A new European Citizens’ Initiative about Basic Income

A new European Citizens’ Initiative about Basic Income

The European Commission has agreed that a new European Citizens’ Initiative about Basic Income can begin in November.

Title of citizens’ initiative: Start Unconditional Basic Incomes (UBI) throughout the EU
Date of request for registration: 15/04/2020

Brussels 15/05/2020
Dear organisers, We are pleased to inform you that the European Commission has adopted today the Decision on the registration of your proposed citizen’s initiative …

On the 15th May 2020, the EU Commission agreed to register a Citizens’ Initiative for an EU-wide Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). If the Citizens’ Initiative manages to collect 1,000,000 signatures from at least seven different EU countries within a year of the start of the campaign the European Commission will be required to consider the initiative and respond.

This initiative was started by an international network of activists and initiatives called Unconditional Basic Income Europe (UBIE). This network was first started in the aftermath of a campaign to garner support for a UBI citizens’ initiative back in 2013-2014 which managed to gather 300,000 signatures from over 25 EU countries.

The new initiative asks “the EU Commission to make a proposal for unconditional basic incomes throughout the EU, which reduce regional disparities in order to strengthen the economic, social and territorial cohesion in the EU.” The proposal states the UBI “shall not replace the welfare state”, “is paid to all, without a means test”, and should be unconditional as a “human and legal right.” Moreover the UBI should be “high enough” and “provide for a decent standard of living, which meets the society’s social and cultural standards in the country concerned.” As such, the “net amount of UBI should be at least above the at-risk-of-poverty level according to EU standards, which corresponds to 60% of the so-called national median net equivalent income.”

The timing of the current initiative coincides with the Covid-19 pandemic. Many commentators suggest that a UBI could help countries weather the crisis and help boost economic recovery in its aftermath. UBIE highlighted that effective confinement measures means the “partial or total loss of […] income” for “millions across Europe” and the “risk of falling through social safety nets and into poverty.” The network launched a petition on their website that calls on EU leaders to implement an emergency UBI on the 21st March that has thus far been signed by over 175,000 Europeans. UBIE emphasised that a UBI can help guarantee that every EU citizen’s material well-being is secured and maximises uptake by avoiding increasing bureaucratic burdens on citizens and national administrations.

(As a result of the outbreak, the EU economy is forecasted to contract by 7.5% in 2020 and unemployment is forecast to rise from 6.7% in 2019 to 9% in 2020. The EU Council has agreed that the EU-wide response should be to set-up a “temporary instrument to help workers keep their jobs during the crisis.” It is called SURE, and provides loans to Member States to help pay for “national short-time work schemes and similar measures.”)

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Should we worry about Basic Income earners slacking?

Should we worry about Basic Income earners slacking?

One of the most common objections to Universal Basic Income (UBI) states that the policy will disincentive individuals from working. There is an apparent fear that a UBI will bring widespread idleness. While we should be optimistic that basic income (or Negative Income Tax) experiments, which have recorded relatively low reductions in labour effort while decreasing poverty and increasing well-being, the devil’s in the details (and caveats) [1]. Instead, let’s take a step back and reflect on whether we should be working the long hours we still do and whether a hardline approach [2] to incentivising employment is necessary and effective.

Historical increases in productivity since the start of the 20th century developed predictions that citizens will not need to work as much as they had in the past. In the 1930s, Bertrand Russell remarked at the great productive capacities of the British economy during WW1 and detested the continued obsession with work for its own sake[3]. Nowadays, the need for basic products and services is adequately met and producing more does not mean working more. We need not be working the long hours we are required to for our societies to continue to grow. As economic historian Robert Skidelsky put it, “with our post-machine standard of living, we can afford to shed some of the Puritan guilt that has, for centuries, kept our noses to the grindstone” [4]. As such we should not worry about UBI earners enjoying more leisure time.

