Basic Instinct

Alex Da Corte, Stacks, 2016, dye, towels, wire, 30 x 33".

THE PANDEMIC has prompted us to ask how, amid a precipitous decline in employment and massive wealth destruction, we can maintain or even expand reasonable standards of living. Some have advocated a universal basic income (UBI), a routinized, non-means-tested payment to everyone in a given country, a once-marginal policy idea recently brought closer to the mainstream by Andrew Yang’s US presidential campaign. In the rapidly transforming present, government plans to send monthly “helicopter money” to assist citizens during the pandemic have made the prospect of a permanent UBI more realistic.

But UBI is not necessarily a progressive measure, evidenced by its popularity with right-wing libertarians, who rally to its promise of market-based freedom. For this reason, many on the left are concerned that some advocates of UBI will use it to camouflage a net reduction in welfare and other social benefits, or that a new influx of consumer money would simply lead to opportunistic increases in daily living costs.

How do we ensure that UBI isn’t weaponized against the poor? Moreover, how can we ensure that we never go back to the circumstances that have produced the fallout from this pandemic? Could UBI be part of a transition to—if not the sudden abolition of our dependence on the wage and the market for survival—then a process that will give people space and time to imagine its complete transformation—away from extraction and exploitation and toward a global truce among the communities, animals, and viruses who share this world?

To explore the promises and pitfalls of UBI, I spoke with one of the idea’s leading advocates, the philosopher Philippe Van Parijs, a professor at the University of Louvain in Belgium (and, full disclosure, my uncle). Van Parijs is a founder of the Basic Income Earth Network and the author of numerous books, including the seminal Real Freedom for All (1995). The surfer riding a wave on the cover is a reference to his 1991 article “Why Surfers Should Be Fed: The Liberal Case for a Universal Basic Income” (the same perfect wave also adorned an official Belgian postage stamp issued in 2007 to celebrate his work), though, as Van Parijs explains elsewhere, “It is not about looking after the Malibu surfers—you need more than a modest universal basic income to live in Malibu—but of creating a means of emancipation, of conferring the strongest possible negotiating position on the weakest, most vulnerable members of our societies.”

The political feasibility of a progressive American UBI remains unclear, although our idea of “feasibility” is sure to evolve in the coming months. Given the irreconcilability, in Van Parijs’s view, between UBI and open borders, or the possibility of UBI’s use as a pretext to eradicate existing benefits, it might not even be politically desirable. In the end, if a UBI is to be a non-reformist reform, it would have to be continually attended to and maintained, its arbiters held accountable, and its consequences monitored. But, in its most progressive forms, it offers, Van Parijs argues, a realistic way of thinking about concrete utopias.

HB: For newcomers, could you give a brief introduction to UBI? 

Philippe Van Parijs: A UBI—short for universal or unconditional basic income—is an income paid at regular intervals to all members of a community on an individual basis, without means-testing or work conditions.

Faced with the pandemic’s disastrous impact on global economies, both President Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders have proposed cash payments to individuals. Whereas Sanders has called for payments of $2000 a month while the crisis lasts, the Trump administration is issuing one-time stimulus checks of $1,200 to US citizens under a maximum income threshold. What is your opinion on these plans?  

The idea of boosting the purchasing power of the population to kick-start the economy in a recession is not new. It has been put into practice many times, mainly in the form of a lowering of taxation. What is more novel is the idea of doing so by paying an equal grant to everyone. This formula has the advantage of having an immediate impact and of reaching people whose income is so low that they do not pay income tax. 

Can you say something briefly about the history of UBI in the US, such as the McGovern campaign and Nixon’s short-lived flirtation with UBI?

President Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (1969) was a form of guaranteed minimum scheme, but not a UBI. It was meant to be paid to households, not to individuals, to be administered as a negative income tax and hence means-tested, and to be restricted to those willing or unable to work. Instead, on the advice of economists James Tobin and John Kenneth Galbraith, senator George McGovern proposed, under the name “demogrant,” a genuine UBI of $1000 per year [this is the equivalent of about $6000 today]. It was included in his program for the 1972 democrat primaries (which he won) and dropped from his program for the presidential election itself (which he lost to Nixon).

Do you think the current global crisis is a good moment to revisit UBI?

