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Universal Basic Income Is About Trust and Decency

Adopting a universal basic income requires experiments in building trust.

Author Jurgen De Wispelaere speaks at the Bien Congress 2014 in Montreal, Canada, June 28, 2014. (Photo: BICN / RCRG Basic Income Canada Network; Edited: LW / TO)

As one of the world’s leading scientific experts on universal basic income (UBI), Jurgen De Wispelaere has written books and numerous articles on UBI, in addition to having edited several volumes on the topic. He is currently a political economy research fellow at the Independent Social Research Foundation and a policy research fellow at the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath. He was previously a visiting research fellow at the University of Tampere, where he was a consultant on the research team preparing Finland’s current national basic income experiment.

In this interview, De Wispelaere outlines the most important aspects of UBI — its feasibility, what we can learn from previous experiments, why the right implementation is so important and how UBI touches our basic philosophy of human nature. De Wispelaere’s core argument is that the best reason for pursuing the UBI agenda is ending poverty.

Kristian Haug: Why do you think universal basic income is the key to ending poverty?

Jurgen De Wispelaere: Universal basic income is necessary for the most vulnerable. In developed welfare societies, these are often the people who are squeezed at the margin of the labor market: those who move in and out of jobs, who experience unemployment, illness, stress and economic insecurity. A big part of the basic income movement says that we need to move away from “the poverty agenda” and talk about the broader impacts. I don’t agree with that. I think basic income is essentially about poverty and rethinking the way we treat poor people in our society. Because poor people’s main problem is a lack of money, and basic income is ultimately about money — that is where UBI is going to do a lot of work.

Basic income helps to solve poverty and social exclusion. In societies where unemployment is still a major source of poverty and social exclusion, it helps with getting people into jobs. Why? Because a lot of these people are literally trapped in poverty, unemployment and bureaucracy traps. The idea is that UBI can fix that. For instance, the Finnish government doesn’t see basic income as a “radical” political innovation, but as a simple way to fix an overly complicated and expensive welfare state. What they are really interested in is cost containment, modernizing the welfare state, reducing bureaucracy and a better system for activating individuals.

To get a clear impression of the problems with current welfare policy, you only need to see the movie I, Daniel Blake. It’s not just a great movie; for me, it’s the very reason we need UBI. The movie tells the story of a guy who falls in between systems and literally gets crushed to death by it. That is the reality, not only in the UK [where the movie plays out] where you see more and more people queuing up for food banks and losing their housing — homelessness has gone up and too many people can barely feed themselves, let alone their children — but in many other countries as well.

You are an adherent of UBI, but also critical of the utopian UBI adherents — for instance, the Dutch intellectual and historian Rutger Bregman — and you describe your stance on UBI as a “realistic stance.” What does that mean?

When we discuss UBI as an idea, we talk about freedom, unconditionality, decency and related moral and political principles. And we’re against people who say that poor people are lazy, need to be controlled and need strict conditions to be eligible for social support. When we are talking about philosophy, you can be abstract and talk about the big ideas, but today, we have also arrived at the point where we have to talk about policy and implementation. We have to be concrete. We need more evidence and practical knowledge of how UBI works.

One practical concern that is often not acknowledged is that a modest UBI — not a huge amount of money, but a modest “floor” — is going to interact with other programs that will remain in place. People often say basic income is simple. True, giving each citizen a regular unconditional cash grant sounds like a simple idea, but it turns out not to be that simple to implement. You need to think very carefully about how basic income is going to interact with unemployment benefits — which may have to go — but then there is also earnings-related unemployment insurance, which stays in place. How does basic income interact with housing benefits, how do you fit a UBI with disability assistance, how is it going to affect the tax system or pension rights, etc.? None of these considerations are meant as a criticism of UBI as such; it is just a criticism of those who think UBI is simple, and that it’s not going to present any practical problems. We need to think hard about implementation.

Advocates typically respond that UBI can work through banks, but not everyone has a bank account.