Increased leisure time allows individuals to pursue several goods in life, be it developing skills, learning something new, caring for the elderly or children, or just watching their favourite show. Shortening working days has been shown to increase productivity, promote well-being, reduce sick leave, and allow for a better work-life balance [5]. What should one do in their leisure time is up to them to decide. Long hours of work, however, seem to exhaust the worker as to prevent him from enjoying leisure time actively. Picture an “average Joe”, slumped in his armchair, watching a game of football with a beer in his hand. Admittedly, when a UBI is first introduced, the belief of many may be akin to that of “average Joe”. Long working days and passive evenings is what we’re used to after all.

Bertrand Russell thought, “…the wise use of leisure […] is a product of civilisation and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will become bored if he is suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things.” [6]

If there are many slackers, we shouldn’t worry about them. With no requirement to work they should be able to pursue ends they would have attempted to do anyway. This may still be work, albeit in a different form, or training for a job for which you were previously thought unqualified. Many people may have waited for these activities or efforts until they had earned enough income. UBI reduces concerns of financial stability. We are not used to a society where individuals do not have (serious) personal financial concerns. It may take a generation or two for us to get used to it and be able to make wise use of our leisure time. In the meanwhile, many will be bored with the extra time they have on their hands and that might be a good thing.

Individuals work for reasons far exceeding the need to earn subsistence. Unfortunately, despite years of technological development and raised standards of living, individuals are still thought only capable of being motivated to work through the deprivation of their physiological needs. Empirical evidence suggests people care about their work for more than just earning a wage [7]. When the labour market does not offer a sufficient supply of meaningful work that a labourer can take on, earning subsistence seems to take precedence. Systematically denying individuals meaningful work, however, could be detrimental to the individual’s capacity of devising and pursuing their conception of the good life.

It is difficult to conceive of alternative ways to sustain oneself and pursue a good life. It is arguably easier to find meaning in the responsibilities placed upon you by virtue of employment rather than to find yourself bored, seeking meaning, deciding upon a pursuit, and motivating oneself to do it. A new field of psychological research, developed by Ryan and Deci, called Self-Determination Theory (SDT) should raise optimism.

SDT posits “human nature […] is deeply designed to be active and social and which, when afforded a good enough (i.e. basic-need-supportive) environment, will move toward thriving, wellness, and integrity” [8]. Humans achieve optimal functioning when managing their physiological needs, their psychological needs are often achieved as well. These needs include autonomy – when one’s behaviours are inline with one’s authentic interests, competence – feeling mastery in significant life contexts, and relatedness – when you feel cared for or significant in front of others.  “People’s curiosity, creativity, productivity, and compassion are most robustly expressed” in social contexts in which their psychological needs have been taken into account.

If the current generation is afforded a UBI many who reduce their time at  work will become bored. A well-implemented UBI policy guarantees one’s physiological needs are met and frees individuals to fulfill their psychological needs. When these same individuals recognise their boredom they will seek to alleviate it. Initially, this may take the form of passive entertainment (and some may stay here) while others will try and fulfil their psychological requirements through meaningful activities (congruent with their psychological needs). Those that never make an effort to improve themselves likely already have this inclination under the current social system, and this should be rare anyway. Figuring out one’s intrinsic interests is difficult and takes serious reflective deliberation. While instinct leads us to the fulfilment of psychological needs, we may not have these clearly defined ourselves or be properly aware of them. As such, in order to ease the existential burden of the first generation of basic income earners the public should be educated about their psychological needs and ways to pursue them.

 

About the author:

Aleksander Masternak is a freelance writer and web developer based in Berlin.
He holds an MSc in Political Theory from the University of Amsterdam and an MA in History and Economics from the University of Glasgow. In the past, he worked as an archival research assistant to the Great War Project in Glasgow, a TEDx conference event organiser, an English language teacher, a marketing manager for a start-up, and Centre Manager of a language school.