A one-off payment, or one that is repeated a couple of times to get out of a recession, is not a UBI, because it is not paid on a regular basis. But it provides yet another opportunity to think about the advantages of a system that would systematically buffer households from unexpected material shocks.

If a comprehensive UBI were to be introduced, do you see it being immediately rolled back after things have gone back to some kind of normal, or do you think that a crisis UBI could be a basis for a permanent transition into this form of social wage? 

A universal scheme at the level of $2000 a month would have to be rolled back. But even if short-lived, it would demonstrate the administrative feasibility of a universal payment. This would remove one objection to a permanent universal basic income. The pipeline would be ready to be used for its distribution, albeit, initially at least, at a significantly lower level.

A rebooted economy feels very far away, but assuming it’s possible, how do you foresee the rolling back of crisis-era payouts: gradually or abruptly, and with what effects?  

If we are talking of “helicopter money” to get the economy out of a depression in the form of discretionary grants paid to all, it will have to stop as soon as the economy is rebooted. Otherwise it will trigger accelerating inflation. But a crisis could provide the occasion for introducing a permanent basic income sustainably funded by some form of taxation.

In this extraordinary era of crisis, isn’t it possible to envisage far more generous UBI measures than previously imagined?

When the economy is struggling, there is, by definition, less room for generosity than when it is thriving. But, as happened with the Great Depression and World War II, a crisis can trigger imagination and boldness. The result can be an institutional setup better equipped to forestall future crises or make them less disruptive. Earlier crises produced our welfare states and the European Union. This one could lead to the introduction of an unconditional basic income.

Do you see an urgent danger in the US that UBI or UBI-like measures will simply hand over more fiscal control of people’s lives to a government led by a fascistic ideologue, leading to a new mode of capitalist power over workers, instead of a real increase in workers’ autonomy and standard of living?

Economic security requires public intervention, and hence reliance on the political apparatus. This is also currently the case for social security for the elderly, Medicare, or Medicaid. What matters to economic security is that access to the benefits should be rooted in entrenched entitlements, not dependent on the populist whims of whoever is in power. 

How does this work in practice—how can “entrenched entitlements” be created and protected from populist whims? Or do you mean that the introduction of UBI has to build on entitlements that are already entrenched?

Our best welfare states grant rights that are strongly protected by a robust legislation and by conventions underwritten by labor unions and employer organizations, sometimes even by constitutions or international treaties. What workers and, more broadly, all citizens or residents are entitled to is not left to the discretion of whoever happens to be in power. The same would need to hold for a UBI.

Does it bother you that UBI is so popular with the right?  

No. If right and left are defined by pro-market versus pro-state, it neither surprises nor bothers me to be joined by those who are pro-market not because they are pro-rich but because they are pro-freedom. They are right to embrace UBI as a way of giving more freedom to those with least of it. However, it is important to be vigilant. There is no single thing that can be called UBI. Depending on its level, on the way it is funded and even more on what it replaces, a UBI reform can be a terrific progress or a terrible regression.

Could you explain a bit more what you see as the key differences between progressive and regressive forms of UBI? Is there something inherent in the funding and payout structure of a UBI that allows us to distinguish between progress or regression?

You could have a UBI entirely funded by the scrapping of all existing benefits. Some of the sick, of the unemployed, of the poor old-age pensioners, would end up with less income than before, while those with high incomes would see these further increased. This would be a major regression.

By contrast, it would be a major progress if one could introduce a genuinely unconditional basic income of even only, say, $600, topped up by conditional social assistance or social insurance benefits that would enable the disposable incomes of all poor households to remain at least equal to what they were before.

What stops UBI from being no more than a liquidity fix to maintain the health of markets, in leftist disguise? What stops it being eventually eviscerated by inflation and higher living costs, becoming a “subsidy for landlords,” as some fear? 

To the extent that it involves a redistribution of purchasing power from the rich to the poor, a UBI can be expected to generate, at least in the short term, an increase in the prices of goods and services bought by the poor, including rents.

To the extent that it increases the bargaining power of low-paid workers, it can also be expected to generate a permanent increase in the prices of the goods and services they help produce. But there is no reason to expect that these effects will be anywhere close to offsetting entirely the positive impact on the purchasing and bargaining power of the worst off.

Just to get more detail on the concern about rents and landlords: Is it important that UBI be combined with rent control or similar legislation?

