Basic income is not just one financial measure among many but a social, economic and civic financial amount which has a far-reaching multiplier effect in many areas of life. Basic income is a profound civilizational change on par with the introduction of universal suffrage or universal health care. Read an analysis of its key aspects.
However, basic income, officially called universal basic income, unconditional basic income, or sometimes also a basic income guarantee or citizen income, is often mistaken for conditional social benefits. Therefore, its definition needs to be clarified at the outset. Unconditional basic income is a financial benefit which every citizen receives from the state administration unconditionally at regular intervals, usually monthly. It applies in general, that is, to all citizens of a given state without conditions. At the same time, the citizen can also receive income from a job and conditional social benefits.
Current reflections on basic income in Europe and also in this article are taking place under specific practical conditions, particularly as part of a year-long citizens’ initiative for unconditional basic income in countries of the European Union. This is the second informational initiative of this kind. The first initiative in 2013 was one of the largest pan-European events in history organized by citizens. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) for an Unconditional Basic Income sought to inform citizens and have discussions with them at the European level, as well as in the European Parliament and the European Commission. Ordinary citizens, philosophers and social scientists, members of political parties and NGOs organized seminars and lectures for the general and professional public, debated in the media, and organized the collection of signatures from January 2013 to January 2014. The proposal to introduce a basic income provoked a large wave of various responses between citizens and politicians thanks to the intensity of the one-year-long initiative, and also due to the potential large number of citizens as the European Union and other neighbouring countries, where the initiative also took place, involves more than five hundred million people.
The second European Citizens’ Initiative for basic income is now under way in countries of the European Union, and discussions take place also in Norway, Switzerland, and Turkey. The initiative entitled Start Unconditional Basic Income runs from September 2020 to September 2021. The basic income could then be implemented in some EU countries or in all EU countries according to individual decisions and rules in individual countries but, preferably, in a coordinated manner across all EU Member States.
Unemployment is no longer just a temporary accident but a permanent systemic problem that affects a large number of people, including citizens of the European Union. In recent years, for example, it has become a particularly burning problem in Spain and Greece. Can all citizens ever still get a full-time job when, from the beginning of the industrial era, people have been trying to make mechanization and automation largely replace people’s work? Should we not consider how better to redistribute the results and profits of mechanized and automated work among people? This could be done, for example, through unconditional basic income, which would allow people to do activities for which they are now paid little or nothing at all.
Today sociological analyses increasingly point out the need to admit that modern, advanced societies will not achieve full employment ever again. The effort to create enough work in modern, developed societies is seen as unrealistic, and we should not continue to cling to it. The arguments are as follows:
(1) There is no economic solution to rising unemployment in sight. People who are not (fully) employed have a much lower income than those who are fully employed.
(2) Nevertheless, it is a cultural norm today to blame the victims. Although it is generally known that not everyone can be employed at the same time, most people still believe that everyone has the opportunity to find a job. Thus, those who do not find a job experience this state as a consequence of their own failure.
(3) But, if it is not necessary for people to do unpleasant work, then they should not be forced to do so. The fact is that someone not working should not be seen as individually or socially undesirable, but it requires some institutional and cultural changes. Today we have a strong lack of real cultural repertoire and institutional infrastructure for free time. Above all, the consumer orientation of our culture makes free time heavily dependent on income. There are only a few ways in which low-income people can spend their free time in a cultivated way.
Most politicians are still trying to tackle unemployment by trying to create new jobs or by reducing the number of hours worked per week and redistributing work among more people. However, these measures can only partially address unemployment because they are not based on an understanding of its causes. Technology has largely replaced human labour. That is why, today, we are facing high unemployment. People could be satisfied if the profits from the work of these machines were evenly distributed among them. However, the reality is different, as profits are concentrated in the hands of a narrow group within the upper class. Because job losses are not yet viewed from a cultural and social point of view, many people are not aware of the possibility of increasing freedom, and they perceive the current unemployment situation only negatively, without the possibilities of a redistribution of profits.
