by Francine Mestrum, for Social Europe, April 14, 2016
Most advocates of basic income only answer the arguments of the right – mainly concerning the willingness to work – and never imagine there can be valid arguments for the left to resist their proposals.
In that sense we have to be grateful to Philippe van Parijs that he addresses social democracy specifically in his defence of basic income. However, his answers are not very satisfactory.
Let me start with the easy point on which we fully agree: social assistance needs fundamental changes. First of all, because poverty should not exist in our wealthy societies and because the current means-testing and control mechanisms are humiliating and do not contribute to the empowerment of poor people. In spite of all academic and economic blah on the ‘multidimensionality’ of poverty, we should never forget that poor people need, in the very first place, an income if we want them to escape poverty. If other problems remain – health, education, housing, debt… – after income security has been guaranteed, then social workers should be available to and ready help.
A guaranteed minimum income for poor people should be introduced, urgently. This should indeed be an individual right. Since it would be for poor people alone it does imply means-testing, but this can easily be done without intervening in people’s private life. We have all the information technology available, from tax administration to social security, in order to grant people what they can rightly claim.
What about the non-poor?
Why should we give a basic income also to the non-poor? I never heard a convincing argument. For keeping the system ‘simple’, it is said. Well, if we can eradicate poverty for, let us say around €2bn – which would be the case in Belgium if the guaranteed income is put at the poverty level – then why would we spend more than €130bn extra just for ‘keeping it simple’? That is a very high price.
Basic income should be universal, is another argument. The right to a decent income, or as is said in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to an adequate standard of living is universal. Rights are universal, not the allowances, not the money. If non-poor people have an adequate standard of living, do they have a right to more?
Non-poor people will pay back through taxes, anyway, is the next point. This sounds like an additional reason for not giving them the money. What can the rationale be for giving people money that they then have to give back? And more seriously, will the rich really pay back? The recent Panama Papers have shown once again that the rich pay no taxes or do everything to avoid paying them.
There is another problem with means-testing. As has been said, this can happen in a non-humiliating way. Moreover, most advocates of basic income are now in favour of additional ‘earnings-related social insurance’. Even social assistance cannot be expected to disappear, says van Parijs. The ‘basic income will not enable us to dispense with means-tested top ups for people in specific circumstances’ …
In sum, I see no arguments at all for giving money to the non-poor.
Social security and solidarity
Van Parijs admits that some parts of social security and even social assistance will have to remain. He does not explain how this should be funded, but we know he’s not thinking of any allowance up to the poverty level. But even at half of this amount – €500 for Belgium – the basic income invoice would amount to around €70bn. Add to this the remaining costs for social policies. All this is much more than the cost of current social protection, around €80bn. Up to what percentage of GDP are we willing to pay? This key financial question remains unanswered.
There are further problems. At this low rate of allowance, people will still have to go out and work on the labour market. The basic income then becomes very rapidly a simple wage subsidy or an open door to ‘mini jobs’. Can this be a progressive solution?
A last point on which van Parijs does not touch but one that is very important, is that our current social protection, however imperfect, is based on a horizontal structural solidarity of all with all. To each according to his/her needs, from each according to his/her means. Social security was not meant to promote equality – we have a tax system for this – but it does reduce inequality all the same. With a basic income, giving the same amount to everyone, irrespective of income or resources, means that inequality remains unchanged.
A union response
As for changing labour relationships and the growing precariat, it sounds rather cynical to me to accept this state of affairs and try to solve it with a basic income. What the workers’ movement has done in the past is organize the struggle for decent wages and working conditions. Progressives can never be happy with the current state of affairs and the dismantlement of social and economic rights.
After the Second World War, the ILO was able to issue its ‘Declaration of Philadelphia’. In it, member states declared that ‘labour is not a commodity’. And indeed, thanks to social struggles and the then emerging welfare states, the power relations between labour and capital changed. Sure, the existence of the socialist threat in Eastern Europe helped. But there is no reason why we should accept the further weakening of rights and of workers’ movements.
Our social protection systems surely have to be adapted to the needs of people in the 21st century. We should not believe we can carry on as before. The advocates of basic income rightly point to the many problems we are faced with. But there is more than one answer and I do not think basic income is the best, since it depoliticizes social protection. Or the only one. We should be able to re-think social protection, strengthen and broaden it, and most of all, involve all people and not just workers.
The division between social security and social assistance should be abandoned, the dichotomy between re-productive and productive work should disappear. Our rights are individual and universal, whereas we should be able to also protect our societies. I want to plead for social ‘commons’, a democratic and participatory system in which people can become, once again, social and political actors, emancipated people who know what they are fighting for.
If people want to introduce a system to share the world’s wealth, which seems to be van Parijs’ objective, they can try to do so. But it is wrong to see this as an alternative to social protection. Tens of thousands of people have been marching in France these past weeks to defend their labour rights. Progressives should listen to them.
Francine Mestrum has a PhD in social sciences. She is a researcher and activist on social development, and coordinates the network of Global Social Justice. She has worked at different European institutions and at the universities of Brussels (ULB), Antwerp and Ghent.