In the dystopian vision of the future described in William Gibson’s Sprawl novels, there are few people with normal jobs, regular sources of income, retirement plans, and health insurance. Instead, there are hackers, freelance security guards, software traffickers, criminals at many levels, and a few distant corporations with scientists and managers. It is a grim picture.
But how distant is that future from our current trajectory? Is that pretty much where we are heading? With the effort to shed 24 million Americans from health insurance; with the disappearance of “good” industrial jobs; with the rise of the gig economy; with the super-extreme development of inequalities of income and wealth, based on privileged positions in the financial and tech economies — do these trends not seem like early-stage Gibson?
Philippe van Parijs has long been an advocate for a very fundamental change to the legal and economic structure of a capitalist democracy, the establishment of a universal basic income for all citizens and legal residents of a country. A recent statement of his position (with Yannick Vanderborght) is Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy. The central value that drives van Parijs’ social philosophy is “real freedom”. And he believes that the creation of a legal commitment to universal basic income within advanced democracies is both politically feasible and desirable for the impact it would have on the levels of freedom enjoyed by the most disadvantaged members of society. Here is how van Parijs and Vanderborght put the fundamental point:
A basic income is not just a clever measure that may help alleviate urgent problems. It is a central pillar of a free society, in which the real freedom to flourish, through work and outside work, will be fairly distributed. It is an essential element of a radical alternative to both old socialism and neoliberalism, of a realistic utopia that offers far more than the defense of past achievements or resistance to the dictates of the global market. It is a crucial part of the sort of vision needed to turn threats into opportunities, resignation into resolution, anguish into hope. (kl 81)
What should be the level of a universal basic income? Parijs and Vanderborght choose as a benchmark the 25th percentile of a country’s GDP per capita. In the US this would amount to $1,163 and in Brazil $180 (kl 235). For a US family of five including two adults, this amounts to $2,326 per month — roughly the current level of the US poverty threshold for a family of five. (Van Parijs and Vanderborght address the relation between the UBI and the poverty threshold; kl 252.)
The current issue of Boston Review includes a forum on “Work, Inequality, Basic Income”, with essays and discussions by Brishen Rogers, Philippe van Parijs, Dorian Warren, Tommie Shelby, Diane Coyle, and others. It is “must” reading for anyone concerned about the question of how we can craft an equitable and livable world in the context of a market economy in the coming decades.
Here is how Brishen Rogers describes the idea of universal basic income in his anchor essay:
The idea is simple: the state would provide regular cash grants, ideally sufficient to meet basic needs, as a right of citizenship or lawful residency. Understood as a fundamental right, basic income would be unconditional, not means-tested and not contingent on previous or current employment. It would help sever the link between work and welfare, provide income security for all who are eligible, and perhaps mitigate growing inequality. It could also enable people to provide unpaid work or community service, start new businesses, or get an education. (
Rogers places a great deal of emphasis on the changes in the power relations between capital and labor that are implicit in the technology revolution currently underway. Workers (think Uber drivers or Amazon inventory fulfillers) are more and more disempowered with respect to their conditions of work, including wage levels but also including job satisfaction, job security, workplace safety and health standards, and other features of meaningful work experience. Rogers thinks that basic income is a good idea, but one that needs to be part of a more comprehensive package of reforms.
An alternative case for basic income draws from classic commitments to social democracy, or an economic system in which the state limits corporate power, ensures a decent standard of living for all, and encourages decent work. In the social democratic view, however, a basic income would be only art of the solution to economic and social inequalities — we also need a revamped public sector and a new and different collective bargaining system. Indeed, without such broader reforms, a basic income could do more harm than good. (15)
Elizabeth Anderson’s critique of van Parijs in an earlier Boston Review forum on universal basic income strikes a similar note (link). Anderson believes that the “real libertarian” foundations of van Parijs’s arguments for UBI are unconvincing, and they are inconsistent with the broader goal of establishing a just society within the circumstances of a capitalist democracy. Van Parijs over-estimates income relative to other social entitlements. Her summary is straightforward: “I will argue that Van Parijs’s real libertarianism cannot justify a UBI, but that a UBI may have some promise as a supplementary part of a larger social welfare package that is justified on other grounds.”
So let’s consider whether the establishment of a universal basic income would in fact lead to a substantially better level of quality of life and real freedom for the disadvantaged in a given capitalist democracy. To start, the level of basic income postulated by van Parijs and Vanderborght is by no means comparable to the level of living standards associated with a current unionized American worker. At $18/hour, a single earner family in the automotive manufacturing sector generates about $36,000 per year; with two earners this may rise to $48,000-$72,000 per year, depending on the nature of the second earner’s job and number of hours of work. So the universal basic income does not substitute for “good jobs”.
But this is perfectly clear to the advocates for a universal basic income. Their vision is not that the UBI is the sole source of income for most people most of the time. Both private employment and social provisioning would also be part of the individual’s overall bundle of entitlements.
Contrary to the way in which it is sometimes characterized and to the chagrin of those among its advocates who want to sell it as a radical simplification, a basic income should not be understood as being, by definition, a full substitute for all existing transfers, much less a substitute for the public funding of quality education, quality health care, and other services. (kl 252)
Rather than constituting an all-round solution to the problem of living well in a capitalist democracy, the UBI is a safety net in the context of which individuals can seek out employment of various kinds.
It does not amount to giving up the objective of full employment sensibly interpreted. For full employment can mean two things: full-time paid work for the entire able-bodied part of the population of working age, or the real possibility of getting meaningful paid work for all those who want it. As an objective, the basic income strategy rejects the former but embraces the latter. (kl 617)
Individuals can use their skills and their interests to generate additional income permitting higher levels of prosperity and job satisfaction. And in a country in which access to affordable healthcare and free public education are rights, we can begin to see how van Parijs can assert that UBI would be a foundation for real freedom of choice and life plan.
This, then, is van Parijs’s response to Rogers and Anderson: his view too depends upon a host of social-democratic reforms, including access to healthcare, education, and other critical components of quality of life. But this seems to concede the point: the reforms we need are broader than simply establishing UBI. And that seems to be correct. We need social democracy, and UBI may be a valuable component of a full social-democratic regime.
(The moral basis for an extensive state along the lines of the Nordic examples was discussed in a prior post; link. The topic of rapid change in employment opportunities in advanced capitalism came up earlier in a post about “A Jobless Future”; link. Also of interest is a post on the social construction of work; link. And here is a post on alternatives to capitalism; link.)