INTERVIEW: Heidi Laura interviews Karl Widerquist
Heidi Laura, of Danish Weekendavisen, conducted this interview (by email) with Karl Widerquist in late February 2014. She used only parts of the interview for her article in Weekendavisen, and she gave BI News permission to use the interview in its entirety. Karl Widerquist is the editor of BI News, co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network, and an Associate Professor at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University. He is the author of Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No.
Heidi Laura: There are several models for a basic income; could you comment on those most commonly promoted and to what extent each of them would increase the equality and freedom of the citizens?
Karl Widerquist: It’s better to say that there are two main models of the Basic Income Guarantee, (BIG) rather than several models of Basic Income (BI). We’re dealing with terms used in very different ways by many different people. So, it’s not really possible to say what definitions are definitive, but let me explain the most commonly used definitions. BIG is the government ensured guaranteed that no citizen’s income will fall below a certain level for any reason—including the refusal to work. Usually that level is defined as enough to meet basic needs, and a guaranteed income below that level is usually considered a partial BIG.
There are two ways to guarantee no one’s income falls below a certain level: through a BI and/or through a negative income tax (NIT). Basic Income gives a regular unconditional income to all citizens on an individual basis without either a means test or a work requirement. This means everyone gets the income whether or not they have other income. But it does not mean everyone’s income goes up. If we introduced a BI, high-income earners would receive it, but they’d also pay more taxes, so on balance they would have lower income. Like the BI, the NIT has no work requirement, but it is means tested. It ensures that no citizen’s income falls below a certain level by paying only the citizens who need it. Under most plans the NIT is gradually phased out so that an individual always has a financial incentive to earn more.
Within the BI alone, in one sense there is only one model: a universal grant to all citizens without exception. It can be higher or lower, but it always follows that model. To the extent that there are different models of BI, they could be defined by the financing of if. Some people link BI to income taxes, others to sales or VAT taxes, and others to land, natural resource, and rent taxes. This third model links BI to assets over which citizens have a claim of joint ownership. You want to live on our land? Pay into our BI fund. You want to drill or mine our resources? Pay into our BI fund.
Laura: Can the current social systems in the Western world be called distributively unjust?
Widerquist: Yes, the current welfare system is stingy and punitive. Even some of the more generous social welfare systems waste a lot of time supervising the poor and making them prove their worth, as if the mere fact of being poor made them morally suspect. We—the voters—need to get over our ridiculous belief that we are the moral superiors of those with less money.
Laura: What do you see as the greatest advantage of a basic income?
Widerquist: The greatest advantage of basic income is freedom. We put the poor and dissatisfied in society in the position where they have few real choices, no real possibility to reject subordination to others. They cannot use the resources of the land directly for their own benefit. Society makes rules to ensure that all the Earth is owned by someone else. If some other group owns a resource essential to your survival, they own you. The only legal way to access the resources of the Earth are to work for—i.e. take orders from, be a subordinate to—someone who owns some of those resources. If you reject that subordinate position you have few options—eat out of a garbage can or beg perhaps. You can try to get money from existing social welfare systems, but as we’ve discussed, you’ll find them punitive and overbearing in their rules.
Laura: An often heard argument against basic income is that it would reduce the incentive to work; what is the scholarly reply to this argument?
Widerquist: The very question reflects the socially unjust assumptions embedded in all or most existing social welfare systems and in the political mentality of many of our leaders. If someone is unwilling to accept a job offer, we jump to the assumption that he or she is a bad or lazy person for refusing to work. But there are too sides to the job-offer coin. Why don’t we assume the employer is bad or stingy for not making a better offer? By framing the question in the way we do, we have sided with the more privileged people in our society. Assuming they treat their inferiors just fine, and if the inferiors refuse to accept whatever their superiors offer, we can judge them as bad people. We thereby put the privileged in the position where they can make very bad job offers and expect to have them accepted. We create poverty wages.
I think we’ve got it exactly wrong. I believe in freedom. If the two parties don’t agree to a price in a setting in which both of them have the power to say no, then it doesn’t mean one of them is a bad person, it means that the deal is bad: it doesn’t work for the two people. We need to make workers free to say no to give employers the incentive to pay good wages and provide good working conditions. If we make our workers so desperate that they have to take any job offered, we should expect job offers to be horrible.
Another problem with that question is that as economists usually define the term, a Basic Income (BI) has no work disincentive at all. It is given to everyone whether or not they work. You don’t have to quit your job to get the BI. It has no marginal incentive against work. If people have a BI, and someone comes along with an attractive job offer, people have nothing to lose by taking that job. If jobs can’t provide enough to encourage that free people to take them, if they’re just barely getting by, they’re probably not productive enough to be worth doing. Everyone has his price. If we as a society want people to work, we have to pay wages high enough and working conditions good enough to attract people to choose work.
Laura: How would you describe the study of basic income as a scholarly field today? Is it growing?
Widerquist: It is growing, but not nearly as much as activism on BI is growing. As the editor of BI News and the USBIG NewsFlash since 1999, I’ve watched developments on BIG closely for more than 13 years, and something very new has happened in the last year or two is amazing. People across Europe and all over the world are suddenly working to get BIG on the political agenda in a wide diversity of countries. The work is going on in different ways in different places, and for me, it’s just great to see.
Laura: Do you see the upcoming vote in Switzerland as a sign of a growing or renewed interest in Basic Income?
Widerquist: Yes, the Swiss movement is the most impressive achievement so far of the new activism for the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). In a country of only about 8 million people, they managed to get 127,000 people to sign a petition demanding not only BI but a very substantial BI. They helped to jump start a flurry of media interest which has not yet died down. The European Citizens Initiative for Unconditional Basic Income was also an impressive achievement. They didn’t reach the enormous threshold necessary to trigger a response from the European Council, but they helped to create a movement across Europe, including in places such as Hungary and Slovenia, which have never had a movement before.
There are non-governmental organizations attempting to test or employ the BIG model in Africa, Indian, and South America. There’s a new organization promoting a single BIG across the Southern African Development Community. It’s been endorsed by the Occupy Movement in North America. South Korea is looking into hosting the next Congress of the Basic Income Earth Network. The movement is all around the world.
If your readers want to get involved, they can contact me at email@example.com. If they want to know more they should visit www.binews.org. This website provides daily updated news about BIG from all around the world. They should also go to www.basicincome.org—the website of the Basic Income Earth Network—which has information about BIG, our upcoming Congress, and links to national affiliates around the world.