Basic Income: the Silence in the Noise

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Take Lawrence H. Summers, former (“we are all Friedmanites”) Treasury Secretary and once top economic adviser to President Obama. He told an audience at the Brookings Institution at the end of May that a universal basic income is, “one of those ideas that the longer you look at it, the less enthusiastic you become”. Why did the high-flying derivatives man bother to express his gut aversion to basic income in this august think tank? On the face of it, the (defeated) Swiss basic income referendum of 5 June led Summers and other hitherto silent economic grandees to pronounce on the measure from the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Forbes, for example, with views ranging from hostile to tepidly or pragmatically in favour. George Painter, writing for The Independent (7 June 2016) sensibly points out that, “Of course, when big ideas—and, make no mistake, a radical overhaul of the tax and social support system is a big idea—become highly charged then more heat than light can be generated.” Such coverage of basic income in the mainstream press was unimaginable a few years ago.

But there’s something missing in all the heat and light. The discussion ranges (and sometimes rages) around affordability, mechanisation of work, whether basic income would be a disincentive to work, streamlining antiquated welfare systems, ending poverty, the results of experiments in places as far afield as Manitoba, Alaska, India, Namibia, Kenya, Uganda and among the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. These are all important issues but the underlying politics tends to be glossed over. One reason for this is, perhaps, an over-emphasis on marketing or what Philippe van Parijs , referring to the Swiss referendum, describes as “impressive communication skills”, at the expense of basic normative ideas, although the Swiss have certainly done much to make the measure better known and more widely discussed in many countries. Then again, and herein lies the rub, the push for basic income in recent years has come from grassroots movements, presented as a question of justice, as a radical measure that challenges status quo entitlement. This is what viscerally upsets establishment people like Lawrence H. Summers.

Since it is universal in scope, basic income has a long philosophical pedigree. The notions of property and universality are a good place to start when looking at the fate of radical ideas. For example, the twelfth-century jurist Gratian wrote that all property was common and any law
basicincome disputing this was “vain and void”. But in the real world, civil and church law upheld private property so his account of property came to be understood and used in different senses. Other canonists of the day emphasized human reason and the ability to discern what is right and to act accordingly. The first right principle for them was that the poor should have access to the basic necessities of life, even if it meant claiming the surplus property of the rich. This justice-based argument can be seen as one of the main foundations of today’s idea “whose time has come”, as many commentators are now saying (though, in one form or another, it came long ago): basic income.

The distinguished thirteenth-century canonist Pope Innocent IV championed the universality of rights, declaring in Commentaria Inocentii that “ownership, possession and jurisdiction can belong to infidels licitly […] for these things were made not only for the faithful but for every rational creature”. This idea was taken up by sixteenth-century theologians, especially the great Bartolomé de las Casas who memorably wrote, amid all the Church’s attempts at justifying brutal colonialism, and contrary to Aristotle’s contention that some people are “natural” slaves, that, “All the races of humankind are one”.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century the discussion about property and justice had strayed from universal rights and degenerated into solemn ponderations identifying up to twenty-three types of property (dominion), including the dominion of the “blessed” and that of the “damned”. Much of today’s basic income debate also sidesteps universal principles to discuss particular points, for example, whether people would work or not work in an age of robotization. Of course this, and the matter of work in general, is a very important aspect of the measure but the focus on the so-called developed world frequently overlooks the conditions of poverty-stricken men, and especially women, in the underdeveloped world who have almost no means of existence due to landlessness and other forms of dispossession. Like human rights, aspects of the basic income debate are often pigeonholed and treated separately in such a way that the universal, truly radical principles are lost.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a shift in legal debates to focus on the natural rights of the individual paved the way for the revolutionary ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity. Autonomy and enlightenment became “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” (as Kant put it), the individual became a citoyen, and the “inalienable rights” of a just society entered the realms of jurisprudence and politics. Social questions began to gain ground in political philosophy. Human dignity, once latent in natural law, became revolutionary. But the new radical values were soon to be redefined by counterrevolutionary distortion. Equality was reduced to “equality before the law” or “before God”. Freedom, stripped of ethical responsibility, ran amok as freedom of the profit motive and, with the culture of impunity this nurtures, the other two values can’t exist. Fraternity was engulfed by amorphous mass notions like the “melting pot”, the Fascist “community”, the Third Reich Volk and, more recently, the fuzzy gallimaufry of multiculturalism. Gone is the dream of a noble, generous brotherhood and sisterhood. We are left with little more than the miserable crumbs of charity, among which the gleam of universal justice looks dangerous.