The introduction of unconditional basic income would make it possible to appreciate the fact that machines work for us, and therefore our mechanical work is no longer needed as much. More precisely, thanks to basic income, we would be able to engage in other activities that we would rather do and in which we could find our own self-realization. We could focus on valuable work in civil society, on creative cultural and intellectual work, on spending time with our children, seniors and other loved ones and the needy, so on.
The introduction of a basic income has the advantage that their work, which often contains valuable emotional ties to loved ones, would be valued in this way and would not have to be largely drawn at all into the alienated labour market. Such recognition of the work of carers is based on an understanding of solidarity between people, that is, recognition of the fact that we are all dependent on the care of others at certain stages of life (childhood, old age and illness—some people, even for life). This is also part of the broader argument that the payment of an unconditional basic income is based on mutual recognition of citizens as human beings to whom fundamental rights belong.
Many carers today are not paid for their work, and their work is often not even recognized as work on the labour market. As most of this care is provided by women now, basic income will help them in particular. In general, it can be seen as recognition of the work of carers. The introduction of unconditional basic income would focus people on quality, on a non-consumerist approach to life leading to a sustainable society with better relationships not only between people but also between people and the environment.
Basic income should in no case be paid only to those who are involuntarily unemployed – that would discriminate against others. It would prioritize only a certain idea of life, namely that which focuses on insufficient capital (a job in this case). However, those who, for whatever reason, do not have a share in this capital (and are therefore unemployed) and, thus, leave part of it to other people, should not be deprived of their fair share in it. Both groups—those who contribute more than their equal share to this capital and those who contribute less than their equal share—should be able to have their share of scarce resources and carry out their idea of their own life.
In summary, basic income is a way of socially valuing care activities, both in families and in wider communities, which is de-commodified and which the markets provide insufficiently. Basic income can thus be considered as an indirect mechanism for achieving the ‘wage for domestic work’ which has often been a proposal among defenders of women’s rights. It is social recognition that nursing work is socially valuable and productive and therefore deserves financial reward.
It should also be seen that, at present, the idea of introducing basic income raises concerns for some sections of the population. Some employers fear that it will be more difficult for them to hire workers for worse or lower paid work. After the introduction of basic income, workers will have more freedom not to accept such work or to leave a job that does not suit them. However, some employees also fear that a guaranteed income could lead to employers reducing wages. Nevertheless, many employees are already aware of the benefits of basic income. Its introduction would have a positive significance in changing the balance of power in today’s capitalist society. Under the current economic framework, the introduction of basic income would allow for a greater transfer of power to employees. In order to motivate workers, employers would have to increase wages and improve working conditions, especially for unskilled work, where wages are the lowest and working conditions the worst. This would be the required humanization of work. Some unions are already aware of this effect.
Basic income would also have profound consequences for the egalitarian-democratic transformation of society. An employment contract could become almost voluntary as everyone would have a great, real opportunity to withdraw from it. Power relations between employees and employers could become more equal as workers could more easily set up a dispute fund in the event of a conflict. In addition to individual bargaining power (i.e., the freedom of individual workers to leave work), a basic income would also increase the collective power of organized work and thus contribute to a broader social agenda: the strengthening of people’s social forces. Strengthening employees with the introduction of basic income would result in a positive shift in the balance of power between social classes.
The possibility for people to form joint cooperatives could increase, where, and this should be emphasized, outside the market, they could produce goods and create services, as they would already be covered by the basic necessities of living. Basic income can be considered a subsidy to the social and cooperative economy. The problem of ensuring the basic standard of living of members can be faced by companies which are owned by their members; especially in the early stages of their establishment when their members learn how to develop organizational plans and develop production capacity. Basic income would make it much easier for members to survive this phase. Basic income can thus be considered as a mechanism which transfers part of the social surplus from the capitalist market to the social economy sector or, in other words, from the accumulation of capital into what could be called social and cooperative accumulation, that is, the accumulation of society’s capacity to empower the self-organization of its economic activity, which is focused on meeting the needs of its members and supporting cooperative activities.
