Why the basic income can never be a progressive solution

I have been following and participating in the debate around basic income for some years now.

The very frustrating element about it is that most of the advocates of basic income only answer the arguments of the right – mostly 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 Parys that he addresses social democracy specifically in his defence of basic income (Social Europe 11 April 2016). 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, than social workers should be ready and available to help. A guaranteed minimum income for poor people should be introduced, urgently. This should indeed be an individual right. Since it would only be for poor people 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.

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 2 billion euro – which would be the case in Belgium if the guaranteed income is put at the poverty level – than why would we spend more than 130 billion euro extra for just ‘keeping it simple’? This 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 be the rationale for giving people money that at any rate they 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 the 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 Parys. 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.

Van Parys admits that some parts of social security and even social assistance will have to remain. He does not explain how to fund this, but we know he does not think of any allowance up to the poverty level. But even at half of this amount – 500 Euro for Belgium – the basic income invoice would amount to around 70 billion euro. Add to this the remaining costs for social policies. All this is much more than the cost of current social protection, around 80 billion euro. Up to what percentage of GDP are we willing to pay? This financial but important question remains unanswered.

There are more 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 it is, is based on a horizontal structural solidarity of all with all. To all according to needs, from all according to 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, inequality remains unchanged.

As for the 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 and fight for decent wages and decent 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 the social struggles and the emerging welfare states, the power relations between labour and capital have 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 go 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. It cannot be the only alternative. We should be able to re-think social protection, to strengthen and broaden it, and most of all, to involve all people and not only 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 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 Parys’ 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, Brussels