Basic Income Studies, Volume 1, Number 1, 2006, by Anne-Louise Haagh and Michael Howard

2006 sees two twentieth anniversaries for the basic income (BI) movement. 1986 was the year that the Basic Income European Network (BIEN) was founded: a key tool in coordinating and disseminating work on BI. It was also the year that Robert van der Veen and Philippe Van Parijs published their seminal article ‘A Capitalist Road to Communism’. The article made a forceful argument for the introduction of BI as an alternative to the socialist route to communism. BI, van der Veen and Van Parijs claimed, would free people from the necessity of securing their own subsistence and thus offer them the opportunity to find fulfilment in their work.

Marking these two anniversaries is the launch of Basic Income Studies (BIS), the first academic journal specialising on BI. The journal looks to establish an exciting new forum for future research. As the editorial acknowledges, research into BI has to date tended to be spread patchily across a variety of journals and is often inaccessible to those with an interdisciplinary interest in the topic. BIS is an attempt to remedy this situation. The journal will publish articles written in a non-technical style with the aim of drawing in a diverse readership.

BIS will appear online twice a year and will be formed around three sections. The first will feature a set of peer-reviewed articles by new researchers as well as established academics. The second will take the form of a debate, composed of ‘snapshot’ comment articles that stimulate controversy and open up new themes. The final section will be for book reviews.

This first edition opens with three articles, each considering an issue with important implications for BI: workfare, migration and trade union attitudes. The first of these issues is taken up by Joel Handler and Amanda Sheely Babcock who argue that workfare, as it has been implemented in the US and the EU, has failed clients with shoddy planning, little monitoring and harsh penalties for non-compliance. The authors conclude that BI would be a favourable alternative as it would offer the poor an exit option from employment schemes and thus boost their standing in the client-caseworker relationship.

Michael W. Howard’s article considers migration in relation to BI. He raises the possibility of a dilemma facing BI advocates: on the one hand they may wish to help the global poor gain admittance to rich states; on the other hand they must acknowledge the fact that large-scale immigration could make a national BI in rich states politically, if not economically, unsustainable. Howard offers no easy solution to this dilemma. He suggests that cross-border assistance to the global poor, perhaps in the form of a regional or global BI, would make border restrictions more defensible. Even in the absence of such measures, however, he is prepared to continence the idea that border restrictions might be a necessary short term measure to fulfil the special duty citizens of rich states owe to their poorest members not to make them worse off than they already are.

Yannick Vanderborght’s article considers trade union attitudes to BI. As large organisations whose purpose is to advocate on behalf of those who tend to be less well off, unions may seem obvious candidates to push BI forward. After considering evidence from Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands, however, Vanderborght finds little to support this assumption. In these countries the typical reaction of unions to BI has been cool, to say the least. In Belgium, where the BI movement is most developed, it has, ironically, received the strongest opposition from unions. Vanderborght explores reasons to explain this hostility. First, BI may be strategically unappealing as it may seem a utopian distraction from more realizable goals. Second, it may be economically unappealing as it may make the labour market more flexible, and undermine job security and, perhaps, wages. Third, it might be normatively unappealing as workers may fear BI would involve parasitism by the idle. Interestingly, Vanderborght still concludes that BI advocates should work to convert unions to their cause, but perhaps, given his analysis, advocates would have better luck turning to other groups that may be more responsive, e.g. the unemployed.

The debate section is dedicated to a retrospective on ‘A Capitalist Road to Communism’ on the twentieth anniversary of its publication. The article is reprinted beside six insightful comments by critics. The first of these is by GA Cohen, who, in never previously published notes made back in 1987, argues that van der Veen and Van Parijs offer mutually inconsistent replies to two objections against basic income: that it licenses exploitation of the industrious by the lazy and that it unjustifiably violates state neutrality between those who like to work and those who like leisure. Of the other comments, two provide arguments for BI as a device for the realisation of important moral values: Andrew Williams considers occupational choice, Catriona McCinnon, self-respect. Another two (by Erik Olin Wright and Harry F Dahms) engage with the Marxist theme of the original article and offer their own views on BI-reformed-capitalism as an alternative to socialism. Finally, Doris Schoeder expresses concerns regarding global justice not unlike Howard’s. A national BI, she claims, could mean diverting resources away from the global poor. A global BI, she adds, although ethically appealing is politically unrealistic.

In their reply to their critics van der Veen and Van Parijs offer not only carefully considered responses but also a useful summary of how their work has developed since 1986. In particular they explain how they have responded to the neutralist objection that Cohen offers with a justice argument for BI. Finally they provide their own thoughts on the national BI versus global justice debate, arguing that if – as some empirical evidence suggests – states which share their wealth more equitably amongst themselves are more likely to share it with others, then national BI might be a good first step on the road to global justice.

The book reviews are probing and informative, covering a range of books which connect with BI. Altogether this is an extremely impressive first edition. If the standard is maintained Basic Income Studies is sure to become a must-read journal.

Kieran Oberman