Basic income would break the double separation. Even if employees would still remain separate from the means of production in some cases, they would no longer be separated from the means of subsistence (it would be provided through basic income). Thus, the decision to work for a wage becomes more voluntary. By increasing employees’ ability to refuse inadequate employment, basic income generates a much more equal distribution of real freedom.
The introduction of basic income will create greater equality on the labour market. The wage structure here will begin to more systematically reflect the relative inconvenience of different types of work rather than simply responding to the relative shortage of a certain type of labour force. This, in turn, will further create incentives for employers to seek technical and organizational innovations which will replace unpleasant work. The introduction of new technologies would also save work, and it would offer a possibility of real change in ownership of the means of production.
The concept of an unconditional basic income should not replace the provision of specific services and goods by the welfare state. They would complement each other. Basic income would have different benefits for different people as people are able to apply this income in different ways. For example, people with disabilities need more resources than others to ensure the same quality of life. If people who take care of the disabled today for free go to work, they would need compensation and the means to pay for it. The introduction of basic income should therefore be accompanied by the simultaneous guarantee of social security (including free medical care and free public education from pre-school to university) and by the possibility for people to also benefit from other social programmes. At the same time, the various elements of the welfare state should fulfil their function not only at the national level but also at the international level. Therefore, the redefinition of international institutions should lead to greater support for the European social model in the case of the countries of the European Union, for example.
Basic income significantly eliminates poverty without bearing the negatives associated with conditional types of various social benefits, which also seek to reduce poverty. These are mainly so-called poverty traps, where it is not effective for a poor person on social benefits to start working because the salary she or he gets for work is only slightly higher than the amount of social benefits, and, in addition, her or his costs would increase because of expenditures such as meals at work or travel to work. The basic income also does not stigmatize recipients (as opposed to conditional benefits) because everyone receives it. There is no such clear line between net recipients and contributors because many people would move back and forth over time across that line. As a result, it is less likely (if basic income has been in place for some time) for stable majority coalitions to form which would refuse redistribution.
The green movement has long pointed out that environmental pollution is largely caused by the productivity of industrial society, which is demanding ever-increasing growth in production and consumption. It focuses on the quantity of goods. On the contrary, the introduction of unconditional basic income would lead people to focus on quality, on a non-consumerist way of life, which would lead to a sustainable society with better relationships not only between people but also between people and the environment. This would overcome people’s cold alienation from other people and from the environment. Basic income would also allow people to become more involved in the green activities of civil society and to pay attention to the environment. Pollution should also be taxed more. As in Alaska, these funds can be used to fund basic income. However, basic income is still small there. It would be important to establish a basic income in more countries of the European Union and in other macro-regions which could cooperate and not exist as isolated islands.
Another transnational aspect of the introduction of a basic income which needs to be clarified is migration. Introducing a basic income in only one country, as one version of realizing basic income allows, could put pressure on migration, as people from other countries would probably also want to receive basic income. However, it would probably not be granted to them as citizens of other countries. Therefore, it is more appropriate to consider larger macro-regional units where basic income would be introduced. Nevertheless, it is also necessary to start analysing local and national conditions in different localities and countries in order to address specific needs.
Enforcing overall changes to the state budget or the budget of the European Union so that basic income can be well financed, of course, requires proper preparation. For example, a progressive tax allows groups of people with high incomes to be taxed as a percentage more than those with lower incomes. However, neoliberal governments in various countries have abolished this kind of taxation and introduced a flat tax that benefits wealthy citizens, widening the income gap between the wealthy and the poor. On the contrary, a progressive tax is an instrument of solidarity and social justice in a civilized society. The introduction of a strong progressive tax in countries where it has not yet been applied, and its reintroduction in countries where it has been destroyed, would make it possible to obtain part or even all the financial resources needed to sustainably finance unconditional basic income.
