Review article: Philippe Van Parijs (ed.) Basic Income and the Left

Philippe Van Parijs (ed.) Basic Income and the Left: A European debate, Social Europe, 2018, viii + 116 pp, 1 9997151 5 1, pbk, £12.99,

This volume of essays brings together progressive justifications and critiques of Basic Income, providing serious food for thought for advocates and opponents alike. It dispenses with some of the more superficial objections to – and misunderstandings of – the arguments of some Basic Income’s left-wing advocates. At the same time, it documents a number of profound ethical and practical concerns with the policy from the left, and in doing so helps to illuminate the most pertinent and persistent aspects of debate. Indeed, there remain some intractable normative differences in the stances of opponents and proponents, while other differences come down to divergent judgements about Basic Income’s likely effects in the context of a dearth of empirical evidence, and others still to strategic concerns about how to most effectively galvanise the left in the face of reactionary political forces.

As Van Parijs observes in the introductory chapter, the volume serves to illustrate that the debate on the left can be characterised by the oppositional perspectives of the labourist and libertarian left: by divisions between ‘traditional’ social democratic principles and those of the emergent ‘new’ left (and indeed by the divergent interests of these actors’ core constituencies). The chapters are arranged chronologically, in order of their original publication in Social Europe. This enables the reader to trace the contours of the debate, in relation to significant contemporaneous events – such as the Swiss referendum (2015) and the Brexit vote (2016) and as responses to previous arguments. My review will follow the same structure.

The arguments in favour of Basic Income are well-known, relating to the alleviation of poverty and inequality, the dissolution of poverty and unemployment traps, the empowerment of women, the strengthening of workers’ bargaining power, and the provision of an institutional underpinning that can cope with systemic labour market failure but also facilitate positive social change. These arguments are made, and common objections are countered, in the opening chapters of the volume.

Standing (chapter 2) suggests that the current phase of capitalist development, with growing inequality and the accompanying emergence of the precariat class, warrants a new form of social contract: the financial security that Basic Income would offer to those excluded from the bargain struck between capital and labour in the ‘golden years’ of the welfare state. This is necessary, Standing argues, because of the new forms of profound inequality and insecurity to which globalisation and technological change give rise (p. 8).

In the third chapter, Van Parijs dispatches the most common objections of the social democratic left: that Basic Income benefits the rich, that it ‘devalues’ the concept of work, and that it will undermine the welfare state. On the contrary, he argues: the lack of a means test is most advantageous to the poor (and the rich will anyway pay through the tax system); Basic Income actually encourages work while at the same time ensuring it is (more) desirable (because freely chosen); and that Basic Income is properly conceived of as an unconditional floor fitted under “duly readjusted social insurance and social assistance schemes” (p. 17) rather than a replacement for them. The last comment is a welcome acknowledgment, echoed throughout the advocates’ chapters of the volume, that partial schemes are a more feasible vision of Basic Income (at least in the short term, even if for strategic rather than more substantive reasons). More generally, a concern with practical realities and political feasibility is a welcome contribution of the volume, and does much to assuage the concerns of progressive Basic Income opponents that the policy is an unaffordable ‘pipedream’. Van Parijs also makes the important claim that Basic Income is required if the left is to move beyond the narrow confines of a ‘labourist’ perspective that restricts the distribution of a ‘gift from nature’ to those in “well-protected, full-time employment” (p. 19).

As noted, the counterpoints from the left provide a combination of ethical, practical and political objections. While some appear misguided, others are highly valid. For example, in chapter 4, Francine Mestrum suggests that a Basic Income would cost many times more than the cost of eradicating poverty using a means-tested equivalent. How she arrives at her figures is unclear, but surely the use of gross cost in this context is misleading. At the same time, criticism regarding people’s willingness to pay for a Basic Income – a political rather than economic concern – appears more justified. Similarly, the possibility that a low-value Basic Income would simply become a wage subsidy for employers and encourage ‘mini jobs’ has not been adequately addressed by Basic Income advocates. Mestrum also makes the charge that Basic Income ‘depoliticises’ social protection (p. 26), and thus runs counter to previous progressive gains, for which workers have had to actively organise. In this view, Basic Income is a form of capitulation to the neoliberal dismantlement of social and economic rights and the erosion of working pay and conditions.

