Forget about Eurobonds and “Grexit”. Belgium philosopher and political economist Philippe Van Parijs believes he has found the solution to the Eurocrisis – Unconditional Basic Income. E&M challenges him on his revolutionary idea.
E&M recently conducted a survey called “Social Justice in Europe – the Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) as a model of the future?”, aiming to find out young European’s opinions on the idea. Certainly, the results are quite polarised and the topic remains controversial. Hence, we decided to talk to Belgium philosopher and political economist Philippe Van Parijs, who has been a strong defender of the idea of an Unconditional Basic Income. He believes that an Unconditional Basic Income is not only the way to solve the Eurocrisis and the issue of unpaid internships, but also to develop Europe’s human capital.
E&M: So, you would buy me a free lunch?
Van Parijs: In the sense that I would take you out for lunch today?
E&M: No, not just today, every month.
Why not, yeah.
E&M: You in fact argue that the state should provide something like a free lunch, an unconditional basic income – for everybody every month.
But that is a wrong way of framing it. There is, of course, no such thing as a free lunch in the sense that the fact that you consume it means that other people can’t consume it. The current situation is precisely that some get huge privileges, in a way that is not deserved.
E&M: What do you mean?
Take for example my salary, or much higher salaries. But not just the salaries, also the quality of the job or the standard of living you have.
If I compare the amount of energy I spend on my job with the drudgery and the hard work some other people have to do, then you realise that what I already get is not just a free lunch but a huge, huge magnificent feast; a huge expensive party that I absorb, incorporated in my wage.
The American Nobel laureate in economics, Herbert Simon, wrote that to be optimistic we deserve 10% of our standard of living. And the rest is a free gift, something for which we have done nothing.
And so the question is not why you should give someone a free lunch, it is just the question: how should we share in a more fair way than what we now receive, for which we haven’t done anything?
E&M: So there is an imbalance between effort and reward. But that was not the only thing that brought you to the idea of Basic Income.
What took me to [the idea of] Basic Income in fact is the convergence of two things in the 80s.
On the one hand there was a high level of unemployment. And the standard response to unemployment was – and still is to some extent now – growth. However, productivity is increasing constantly. So in order not to increase unemployment the growth must be higher than the gain in productivity. But given the physical limits of the planet that is just crazy! I mean, even faster growth! This is a small planet. So, we needed a solution to that problem of unemployment with some reduction in working time.
“We deserve 10% of our standard of living. And the rest is a free gift.”
E&M: How would that work?
The idea is: give everyone this unconditional basic income. This will enable some people who work too much to work less, and some people who don’t have access to employment to work more.
Giving the basic income not to the employers but to the potential workers themselves gives them the possibility to say yes and to say no.
Therefore the supply of jobs will be different. If the next best option for you is to have nothing, then you go for the bad jobs. And there is a great supply of bad jobs, which keep people in this situation. And that makes it difficult for a society to build up its human capital.
E&M: Do you have an example?
For example, the people who get these unpaid internships now are privileged people because they have the support of their parents. But if you say “look we give you an income unconditionally,” then people who have parents that cannot pay for them could then also have internships.
So there would be an effect on the dynamics of the human capital: our countries rely on the inventiveness of the people. So you need to devise a system that prevents exclusion and that does not say “here is a hand-out and now we don’t want to see you anymore.”
E&M: So we would still have unpaid internships but everybody could afford to do them.
The campaign against unpaid internships is not the way. If you say internships need to be paid there will be fewer of them. So you exclude more people from having these possibilities.
So the best way is to democratise access to internships and enable some people to follow their calling who don’t have the opportunity now because they don’t have the backing of their parents.
E&M: So there are all these influences on the labour market and on the development of human capital. But what was the second thing that led you to the idea of an Unconditional Basic Income?
It was that even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, people were aware of the fact that socialism couldn’t be an attractive future for capitalism.
E&M: Like today…
I think we still have dissatisfaction with capitalism as it is. We need the decentralised aspect of the capitalist economy and we need this worldwide division of labour in order to survive on the planet.
But at the same time there are all these awful aspects of capitalism: the inequalities it generates; also the instabilities it generates. You need to organise this capitalism in a different way.
What we need to do is use this tremendous power of capitalism in order to gradually move towards a society in which people would receive according to their needs and contribute voluntarily according to their capacities.
E&M: What are the chances of a Basic Income in Europe?
My view is that Basic Income has become more relevant than ever in the crisis of the Eurozone.
E&M: I would have thought that the crisis made it less likely because solidarity within Europe seems to be under stress already.
But it is under stress because European solidarity was never very generous. However, it needs to be more generous.
E&M: OK, but why is a basic income now more likely?
Some states of the US have collapsed far worse than Greece today – Michigan for example. But in the US we have two very powerful buffer mechanisms. One is migration; interstate migration in the US is seven times higher than in the EU. And the second mechanism is even more important: no single state in the United States has its own welfare state.
E&M: So we need a welfare state as a buffer for the Euro?
With a Basic Income, if unemployment is rising in one particular state the situation does not get worse for the people [in other states]. The state doesn’t have to pay more for the unemployed and doesn’t have to start raising taxes.
In the United States, what happens is an increase in the transfers from the rest of the Union. So with the idea that the welfare system is being organised at a federal level, you have these automatic massive buffer mechanisms.
E&M: Why would that work?
Greece won’t be able to pay its unemployment benefits but it is also not politically possible to stop paying them. So the rating agencies get worried and the rate of interest increases and the budget deficit increases. You get into this spiral.
With Basic Income you know with absolute certainty that the buffer will be there and that it’s not dependent on an emergency meeting in Brussels.
“The campaign against unpaid internships is not the way.”
E&M: So the Unconditional Basic Income as a European welfare system would save the euro?
This is what is going to save the euro, if we don’t want to rely on mass migration, in which all these Greeks will flock into Bavaria. Also, we won’t ever have as much interstate migration as the US. Then we need more redistribution to make the euro survive.
It’s not like the euro is a luxury good. If we want to keep it, we have to have a basic income.
E&M: How would we finance that?
Most obviously would be to have it financed as a part of the VAT but it could be combined with a Tobin-type [transaction] tax, which could already fund a small basic income. And it could be combined with a carbon tax, which makes most sense on a European level. You can use these three components and you could also use the rest of the European budget.
E&M: That’s not going to work.
Now of course we are far from its political feasibility but what is necessary must be made politically feasible.
Basic Income on a European level is a utopia. But so was the single currency and so was the European Union.
We need to realise this utopia to make the utopia we’ve already realised survive.
Cover Photo: Johannes Himmelreich