Labour Market and Social Protection Reforms in International Perspective, by Hedva Sarfati and Giuliano Bonoli (eds.)

Ashgate, Aldershot, 2002, 494 pp., hb, 0 7546 1926 5, £55; pb, 0 7546 1927 3, £23.50. Order this book

This book originates in a project by the International Social Security Association (ISSA) looking at the close interaction between social security and labour market regulation. It has been clear to anyone interested in either area that one cannot really know how to provide properly for income security for various social groups without at the same time looking at how these groups are affected by what happens on the labour market, yet a systematic and detailed analysis of such interactions has been largely missing. Similarly, labour economists in particular have known for quite a while that one of the crucial elements affecting how individuals behave, in terms of job-seeking, expending work effort and so on, is precisely the background of social security
arrangements on which they can draw (or not) if they ever need to. But labour economists too by and large only have a crude understanding of security systems and seem only interested in how benefits affect the reservation wage or the supply of labour etc. Policy advances in both areas, in particular the focus on activating welfare as well as the appreciation of how ‘permanent austerity’ (Pierson) affects policy choice, now demand that we integrate insights where possible.

The present collection explicitly aims to contribute to this enterprise, charting significant evolutions in the labour market as well as social protection systems. The book takes a comparative approach, looking at a wide variety of countries and welfare/employment regimes as well as covering an extensive set of issues. The inevitable consequence is that the book turns out to be a bit all over the place. Also, as is often the case in such volumes, the emphasis is on describing current systems in place and how they evolved using country-by-country case studies.

The overall result is that many interesting insights are buried within material that yet again describes a particular country’s evolved labour market and social security arrangements. Granted, comparative researchers may disagree but to this reader at least a bit more analytical rigour would have benefited the collection. Nevertheless the volume includes a number of papers that will be of great interest to basic income supporters.

Maria Jepsen and Daniele Meulders’s chapter ‘The Individualization of Rights in Social Protection Systems’ discusses the problematic status of one of the cornerstones of the early Welfare State: derived rights to assistance for spouses and children. Recent events have seriously impacted upon the capacity of such derived rights to generate adequate protection, and Jepsen and Meulders point out some of the key issues and investigate some ways in which countries have moved towards increased individualization of protection rights. The individualization of assistance is of course one of the core arguments in the basic income debate.

Somewhat related is Robert Salais’s piece on ‘Security in a Flexible Economy’. Salais suggests we now have entered a third age of social protection, characterized by a concern with choice and quality in employment as opposed to merely minimum subsistence and adequate employment levels. Of course the third age also requires a rejuvenated policy agenda which, according to Salais, should move towards broader strategies of inclusion and social participation. Such an agenda is hardly alien to the community of basic income supporters, many of whom have adopted a post-industrialist or social inclusion stance in defence of their preferred policy.

Jane Millar neatly reviews New Labour’s welfare-to-work policy: her article serves as a reminder of the Labour Government’s goals as well as some critical notes on why it hasn’t delivered on its promises despite Government protestations to the contrary. Chief amongst these is a fundamental confusion in New Labour’s various New Deals – to wit, that it rather indiscriminately targets everyone without a job instead of those who are really unemployed. This is not a matter of semantics as anyone who is disabled or suffers from long-term illness can testify. Here again, basic income supporters will find much of use.

Finally, the only paper that explicitly mentions basic income is by Jean-Michel Belorgey. In a comprehensive review of the French experience, Bergoley charts the ways in which labour market evolutions have threatened social security. In the absence of a state guarantee to provide all (able-bodied) workers with a job, the state has a duty to provide income security instead. The question remains what form such a system should take. Belorgey first pays homage to basic income’s innovative approach, only to dismiss it out of hand later on for not making economic sense and remaining ambiguous. Unfortunately the author spends too little time detailing his criticisms, so there is not much to be said in response. It seems to me, however, that Belorgey’s appreciation of basic income, and in particular the way in which different proposals that fall under this label operate, is quite different from that of most basic income supporters. In short, Sarfati and Bonoli have delivered a volume which offers many interesting thoughts on the important relation between labour market regulation and social security, but it seems readers will have to surf through quite a bit of material before actually coming across something that captures the mind. And it is still a bit of a shame that basic income has not managed to impact more on a volume that deals directly with issues at its very heart.

Jurgen De Wispelaere