The next chapters move from abstract concerns to consider implementation. In chapter 5, Van Parijs makes a concrete proposal for a Basic Income at the European level – a “Euro dividend” – and in chapter 6 Standing elaborates on the idea, suggesting a geographically limited pilot as a first stage. These chapters also touch on Basic Income’s functions in relation to the challenges of European migration and macroeconomic instability.

Vicente Navarro (chapter 7) comes from a similar perspective to Mestrum. He rightly notes that employment levels and working patterns are caused by “political variables (the power of labour) rather than economic variables (productivity or technological innovation)” (p. 47) and that Basic Income appears to do little in tackling entrenched labour market dysfunction and marginalisation. He repeats the charge that Basic Income is unaffordable, without acknowledging that the cost would vary depending upon the policy design features of a specific scheme. He acknowledges that poverty is “more than lack of money” (p. 49), thus making a case for Nordic style public services – but again, the gap between this and the vision of progressive Basic Income advocates is exaggerated.

In chapter 8, Van Parijs discusses the significance of and the strategic lessons arising from the Swiss referendum. The chapter is optimistic that the consequences of more open and accurate dialogue, of which this volume is part, should enhance the political prospects of Basic Income.

Like Mestrum and Navarro, Robin Wilson (chapter 9) also conveys the notion that Basic Income directs attention away from the ultimate causes of poverty and inequality – an imbalance between labour and capital. He also acknowledges that “it is highly desirable that routine forms of employment which provide little enrichment… should be eliminated” in favour of more socially useful activities and that “the part-time/full-time distinction, often condemning women to the former position, be replaced by everyone working (say) 21 hours per week” (p. 62). Given this, it is notable that he does not explicitly tackle the contentions of advocates that a Basic Income would facilitate precisely such a transition. Wilson also makes the argument that Basic Income would lead to idleness – not an especially progressive notion, and one that is rather effectively countered by the advocates’ chapters: by the idea that individuals would be more motivated to work if not so compelled by threat of penury, and also by reassurances that a Basic Income need not cover more than barest subsistence. Wilson closes with the familiar point that high quality public services (childcare and ALMPs) are also crucial. This erroneously assumes that Basic Income is an alternative to the universal welfare state, but usefully reminds us of the possible advantages of universal services over cash handouts in terms of public support.

Anke Hassel’s contribution (chapter 10) covers many of the same themes. One original argument is that Basic Income would benefit the poor at the expense of the middle class, while “it won’t cost the rich any more than before” (p. 68). While this argument rests on a number of unjustified assumptions about the specific mode of implementation, it appears revealing of a more general concern of the labourist left – that Basic Income’s uniform structure threatens the earnings-related social insurance systems of continental Europe which have so successfully incorporated the middle classes into pro-welfare coalitions. Hassel reprises the concern that those at the margins of society would do nothing, if not compelled by the state into work or training – an ethical and practical matter which most profoundly characterises the rift between progressive advocates and critiques. Perceptions of this concern impinge heavily upon Basic Income’s public legitimacy, an issue which Hassel is correct to raise.

In chapter 11, Ulrich Schachtschneider responds directly to Hassel. He questions her arguments on an empirical basis – pointing out that we simply don’t know how people will respond in the labour market to the financial security that Basic Income would offer – and reminds us that Basic Income would also encourage “various forms of self-organised and communal work” (p. 75), rather than idleness: “more authentic work” alongside “an overall decline in labour” (p. 76). He also correctly argues that costed Basic Income schemes are usually highly progressive.

Louise Haagh (chapter 12) reaffirms the progressive vision of Basic Income as one component of a broader package of progressive measures – not a ‘silver bullet’. For example, on the subject of gender, she explicitly acknowledges that Basic Income does not eradicate the need for subsidised childcare and other measures. The chapter effectively rescues Basic Income from the charge that it is an alternative to a comprehensive welfare state as a ‘crisis response’ to growing precarity. While Basic Income is often viewed by the left as ‘passive’, Haagh emphasises more active aspects – the ways in which Basic Income enables individuals to take control of time, promotes education and enhances meaningful democratic participation.