 A sudden and significant increase in the purchasing power of tenants—whether through higher wages, higher welfare benefits, or the introduction of a UBI—would justify some sort of rent freeze if landlords tried to appropriate through higher rents all or most of the additional incomes of their tenants.

But what is novel with a UBI is its unconditionality, not its level, which can increase gradually. The expansion of housing, including publicly owned, is the best structural response to excessive rents.

In Europe, social provisions such as universal healthcare systems are well established. In the US, this is not the case. Do you see a danger that a push for UBI might end up replacing other desperately needed social improvements such as Medicare For All? How can this be avoided? (Of course there is no policy that obviates the need for politics!) 

You can think of universal and compulsory health insurance and universal and compulsory education as in-kind components of the UBI. A UBI in cash is not a substitute for them.

Quality education and healthcare must be fought for now, and will still need to be fought for with a UBI. A UBI is not being proposed as cash to buy public services that would no longer be provided free. It is being proposed as a fairer and more efficient way of securing everyone enough cash to buy other goods and services they all need.

Your book Real Freedom for All has the subheading “What (if anything) can justify capitalism?” Do you see UBI as essentially aimed at maintaining, rather than challenging, capitalist society? 

Capitalism and socialism are best defined, as Marx did, in terms of private versus public ownership of the means of production. But this distinction is a matter of degree along at least three dimensions: the larger the share of the public sector and the more centralized it is, the more strictly regulated the private sector and the more widely spread its profits, the more socialist and the less capitalist an economic regime.

A UBI can be described as a “social dividend,” an equal dividend paid to all members of a society as equal joint owners of all its means of production. For this reason, its introduction and expansion amounts to making an economic regime more socialist along one dimension. How far we want to go along the other dimensions has to be judged case by case. For example, I doubt that any leftist would wish the computer of every writer to be owned by some highly centralized superstate.

Are you sympathetic to skeptical leftists and communists who see UBI as a panacea for an unjust and deeply violent system? Although there is no real logical antagonism between UBI and, say, mass rent strikes, isn’t it the case that UBI might dissuade people from the type of collective action that has historically led to real change? 

A UBI is not an alternative to collective action, labor-union mobilization, and strikes. It increases the bargaining power of the weakest workers, including the self-employed, far beyond the sectors in which labor is well organized. It can even be viewed as a providing an “inexhaustible strike fund,” as Erik Olin Wright puts it, that is no longer the monopoly of the most unionized fragments of the working class.

Chelsea Culprit, Purple Rain, 2016, oil on canvas, 40 x 30".

Is there any way that UBI could represent a way out of capitalism, rather than a way to maintain it?  

Because the distinction between capitalism and socialism covers a continuum, there is no “way out of capitalism,” but there are many ways in which our economic regime could be made less capitalist. Because a UBI amounts to collectivizing—as a “social dividend”—part of the profits of the economy, it makes the economy less capitalist.

But socialism is no more an aim in itself than capitalism is. For Marx, a socialist revolution was necessary not because it would make society more just but because it would make the economy more efficient. The maximal development of the productive forces is needed to bring about as soon as possible a situation in which people would contribute voluntarily according to their capacities and consume free of charge according to their needs. A UBI consists precisely in approximating this situation without waiting for a socialist revolution: The higher the income is, the more everyone’s needs will be covered unconditionally and the more people will produce what is needed without being forced to do so.

This interpretation of Marx omits the centrality of class struggle, but we don’t have the time to get into that here. A big concern with UBI is that it excludes noncitizens, and might even contribute to anti-immigrant sentiment. How do you address this? Are there alternatives to allocating UBI by citizenship, such as basing it on residence in a specific area and funding it by more local means? 

A UBI must not be restricted to citizens, but extended to all legal residents. Local funding is not desirable, as the selective immigration of potential beneficiaries into the area concerned and the selective emigration of contributors would trigger a race to the bottom between local authorities.

No generous noncontributory redistributive system—that is one not restricted to workers who paid enough social security contributions in the past—can be sustainable with open borders.

When you say that UBI is not sustainable with open borders, are you referring to a political impossibility, a logistical one, or both?  

With open borders, owing to the transnational mobility of both the potential beneficiaries and the tax base, a generous national UBI is economically impossible in one country unless all other countries also have one.

