voluntarily and temporarily, thus contributing
to the restoration of "full" employment, if at a lower absolute
level. Those making use of the option would also indirectly contribute
to what I consider to be one of the most attractive feature of UBI (and
most of its half-way approximation): the powerful indirect effect it
would have upon what we used to call "work humanization" and
the gradual elimination of particularly "bad" jobs.
In conclusion, and having in mind the context of the European Union
and its integration, let me highlight one dimension in which gradualism
is not feasible. A UBI (or whichever of its incomplete approximations)
cannot be introduced in one country alone. For such unilateralism is
likely to trigger migration effects that are bound to undermine the
political and economic viability of any even less-than-complete solution.
(Such migration, or emigration-prevention effects are, of course, intended
in the very special case of Alaska, as they were intended, before 1989,
in the comparable case of West Berlin, with its residence premium paid
to citizens as tax credit.) In Europe, however, what is possible in
one country is constrained by what is possible in all other countries
as well and at the same time. This rule may well be interpreted "Euro-skeptically,"
as proof that the European Union stands in the way of national policy
innovation. But it may also be read, more optimistically, as a design
for the implementation of a "social" Europe that might be
capable of providing some much-needed meaning and broad popular appeal
to the project of European integration.