Human rights are widely discredited today. They have lost their power and radicalness. “Universal” (precisely the adjective which qualifies basic income) is scoffed at as utopian and the right to exist, the right on which all others depend, has been hidden from view by a scheme of “generations” of rights, as if one human right could be isolated from the rest. Any discussion of basic income as a means of ensuring the right of existence on a universal scale must, logically speaking, come to grips with the deep human rights issues involved, namely questions of freedom, justice and human dignity. Modern liberal “human rights” uses are very different. But the memory of past injustice lays the foundations for future human rights. Without history and memory, human rights are watered down by legal abstractions, insouciant platitudes and political blather, aided and abetted by the media which intersperses images of real human rights dramas with celebrity antics, “reality” shows and toilet paper ads. The notion of universal human rights remains safely distant and abstract when the horrors of abuse are viewed in the comfort of one’s living room.

The seventeenth-century English commoners’ ideals appear again in the social claims of basic income: a pooled (universal) resource; well-founded historically; inseparable from the conditions of production and reproduction; levelling differences of equality and access; fraternal, respectful towards others; sharing; antithetical to the values of capital, neoliberal entitlement and impunity; requiring constant perusal and renewal; and needing to be understood as an element of political economy. Introducing a basic income to alleviate poverty requires addressing the causes of poverty for this is a massive human rights violation by a few people against many, a terrible injustice, and a cruel denial of the exercise of human capabilities. Any real solution would mean toppling the present global system. The key question is: what does a human being need in order to be free and how might this be achieved?

The classical democratic republican tradition understands social life as a space seething with power relations at all levels. This indicates the need to construct an institutional framework with mechanisms designed to prevent asymmetries of power which lead to relations of domination among individuals. The first priority, then, is to guarantee the material independence of individuals as the basis of their freedom in social life because otherwise, dependent on others for sustenance, they have to obtain their permission to live, day after day. This undermining of civic dignity and certain related types of social pathology tend to compound problems of exclusion making it increasingly difficult for a person to claim his or her rights. In today’s neoliberal system a few individuals or groups manipulate supply and demand, mould the structure of markets and determine the nature of national economies, thus imposing in productive units, and parliaments as well, the conditions of work for all those who depend on them in order to live. Millions upon millions of people are subject to this alien regime today.

The unconditional universal nature of basic income means that the essential right to material existence changes from its on-paper-only status to become an institutional mechanism specifically designed to guarantee the basic freedom required for the exercise of all other human rights. No individual would be excluded from engaging in social life and exercising his or her rights and duties as a citizen because of acute poverty. Gerrard Winstanley wrote in the “Levellers’ Advanced Standard” (1652) that, “True freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation”. More than three hundred years later, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976) declares (Article 1 (2)) that, “In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence”. Basic income is a form of property that might also be seen as a sort of indemnification of past and present wrongs since it calls upon the more privileged citizens to contribute, through tax reforms, towards achieving some form of dominium for everyone. In his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice” (1795 – 1796), Thomas Paine signalled that, “Personal property is the effect of society”. This idea was recently resuscitated by Yanis Varoufakis in his normative defence of basic income at a conference on “Future of Work” at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute in Switzerland (4 May) when he pointed out that the dominant narrative is that wealth production is private and then taken by the state for social purposes when, in fact, wealth production is collective or social and privately appropriated.

To return to all the present heat and light, some basic income supporters are downright undesirable. To give just one example of an all-too-common type of supporter, the staunch Friedmanite Charles Murray, writing in The Wall Street Journal¸ is keen on “replacing the welfare state”, financing a basic income by “getting rid of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program, as well as agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare”. The question of financing is certainly a good acid test for showing the true colors of basic income enthusiasts. As a measure upheld by democrats, financing basic income entails a major redistribution of income by means of progressive taxation. It is therefore understood as a policy that will limit the capacity of the rich for imposing their conception of the “public good” (i.e. their own private good which attacks the freedoms of the vast majority of the public), a radical democratic republican proposal which is the exact opposite of what liberals (in the European sense) are pushing. Even the pro-oligarchy Aristotle was clear on this point: in order to understand the world we need to pay attention to its chief division, that between rich and poor. The rich have their material existence guaranteed. The poor don’t and, thus dependent on the rich for their social existence, are unfree. From our standpoint, basic income is not just a measure aiming at more equality. It’s also about freedom and everything that entails.

Technical and practical issues aside, and like it or not, basic income presents the challenge of embracing its revolutionary potential. If we want a more just, freer society, we’ll have to fight for it. The enemies of radical democratic basic income (including some putative supporters) who want the opposite will cover up its revolutionary freedom-enhancing potential with false claims and trite labels. Luke-warm supporters can turn a blind eye to its powerful but difficult ethical content. The transformative potential of basic income is still in danger of being dumped in the too-hard bin or lost in the silence of indifference. But this is tantamount to succumbing to an intolerable and incredibly dangerous status quo.

Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.   Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).