Aside from the shocking violence of border regimes such as Frontex and ICE the pandemic clearly demonstrates the necessity of internationalism to manage a global humanity’s interlocking fate. How can UBI’s reliance on closed borders be reconciled with the need for international cooperation and an end to the war on migrants?  

We need more international cooperation, indeed more supranational integration as inchoately and very imperfectly illustrated by the European Union, to address the pandemic, climate change, tax evasion, and many other global problems.

Ultimately, we also need a globally funded UBI. But we cannot try to run before being able to crawl. A “Eurodividend,” a modest UBI paid to every resident of the European Union, would be a major step in this direction: Never before has there been any form of interpersonal transnational redistribution. But introducing it in a sustainable way is an immense challenge. Yet, I believe it is a condition for the preservation of relatively open borders within the European Union.

Similarly, some form of worldwide permanent redistribution is one of the conditions that must be in place before we can start thinking seriously about open borders globally. It is only on the day that sufficiently few will want to move that the freedom to move can be granted to all.

Does a UBI require a single market?

No. It is rather that a single market, and even more a single currency, requires a UBI.

The critiques I’ve offered so far are mostly from the far left. From the right and moderate left, how have you dealt with people’s perception of work as a moral good? 

This perception and the objection it triggers are also present in the far left. My primary response is that I agree that any good life and any good society must make room for an ethos of work, understood as a duty to make efforts that are useful for others than oneself, with social sanctions of esteem and contempt associated with it. A UBI would not get rid of such a duty. On the contrary, since it broadens the range of socially useful activities, paid or unpaid, open to those with the least options, it enhances the legitimacy of such a moral duty. But this does not amount to a fetishization of full-time, full-life, paid employment still widespread on both the right and the left.

When I said “far left” I was thinking of the left wing of communism that advocates for moving beyond the relation between capital and labor rather than ameliorating it by reinforcing the position of labor. This political tendency follows from Marx’s idea that the working class should enter into a process of self-abolition. However, it tends to be hostile to UBI, partly because it theorizes capitalism as fundamentally reliant on poverty and immiseration, making progressive reform of capitalism unrealistic. Even if—as I imagine—you find this position unsympathetic in toto, do you see any truth in it?

I strongly believe in the importance of working out, proposing, and subjecting to a critical discussion what I call realistic utopias. These are not wild dreams of a better world. They are specific proposals for more or less radical reforms that are resolutely “utopian” in the sense of not being politically achievable here and now. But they are “realistic” in the sense that they take people as they are—not as we wish they were—or as freedom-respecting institutions could plausibly make them. What drives the search for such realistic utopias is the indignation with some aspects of our capitalist societies, even those undeniably made less unjust by a strong regulation of the market and the development of a welfare state: avoidable misery, humiliation, unjustifiable inequality within and between countries, consumerism, oppressive work relations, environmental degradation, etc. The challenge is to design economic institutions that reduce these evils as much as possible, but without just dreaming them: by taking seriously the strongest objections that can be made to them from whatever discipline.

It is far from enough, for example, to say that the role of the market will be taken over by the democratically organized working class. The pathologies of democracy deserve as much attention as the pathologies of the market. The problem with Marx is not that he was too utopian, but that he devoted too little effort to serious utopian thinking. Nearly all his economic writings are devoted to the analysis and critique of capitalism. His utopian thinking is confined to a few short passages in his Critique of the Gotha Program.

Claire Fontaine, Change, 2006, twelve twenty-five cent coins, steel box-cutter blades, solder and rivets, dimensions variable.

What do you think of the idea that there is growing underemployment because of a globally weakening demand for labor, and how does this impact UBI proposals?    

The belief in a “globally weakening demand for labor” has played a significant role in boosting the popularity of UBI in some circles. I do not share that belief and most of the arguments for the introduction of a UBI do not rely on it.

Andrew Yang’s case for UBI was based on the idea that technological innovation is putting people out of work, which was recently convincingly critiqued by Aaron Benanav. You have said that robots and tech are not the right arguments to promote UBI. Can you say more on this? 

Hats off to Andrew Yang. His campaign, like Benoît Hamon’s presidential campaign in France or Switzerland’s 2016 referendum, has done much to spread awareness. I do not buy the simplistic argument that automation will lead to an absolute scarcity of jobs. But I do believe that technology, combined with globalization, leads to a polarization of earning power, and that this is a major new challenge for which UBI, combined with lifelong learning facilitated by UBI, provides a structural solution.

