A perspective on the fast-expanding interest in a universal, unconditional basic income.
Europe is an outsized indicator of the “shocking levels” of worldwide inequality. OXFAM’s September 2015 press release, “Increasing Inequality Plunging Millions More Europeans into Poverty”, makes a stark comparison between the “123 million people – almost a quarter of the EU’s population – at risk of living in poverty and its 342 billionaires”. Other reports show how, worldwide, the fortunes of the mega-rich have soared during the crisis, a situation summed up in the notorious statistic “Richest 1% Will Own More Than All the Rest by 2016”.
The socioeconomic effects of this indecent inequality and how to deal with them are widely discussed and one product of the debate is a fast-expanding interest in the universal, unconditional basic income, which is usually presented as a measure for combatting poverty.
But basic income is much more than that because it addresses the basic human right without which all other rights are impossible: the right to material existence. Indeed, basic income itself is recognised as a human right in Article 1.3 of the Universal Declaration of Emerging Human Rights, Monterrey 2007: The right to basic income, which assures all individuals, independently of their age, sex, sexual orientation, civil status or employment status, the right to live under worthy material conditions. To such end, the right to an unconditional, regular, monetary income paid by the state and financed by fiscal reforms, is recognised as a right of citizenship, to each resident member of society, independently of their other sources of income, and being adequate to allow them to cover their basic needs.
Since this human rights perspective puts basic income squarely in the universal domain, normative matters are raised, first, that of a moral problem affecting the whole world and, second, a possible universal solution. At this point the ridicule usually begins, starting with the old chestnut that this is “utopianism”, even though advocates of basic income have never claimed it is a perfect solution. If they are concerned with social justice (and we well remember the eminent economist who snorted loudly at a European sociological congress in Naples when these words were pronounced), the best-reasoned arguments are dismissed before uttered.
Yanis Varoufakis sums it up in his account of dealing with Dr Schäuble and his Eurogroup: “You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on – to make sure it’s logically coherent – and you’re just faced with blank stares. […] You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply.” Unlike caviar and diamonds, normative issues aren’t exactly loved in a society governed by the one per cent which wants to be richer than the rest of us put together, a situation that isn’t at all amenable to critical or ethical thinking of any kind, as current educational policy shows.
But there are three basic human values they can never totally do away with. People from every culture, everywhere, know what they are inasmuch as they impinge on their lives, and they are impinging more and more. In the form of privation.
Justice, freedom and human dignity have been the bedrock principles of all struggles for human rights (though the term “human rights” is only a couple of centuries old). Extreme concentration of wealth and the other side of the same coin, wanton destruction of our planet, today viciously mock Kant’s basic moral law that humans as rational beings must obey the categorical imperative of respecting the rights of other rational beings, a normative principle embracing everyone in the world.
If a right isn’t universal it’s the privilege of some. This where justice enters the picture, together with freedom and human dignity, because people deprived of freedom, and hence dignity, can’t exercise their rights. The individual must be free of arbitrary domination or any institutional design that makes him or her live at the mercy of others because of poverty and fear. This means that rights have to be protected by laws and political mechanisms.
In a democratic political system where sovereignty is conferred on the state for the benefit of society and in which citizens trust their government not to neglect or despise its duties, human rights should entail binding legal obligations and a political system designed to prevent any excess by the sovereign power. In its Preamble, the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) clearly sums up the responsibility of government: “… ignorance, neglect or contempt of the rights of man are the sole causes of public misfortunes and governmental corruption”.
Do we need more evidence than the destruction of our planet and the present refugee crisis to see that all this and many more catastrophes are caused by corrupt governments at the service of the rich who not only control the planet but are ravaging it to death? But those of us who are able to exercise our rights can also be guilty of neglect if we don’t recognise that we too have a moral duty. The New Hampshire Bill of Rights (1784), Article 10, is eloquent on this point: “The doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.”
There is resistance to the awful global system in which we are all mired, pockets of resistance on different issues. But overall resistance is also needed. The idea which introduces the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good start: “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
In theory, these “equal and inalienable” rights can’t be sold, or given or taken away. Moreover, “all members” and “human family” are universal categories which, by definition, have to be normative. If goods that are essential for human life and well-being are denied to some members of the “family”, the human condition and generally accepted notions of “human rights” (where the adjective “human” is also universal) are poles apart.
And if we continue with today’s “ignorance, neglect or contempt” of human rights, the ghastly “public misfortunes” we’re now seeing will only be compounded. If we want a decent, human – in the best sense of the word – world we have to claim not only our own rights but those of everyone. Otherwise, let’s forget about human rights and call a spade a spade: the inane inordinate privileges of an ever-shrinking, ever more exclusive and barbarous group of people.