In many countries — for instance, the UK or the US — it is not even clear how you would do the actual payment, because there exist a significant [number] of people who are excluded from the banking system. If the idea of UBI is that it is universal, it has to capture everyone, and in the first place, the most vulnerable. Advocates typically respond that UBI can work through banks, but not everyone has a bank account. Or they argue we can make it work through the postal system, but the homeless have neither a bank account nor a home address. In this case, you would need an actual list of all recipients — in effect a list of each eligible citizen or resident in the country, which perhaps surprisingly is not available in all jurisdictions. In other words, we need to be very specific in every context about how we can effectively implement UBI.

Being a scholar who has studied this subject, do you favor a specific model of UBI?

I think you need to look at what is feasible. Feasibility here refers both to the capacity of the institutions to deliver and to the political debate. For instance, people often discuss how high a basic income would have to be to be adequate. I don’t look at it that way. I look at what is the highest feasible basic income we could have and then ask a separate question: Is pushing for this basic income worth the political effort? Obviously, not every level of UBI is worth a major political investment. Feasibility and desirability are two separate debates that always have to be matched up with each other.

Here is another important aspect: People often think of UBI as parachuting a lot of money into the economy. That is not necessarily the case. In the Finnish context, for example, for many recipients of the experimental basic income, a partial income of €560 is replacing several social assistance programs. So, a large number of people wouldn’t necessarily be better off in strict monetary terms. They just get their money in a different way. But — and this is crucial — they do get that money unconditionally. It is not just about whether or not you have more cash with a basic income, but also about how you get your cash. Under what conditions do you receive income support and what restrictions do they put on your opportunities and choices in life?

What do the existing experiments with UBI teach us?

I’m regularly asked whether we expect major health benefits from introducing a basic income, in line with the 8.4 percent reduction in hospitalization in the Mincome experiment in Dauphin (Canada). My answer to that question is: We don’t know. We can only experiment and see. I’m often skeptical of the conclusions we draw from experiments, because they were conducted under very different conditions, especially where the policy and institutional context was different. This also goes for the Mincome experiment in Dauphin, which happened a long time ago.

The reason why we should experiment with UBI all around the world is because institutions matter, politics matters and the policy background matters. You need to test out UBI because each country is very different. The same experiment in Finland may give different results in Denmark, even though both countries are considered part of the same Nordic welfare state model. My point is the following: If what you care about is the evidence, then we need to be careful about simply saying that “we have evidence from somewhere around the world.” I don’t buy that.

Evidence is very localized, and adherents of the UBI often focus too much on the role of experiments in producing evidence. There is other important stuff we do when we conduct a basic income experiment. We don’t just look at the behavioral aspects. We should also examine at least three other equally important aspects.

First of all, implementation. The interesting thing about experimenting is that it actually allows you to put a basic income in place on a small scale. This allows you to see where some of the practical problems arise. This is extremely important. You want to see which parts of the scheme work and which parts don’t. It is like stress-testing a new car model: You can design it as much as you want on paper; you still have to implement it to fully understand how well it functions.

Second, it’s all about politics: At the moment, politicians are interested in basic income, but no one is interested in immediately putting it in place. Experiments can be seen as the compromise of politicians who are interested in the basic income idea, but who are, at the same time, risk averse and not keen to simply push for the policy. If there were any country where the majority of politicians were really convinced about the importance of basic income, that country would already have an UBI. So, experiments are the best we are going to get under current circumstances. The question is not whether we should do trials — we should! The question is how we can make sure that the planned experiment is the best possible version we can achieve.

The third aspect relates to philosophy: What is the view of human nature underlying a particular policy? Do you fundamentally trust people to play by the rules and contribute to society or not? Do you believe people want to work or that they are fundamentally lazy? In many cases, evidence alone can’t solve these issues. It’s a philosophical and moral argument that has to be fought and won. In the Netherlands, where experiments are also being planned, they deliberately don’t call [them] “universal basic income experiments,” but instead refer to them as “experiments in trust.” At the philosophical level, that is basically what UBI is all about.

