Features; Opinion

The facts of the basic income movement


A debate has arisen about the definition of basic income and the facts that support the movement. To contribute my input to the debate, I feel the need to respond, line by line, to Francine Mestrum’s latest article published on Social Europe.

It starts right at the top, with Mestrum equating basic income, professed in the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) Newsletter articles, with guaranteed minimum income. To justify this approach, she mentions the fact that no basic income has ever been implemented, and that the pilots concerned transferred cash only to poor people. Although her view is understandable, she fails to see that these pilots intended to test the outcome of a basic income implementation (which effectively transfers income from the relatively richer to the relatively poorer). It’s not that in a future basic income implementation rich people will not get it (as opposed to the Negative Income Tax approach); universality implies they also get it, but then all of the basic income and more is taken away, through taxation. That’s redistribution functioning.

We already see that in our current welfare states, but in twisted, unfair and inefficient ways. The conditionalities associated with present-day social security are creating poverty traps all around, so the unconditionality associated with basic income is intended to eliminate them. However, and as a matter of fact, her reference to the Canadian basic income experiment at Dauphin is misplaced, since Dauphin was actually an experimental saturation site, which means that everyone in the town was eligible for the cash. The income monitoring and distribution simulated the taxation effect (only positive transfers for the relatively poor).

Then, Mestrum goes on to say that current basic income experimental plans in the Netherlands, Finland and Scotland “can threaten social protection mechanisms”.  Well, we in the basic income movement have already heard enough about the possibility of basic income being highjacked by right-wing neo-liberals threatening to dismantle social protection mechanisms (and much more) with the introduction of a basic income. I can hear them say, between the lines: “Here’s free money to everyone! Now get out of our faces and let us dismantle everything in existence publicly owned or managed.” Of course there’s a risk. I’m not denying it. However, any person who  is aware will not be fooled by such intentions. I, among many other basic income defenders (most of them, actually), support a basic income which is complementary to the welfare state, not a substitution for it. Louise Haagh makes a very good case for this defense, as expressed here.

Then the questions. According to Francine, the only serious questions worth answering on basic income are whether income distribution schemes, like in Alaska, should be limited to resource-rich regions, and whether there shouldn’t be a global fund (linked to resources from all regions) to cover global needs. These are important questions, no doubt. But hardly the only serious ones. How about, “Should not all people enjoy a minimum amount of freedom in their lives, instead of being pressured and exploited all the time?”, or “Should not countries and their governments make efforts to reduce structural inequalities, which are seen as the source for countless social problems?”, or even “Should not countries introduce a way to guarantee basic financial security for all, as a way to effectively deal with the changing nature of work, precariousness and automation?”. My view is that Francine Mestrum nurtures a very narrow view on what is and what is not meant to be a basic income.

As for semantics, notably the “basic income” vs “minimum income” discussion in France, I do have not much to say. However, if we limit ourselves to a pure language discussion, note that “basic income” can mean anything from the most abject dictatorial sanctions-based system (as in present-day United Kingdom) of social assistance, to the most progressive, avant-garde unconditional system of cash transfers. Once each one of us explains what he/she understands these terms to be, there should be no confusion left.

Next, Mestrum identifies BIEN as a source of the problem, to be held responsible for these disputes in language (which she inelegantly calls “communicating on alternative facts”). This is unfair. More precisely, it is unfair because it stems from a misunderstanding of the mission of BI News. BIEN’s Newsletter is a collection of articles from Basic Income News for a given month. These articles convey information about what is happening around the world concerning basic income, and an article about the alleged confusion between “basic income” and “minimum income” would actually be a good candidate for Basic Income News. Articles can report news from someone defending basic income, or somebody else critiquing it (as Francine Mestrum does). Events and other publications on the Internet are also frequently highlighted byBasic Income News. What is posted on Basic Income News does not necessarily convey BIEN’s views on basic income. Instead, for that end, a short, general definition is available on BIEN’s website. There can be absolutely no mistake here.

Another thing has to be perfectly clear. As a BIEN member, and Basic Income News editor-in-chief, my role is not to speak for the minds of other people, even when they are confusing “basic income” with “minimum income”. Basic Income News is expected to be an impartial news service, aiming nonetheless to disseminate information about basic income. Interested readers will take their time to digest all this information, to think and to draw their own conclusions. Here I resort to a line I normally use in these situations: no one convinces no one, only the individual becomes self-convinced. Now, for that, of course, one must be in possession of enough information. And that’s where we, at Basic Income News, step in.

Understandably, Francine Mestrum has a deep rooted fear that basic income implementation will lead to the collapse of the welfare state and, with it, all the hard won social conquests, such as public education and public health and, of course, democracy. We are all too weary of the effects of the rentier capitalist economy thriving these days, chief among them the erosion of democracy. But Francine’s fears are not against basic income. These are against, as she herself puts it, “those who do not believe in society”. And that’s why all true defenders of a social basic income, the one that promotes solidarity, complements the welfare state and recognises the commons, must do exactly that: promote solidarity, defend the welfare state (while improving it) and help expand the commons.

Otherwise, I must agree with Francine: our society will inevitably decay into a dystopia of unbelievable proportions, destruction of the environment and exploitation of the people.


More information at:

Francine Mestrum, “The alternative facts of the basic income movement”, Social Europe, 16th February 2017

About Andre Coelho

André Coelho has written 125 articles.

Activist. Engineer. Musician. For the more beautiful world our hearts know it's possible.

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