Of all the political mechanisms that have been debated in recent years, the most rational and perhaps the only one that would seem capable of providing a sound foundation for universal human rights is basic income. In its different theoretical forms and experiments today it is usually presented instrumentally. For example, the right sees it as a way of dismantling state institutions, and the left as a policy for tackling poverty or robotisation of the workforce.
If considered normatively it is much more than that. It is a guarantee of the three great human rights principles, as classical democratic republicanism taught long ago. People can’t be free unless their material existence is guaranteed socially and politically. Indeed, both democratic and oligarchic republicanism shared this conception of freedom. The difference was: whose freedom? For oligarchic republicanism it was confined to adult male property owners, while democratic republicanism championed freedom for every member of the community.
All arbitrary interference infringes on individual freedom but some forms are normatively more relevant than others in social policy because they are intimately linked with the basic mechanisms governing the dynamics of human societies. Swindling and lying, for example, affect the lives of individuals and can be used to support the economic status quo but society is not structured by falsehood. It is founded on property (which may then rely on a whole zoo of porkies, red herrings, cock and bull to shore it up). Enter the rich and the poor. Not in the statistical sense (which has its own illustrative merit) but the Aristotelian sense of materially independent people and the rest.
The inequalities which limit or deny the freedom of some members of society are the result of several factors, most notably political economy. Any political economy favours some sectors and handicaps others. In the present-day world most of the population can easily be dispossessed by policies like “austerity” and,
to quote Jeremy Corbyn, “Austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity.”
In that case we can be sure that the choosers won’t be the losers. Since so many lose, a universal counter-measure would seem to be needed and a basic income would be an important component – but only a component – of a political economy and political system that would make the “choice” of tackling social problems. And “social” problems are much broader than people tend to think. Naomi Klein is very clear about the environmental connection as well: “That’s why I talk about basic income as well, that there has to be a stronger social safety net because when people don’t have options, they’re going to make bad choices.”
So far, political measures in response to socioeconomic problems – unemployment benefits, minimum income, workfare, and so on – have been more or less mean or generous but they’re always conditional. You have to be unemployed, disabled, mentally ill or bear some other kind of social stigma in order to receive them. Basic income is unconditional, without stigma and even thrifty because the administrative costs of conditionality (keeping people monitored and stigmatised) are very high.
However, it doesn’t abolish benefits people already receive if they exceed the basic income, which must be above the poverty line if it is to be effective. Unlike previous social policies, it is a measure that counters exclusion. Yes, it includes the rich but there’s a but. The great majority, some 80%, of the population would gain with a basic income but the richest 20% would lose because the basic income would be financed by means of the kind of progressive tax reform that has been proven feasible for Catalonia (and Spain). Such a redistribution of wealth would be the opposite of what has been happening in recent decades.
Perceptions of social reality change over time, and not necessarily a lot of time. From 1961 to 1963 the rich in the United States were paying tax rates of 91% on taxable amounts of over $400,000, and from 1964 to 1970 it dropped to 70% for amounts of over $200,000. Along came Ronald Reagan and his friend Margaret Thatcher, God’s gift to deep pockets. In 2008, the tax rate for a single person earning $400,000 was 29.6% and only 15% in capital gains tax. Eight years on, there is a full-blown income defense industry for billionaires who use their money muscle to undermine the government’s duty to tax them. And these are the people who fund political campaigns.
If the means of material existence of the very poor are funded by the rich through a progressive tax structure then basic income is clearly much more than an anti-poverty measure. It is a key factor in the shaping of markets, a highly political measure because markets are political. Some people complain that basic income won’t put an end to capitalism. Of course it won’t. Capitalism with a basic income would still be capitalism but a very different capitalism from the one we have now, just as the capitalism that came hot on the heels of the Second World War was substantially different from what came at the end of the seventies, the counter-reform we call neoliberalism. Capitalism is not one capitalism, just as “the market” is not just one market.
Kant wrote in The Metaphysics of Morals (1797) of “certain men being favoured through the injustice of government, which introduces an inequality of wealth and makes others need their beneficence. Under such circumstances, does a rich man’s help to the needy, on which he so readily prides himself as something meritorious, really deserve to be called beneficence at all?” For Kant, the moral act arises out of a higher consciousness connected with the totality, moving us to act from universal grounds of humanity, the ultimate moral law of our species and our planet. Things have come to such a pass that it is also the ultimate survival law of our species and our planet unless we want to bequeath the smouldering, parched, flooded, and ravaged remains of it to a handful of people whose wantonness is driving them to destroy everything, including the other members of their species.