One of the major challenges to the feasibility of UBI is the social contract on which the welfare states are founded. As a citizen, you’re morally obliged to work and to contribute. If you get fired or sick, the social safety net catches you — or so we’re told. But if you choose not to work, you’re a “morally bad” person. The critique of UBI now claims that it’s not only wrong to pay people unconditionally in the first place, but also that people will choose not to work. Is this critique reasonable?

Two assumptions go wrong here. First, the assumption that poor people don’t want to work. The assumption is that as soon as we give people free money, they will all turn into Homer Simpsons. [Are] there going to be some people like that? Of course — they already exist. But do we think that the whole range of people to which basic income applies all are going to turn into Homer Simpsons? I think that view is just implausible. And none of the evidence we find supports such a strong position. Quite the contrary, what the evidence supports is that in many cases, it is the very rules we put in place that prevent people from doing things — it prevents them from volunteering, from engaging in all kinds of socially valuable activities, because these actions happen not to be on the list of approved activities. I just don’t buy the assumption that people on welfare are, by definition, lazy.

Basic income is not only about trust, but also decency and not pushing individuals further into misery.

The second assumption that goes wrong is related to the previous. As I said before, the assumption seems to be that we really can’t trust people to govern their own lives, to make their own decisions. People need guidance and conditionality, it is said. I think we should take a more relaxed attitude and adopt a position of trust. Trusting people to know much better than the state what is good for their lives and then enabling them to do that. Basic income is not only about trust, but also decency and not pushing individuals further into misery. We see that the activation system in the current welfare state produces anxiety, confusion, illness and stress due to the so-called social contract.

The moment you acknowledge that a stable society is more than a well-functioning labor market, then you appreciate that people can contribute in ways that don’t necessarily involve a job.

It’s not that the social contract of the welfare state isn’t important. It is, and I understand why people insist on that. But we also need to accept what we’ve known for a long time, namely that a social contract involves a lot of activities that are valuable but not part of the labor market. Child care and volunteering, for instance, which are not properly counted in formal statistics. The moment you accept this and acknowledge that a stable society is more than a well-functioning labor market, then you appreciate that people can contribute in ways that don’t necessarily involve a job. Broadening the agenda of what counts as “participation” is a critical part of the basic income agenda.

Many adherents of UBI put forward the “atomization argument,” claiming that the speed of technological advances will render too many jobless. Is this the right diagnosis of the future?

I’m a bit uncomfortable about this part of the debate, because this very argument has almost completely taken over the discussion. Only a few years ago, we were talking a lot about the care agenda and how basic income would revalue women’s labor, household and care work. Now, it is all about the robots and no one seems to be interested in the care or gender equality agenda anymore.

Another scary part, which I’m very worried about, is that it seems like a lot of tech guys imagine a scenario where the top of the society — the super-rich elite — don’t need a basic income, but the rest of the unemployed society does. It is a bit of a caricature, but what they are effectively proposing is a very polarized, divided society. They talk about basic income as a necessary part of the solution, but don’t mention other important social and economic struggles between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” For me, basic income may be necessary, but it’s certainly not enough. Elon Musk and others can say that basic income is inevitable, but I want to see a lot more than just those easy statements. From a progressive perspective, there are other important struggles to be fought as well, including the redistribution of wealth and ownership.

We can take it a step further. In my view, we don’t need this automation argument to argue for basic income. To mention I, Daniel Blake again, this movie shows that we need a basic income now, not a decade or two down the line. We already have many good reasons for introducing a basic income. The bottom line is that the most vulnerable individuals and groups need economic security as soon as possible.

The automation argument is often coupled with the idea that robots will end up doing all the hard, dirty or dangerous work; and that is great because it frees up time for us humans to live a more free and creative life. But we need to keep in mind that not everyone is an artist or belongs to the creative class. We often claim that basic income would free up all this time for all these creative people. Some think this is what their life should be about, which is great, but we should be careful not to impose this kind of life on everybody. A lot of people still believe — rightly or wrongly — that a good life requires having access to a secure and stable job. For these people, basic income is valuable in combination with the continued access to decent jobs, not as a replacement. After all, it would be rather ironic if we end up arguing that basic income is about freedom while also telling a large part of our society how they should live their lives.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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