What do you think of Yang’s idea that UBI recipients should choose between either receiving UBI or other social programs like food assistance or Social Security Disability Insurance, and his critics’ argument that this would make UBI just a boost for the middle and upper classes?  

The best way of phasing in a UBI differs from country to country. My own presumption favors the introduction of a modest but totally unconditional and individual basic income to be fitted under the whole distribution of income. All lower benefits would be scrapped. But people who currently receive social assistance or social insurance benefits higher than the UBI would keep receiving a conditional top-up that would enable them to at least maintain their current disposable income.

If by “conditional” you mean means-tested, how does this affect the argument that some UBI proponents make, that a UBI would save money by reducing bureaucracy?

There will not be a radical simplification, as in some ultra-liberal versions of the idea. But there will be a significant simplification and hence less bureaucratic hassle for two reasons. First, all lower benefits will be replaced by the UBI. Second, the number of people dependent on means-tested top-ups will fall, owing to reductions to the poverty trap: People can keep their UBI when working, which will enable more low-paid, irregularly paid and part-time workers to get out of income poverty without needing means-tested benefits. Obviously, the higher the level of the UBI, the more simplification can follow.

Obviously a UBI that negatively impacts or leaves mostly untouched the situation of the very poorest in society would not be a progressive measure. Presumably, there is some hope that a UBI would eventually lead to an alleviation of poverty. Can you say specifically how this would happen, especially given that, as you’ve said above, UBI would also initially produce an increase in prices?

Even if the level of the UBI were not higher than the existing means-tested benefits, the introduction of the UBI would affect income poverty directly in two ways. First, many of the poorest never get the means-tested benefits to which they are entitled, because of a lack of timely and accurate information or because of the stigmatization attached to claiming them. Second, because a UBI is strictly individual, it reaches every member of the household and thereby reduces the income-based poverty of its weakest adult member(s).

Even more important is the indirect effect: Compared to conditional welfare provisions, the main impact of a UBI is the real freedom it offers, in particular the freedom to participate in activities that will enable its beneficiaries to keep practicing their skills or to acquire new ones, which will give them a better protection against the risk of poverty. A UBI is a natural complement of lifelong learning. It makes a society more capable of providing all its members with an activity that they do well, that they like doing, and that is useful for others than themselves.

Can you discuss the feminist aspects of UBI?  

First, however you fund a UBI, it will involve a huge redistribution of both purchasing and bargaining power from men to women, as the cumulative effect of women’s lower participation in the labor market, lower hourly pay, and lower ownership of capital. Why is it then controversial in feminist circles? Basically, because UBI is not just a (static) redistribution of income but also a (dynamic) redistribution of freedom, and more women than men are likely to make a “bad” use of this freedom by further reducing their participation in the labor market. My own view is that such a differential effect is probable, at least at an early stage, before the adjustment of the pay and quality of predominantly female jobs to the reduction in labor supply. But the women whose freedom is increased by the introduction of a UBI are better judges of their own interest, in the short and the longer term, than even the best-intentioned and best-informed legislators, bureaucrats, or theorists. I cannot see why distrusting their judgment should make us deny them that freedom.

You’ve talked about UBI as a “social dividend” based on the fact that our individual capacities to make money now are derived from centuries of history that have given some people certain advantages that others lack, such as being born in a rich country or being perceived as higher in status. Can you say more about the relationship between UBI and history? 

The most fundamental ethical justification of a UBI rests on the observation that most of our income in wealthy countries owes nothing to our efforts or our merits. It is the product of public and private investments, technical progress, institutional innovations, even spreading of informal civility rules, in a remote or recent past. Hence, what a UBI does is not steal some of the fruit of the hard worker’s work and share the booty among all, idlers included. It rather consists in distributing more fairly what we are given very unequally as part of our incomes without having done anything to deserve it. Historical details, for example where the key innovations were made, do not matter to the argument. The point is that what we owe to the many contributions and complex interaction of people other than ourselves is up for fair distribution among all—while making enough room for the incentives needed to preserve the productive potential.

Thank you very much Philippe!

Read more: Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, Harvard University Press, 2017.