An important source of finance for basic income should also be the elimination of tax havens or additional taxation on companies based in tax havens who want to supply goods to our market.
Another fundamental change could be the introduction of material responsibility for politicians. Today it is common for a government minister, for example, to make a decision which costs hundreds of millions or even billions, paid for by taxpayers. Sometimes though, it ‘turns out’ to be a legal mistake, and the politician does not have to pay anything. At the same time, a worker, such as a cashier in a supermarket, must pay for a mistake, for example, when goods are marked improperly.
Another measure needed is the rigorous prosecution of corruption, including so-called political transactions or the ‘sponsorship’ of political parties and politicians. Today, this legalized corruption is tolerated in many countries all over the world, and many politicians and businessmen consider this pathology to be a common part of their activities.
An important measure would also be to change the order of importance of expenditures in the state budget. Even while maintaining current revenues to the state budget, it would be possible to make rational changes which would find savings, reduce unnecessary expenditure (military expenditure in times of minimal threat, for example) and, conversely, increase resources for unconditional basic income.
Providing basic income to all citizens would also help reduce the financial costs of bureaucratically identifying the amount of social benefits owed to selected individuals as well as eliminate the unpleasant and degrading procedures that inevitably accompany bureaucratic investigation as to whether needy people really have needs.
However, there are many other sources of basic income financing, such as an environmental tax, a Tobin tax on financial transactions (the taxation of financial speculation), or the profits of state-owned companies.
One of the proposals is a gradual introduction of basic income. Citizens could slowly get used to it, learn its strengths and accept it as a matter of course. One way to introduce it would be to expand the circle of people who are currently entitled to so-called participatory income, which is not unconditional as it depends on carrying out a certain activity that is not subject to the market (today’s students with scholarships). This would be the so-called third sector, that is, voluntary self-help cooperatives, civil society organizations, and so on. Or today’s contingent income, tied to a relatively rigorous income testing procedure, could be controlled less strictly. Another option would be to pay basic income in the first period only for a limited period of time (for example, over a total of ten years of a person’s life). Every citizen would be entitled to it after reaching adult age and could always use it for at least half a year, for example, when she or he did not have a job, when children or parents need care, a break from a high pace of work is necessary or there is a desire to engage in community work or some cultural activity.
Critics, but also many supporters of basic income, often do not understand how much it would really cost to introduce it. They approach the calculation of costs mechanically by only multiplying the size of the monthly basic income by the number of its recipients (i.e. all citizens). However, the calculation must include actual costs, which are usually more complex and should reflect the factors of the above funding proposals.
A number of experiments with basic income have been carried out in different parts of the world in the past. As the European citizens' initiative for unconditional basic income is now under way in the countries of the European Union, it is worth mentioning the experimental efforts in European countries which were already done recently, or which are about probably to be done soon. While in Finland and the Netherlands, for example, they have already carried out experiments, in Scotland and Ireland they are preparing to do so. In other countries, notably Spain, they have not introduced basic income but have recently started to provide conditional social benefits, which they incorrectly call basic income. It is also important to map the situation in Brazil, which is the first country in the world where basic income is not yet in practice, but the implementation of basic income is already legalized there. And of course, in Alaska in the USA, basic income has been working successfully since the 1980s.
The introduction of unconditional basic income is becoming a major societal innovation, similar to the abolition of slavery, the introduction of universal suffrage, or universal health care. During the several centuries of industrial capitalism’s existence, an idea of labour importance has emerged which emphasizes work and the belief that independence can only be secured on the basis of an employment contract and wages. This historical idea had some relevance in the past, but it partially persists despite the current economic changes in the era of robotics and automation whereby robots are replacing human labour more and more. It is becoming increasingly clear that the economy is not and will not be able to provide full-fledged paid work for all citizens. The introduction of an unconditional basic income is only one of many possible minor regulations but its impact could indeed be a fundamental turning point in civilization, a significant step towards a far fairer and more creative society than the one in which we live.