Returning to critique, Henning Meyer (chapter 13) argues that Basic Income is not an effective solution to technological unemployment, as commonly suggested. He reiterates arguments that Basic Income is not an alternative to the social aspects of work (an argument countered elsewhere) and points out other limitations regarding scarring effects and labour market inequality. Ultimately, Basic Income’s performance in these matters – whether it would promote more egalitarian job sharing and useful forms of unpaid and communal work, or simply encourage idleness – is largely an empirical matter. The chapter also talks about alternatives to Basic Income. Of these, some are sensible but hardly ‘alternatives’ (more adaptive education systems) while others are problematic (job guarantees). The three others (reduced working hours, broadening of the tax base and the democratisation of capital ownership) are arguably distinctly complementary to Basic Income, arguments of which Meyer seems unaware.

In chapter 14, Malcolm Torry rehearses arguments in favour of a partial Basic Income: that it would alleviate poverty and inequality and reduce the number of households reliant on means-testing while remaining within the boundaries of fiscal feasibility. The explicit acknowledgement that full schemes are variously unaffordable or have undesirable distributional implications is useful and welcome.

Bo Rothstein (chapter 15) provides the final critique of Basic Income. He reaffirms that Basic Income would detract from other spending priorities, and would be prohibitively expensive. He makes the further point that this would have unintentional side-effects, eroding support for the provision of high-quality public services. Another charge is that Basic Income would lack legitimacy due to the perceptions of criminality among recipients, although it is hard to see how this would differ from any form of welfare payment. A third concern regards labour market exodus. Rothstein argues that in combination, these concerns preclude Basic Income political tractability.

In the final chapter, Torry claims that the adverse effects enumerated by Rothstein only arise in the case of the (excessively) large payment he arbitrarily assumes to be characteristic of a Basic Income.

At its centre, this volume interrogates existential dilemmas facing the modern left: Should there be a return to ‘labourist’ values, or a forward march to a ‘post-productivist’ future? For whom and for what principles does the left really stand? What form should its decommodification of labour take, and to what extent are the principles of need and reciprocity requisite components of a leftist welfare programme? Can or should labour be coerced in a truly socialist perspective? And should inadequate earnings be bolstered by the state, or should the payment of decent wages be mandated?

A key difference in the perspectives of advocates and opponents lies in how each views the incoming systemic challenges to capitalism vis-à-vis the traditional principles and policies of the left, and whether the former warrant a more spirited defence of the latter or an entirely new approach. In the end, the contributions to this volume – from both sides – suggest that the reality may not be so stark. The core message of the Basic Income critiques is that the policy should not override the compulsion to struggle for a fair deal for those engaged in productive and reproductive work alike – a message with which Basic Income’s left-wing proponents would surely agree. One of the most important contributions of the volume is to affirm that indeed, the extent to which Basic Income should be seen as a radical alternative to comprehensive welfare provisions and expansive public services is based largely on a misconception / straw man that is not borne out by genuine scrutiny of the views of Basic Income’s left-wing supporters. It is unfair to paint the latter with the same brush as the likes of Charles Murray and other conservative thinkers who view Basic Income as a replacement for the welfare state.

Advocates accept the limits of their preferred policy option and the need to integrate Basic Income within prevailing socio-economic structures and institutional frameworks. Most advocates propose some form of partial Basic Income underpinning additional provisions; they do not want to eliminate labour rights and dismantle the welfare state. At the same time, opponents acknowledge some of the core concerns of the Basic Income movements. There is some acceptance that social democracy needs to reflect on its implicit prioritisation of labour market insiders, to better acknowledge unpaid care and other socially valuable activities, and the growing numbers of precarious workers. Similarly, contributions acknowledge the pitfalls of punitive conditionality. Nevertheless, the divisions between left-libertarian advocates and labourist opponents of Basic Income remain considerable, with fundamentally different understandings of the roles of labour power and state intervention in challenging the primacy of capital, and thereby combatting poverty and social exclusion. Ironically, considering their charge that Basic Income has a ‘liberal’ character, the critical chapters actually come across as more conservative in outlook, offering pragmatic objections to Basic Income’s fiscal implications and lack of behavioural conditions in relation to prevailing societal norms. Yet one of the important tenets of the left is that radical societal and institutional change are possible. Surely, in this context, Basic Income deserves serious consideration as part of a truly progressive package of policies.