Universal basic income would offer a deadweight subsidy to low-paying employers. The route to security for all lies in the concept of ‘social commons’.
The coronavirus crisis has put ‘basic income’ once more on the agenda. It is understandable, since the crisis has hit all vulnerable people in our societies particularly hard. Many in precarious working conditions have lost their job and joined the ranks of the poor. These people deserve help. Ergo, give them some money, without conditions.
Sure, but let us be clear what we are talking about.
Once again—even more than in the recent past when the debate previously erupted—there is an enormous semantic confusion. Sometimes authors speak of the universal basic income as proposed by Phillippe Van Parijs or Guy Standing. But, in most cases, what is meant is some kind of minimum income, only paid to those who need it. This is the case, for instance, with the ‘basic income’ now introduced in Spain.
The first option, the ‘real UBI’, has to be rejected, as earlier explained. First, if one wants to solve poverty, there is no need to give money to the rich, who most often do not even pay taxes. Secondly, if one wants to improve mental wellbeing—as mentioned in the Finnish report on the brief experience with ‘basic income’ there—there are many ways to achieve this. Income security can indeed be a very important factor for wellbeing but the former is not synonymous with a universal basic income.
Thirdly, it seems rather contradictory to seek a fair tax system with contributions from big corporations, if at the same time the state allows companies to lower wages and offers to complement these wages with a basic-income subsidy—a kind of negative income tax. That would, at best, be a zero-sum game, for the state as well as for the corporations.
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A UBI can only be acceptable if it can guarantee a decent standard of living, complementary to social protection. But then it becomes a very serious financial problem—far too expensive, as Van Parijs and Rutger Bregman admit.
Income insecurity has to be addressed, certainly. It does not require a universal basic income but a guaranteed minimum income, minimally at the level of the poverty line. It is for people who for one reason or another cannot be active on the labour market and do not have unemployment benefits. This does not mean ‘targeting’, since the status of people can easily be read from social-security records.
Many countries already have such a system, though very often it is particularly bureaucratic and stigmatising. That must change. Several proposals have been made to introduce a system at the European level and it remains the best solution—apart from the fact, obviously, that many precarious workers in the platform economy should get labour contracts and enjoy full social and economic rights.
As for the ‘universal basic dividend’, proposed by Diem25, it is a nice proposal for a fairer distribution of wealth, since it has to be funded by new resources, be that a wealth or natural-resource tax. But it does not change anything about the need for social protection and income security.
Part of the solution to income insecurity will also be a system of universal public services. Access as of right to housing, to healthcare, to childcare and so on would have made a big difference to many vulnerable individuals during the pandemic.
The silver lining in this crisis is a new awareness of the importance of healthcare and social protection. This should be an opportunity to start a serious reflection on what kind of protection we want. Instead of fighting poverty we should start to prevent poverty.
Global Social Justice (which I initiated in 2006) promotes a transformative system—a social protection which can also be a strategic tool for economic and political transformation. We also want this to come about in a democratic and participatory way, which is why we talk about ‘social commons’. Local and multidisciplinary health care systems can be an excellent starting-point for democratic decision-making on what is needed and for the involvement of citizens and patients. Coupled to systems of popular education they can lead to a stronger awareness of the interlinkages with other sectors, from agriculture to mining.
Social commons are in the hands of people, to directly respond to their real needs. They can take many forms and can be so much more than a corrective mechanism for a failed economic system. Social commons go beyond states and markets but they are not without states and markets. In an ideal situation public authorities will help and support citizens’ initiatives and facilitate the links between their initiatives and the public institutional health system. If developed in a comprehensive way, they can contribute to the sustainability of life, of people, of societies and of nature.
Francine Mestrum has a PhD in social sciences. She is a researcher and activist on social development, and coordinates the network of Global Social Justice. She has worked at different European institutions and at the universities of Brussels (ULB), Antwerp and Ghent. She is now chairwoman of Global Social Justice, an association working on the promotion of transformative universal social protection and the Common Good of Humanity.