 

[1] Widerquist, Karl. (2017, November 28). The Basic Income Guarantee Experiments of the 1970s: A Quick Summary of Results. BIEN.

Weller, Chris. (2017, May 10). Finland’s Basic Income Experiment Is Already Lowering Stress Levels – and It’s Only 4 Months Old.

Widerquist, Karl. (2017, November 21). Basic Income Experiments-The Devil’s in the Caveats. BIEN.

[2] stick-approach: when one is incentivised to act through the threat of punishment and coercion rather than through the promise of reward (carrot-approach).

[3] Russell, Bertrand. (1932). In Praise of Idleness.

[4] Skidelsky, Robert. (2013). Rise of the Robots: What Will the Future of Work Look Like? The Guardian.

[5] Bernmar, Daniel. (2017, January 06). Ignore the Headlines: A Six-hour Working Day Is the Way Forward. The Guardian.

[6] Russell (1932).

[7] Gheaus, A., &; Herzog, L. (2016). The Goods of Work (Other Than Money!).

[8] Ryan, R. M., &; Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.

 

Universal Basic Income and the Duty to Work

Universal Basic Income and the Duty to Work

Philippe Van Parijs, co-founder of BIEN and professor emeritus at Université catholique de Louvain, presented a talk about Basic Income and citizen work duties at the Q Berlin conference, held on the 19th and 20th of October 2017. This was the first installment of Q Berlin but it is set to become an annual event where specialists and influencers from various fields present talks and answer audience questions on five broad topics. [1] Van Parijs’ talk concerned the topic, ‘What do you do when there is nothing left to do?’

When I heard this question, the first thought that sprang to mind was ‘what should a government faced with an unmanageable level of unemployment do when conventional policy has failed to resolve the issue?’ Perhaps then a seemingly radical solution, such as universal basic income (UBI), becomes plausible.

Van Parijs took a different take on this question: what would human beings do when they need not work to survive? Critics of UBI persistently raise concerns that individuals who are not incentivised to work will become idle because they will apparently have nothing left to do.  Van Parijs argued that any reasonable proponents of the policy understand that people will have things to do.

UBI frees individuals from having to work, allowing them to broadly pursue their own conception of the good life. Those who prefer to become employed would hold more negotiation leverage with their employer.  In fact, Van Parijs stated that UBI gives individuals the freedom to say ‘yes’ to jobs. Individuals will not have to do that which they do not wish to do. Fewer people will engage in menial and unsatisfying work.

UBI creates a floor (minimum level) on the income distribution curve, alleviates poverty, and gives bargaining power to the ones who have it least. In this way UBI acts as a systematic subsidy for all underpaid or unpaid jobs that are undervalued by the market but which people wish to do. With UBI, the demand for menial, gruelling work is expected to decrease. Van Parijs theorised employers may be forced to increase the wages for such jobs.

Van Parijs presented UBI as venture capital that allowed individuals to do anything they wish to do. Those who prefer to change fields can invest in education and training. The option to retrain is a particularly pertinent concern for those whose job is at risk of automation.

Forgetting about work for a moment (if you can), think about what you should do when your physiological needs are no longer a concern. If you’ve had a passion at the back of your mind then you might finally pursue it. If, on the other hand, you’ve passed life going from one kind of busy to another, then you might have missed opportunities to reflect and figure out what you would like to be doing. The cost of failure may have been too high if it meant putting you or your family’s livelihood at risk.  

At this point in the talk, Van Parijs paused and asked the audience a question. Assuming UBI ensures a basic livelihood for everyone in a community, do these citizens have a duty to give back by working? Do individuals have a duty to accept paid, available employment? Some supported the idea, more disagreed. He then reframed the question and drew a distinction between formal employment and work broadly. Do individuals have a duty to do something? Van Parijs asked the audience to think of examples of socially-beneficial work. Most respondents agreed individuals have a duty to do something, apparently if it is socially beneficial.

Van Parijs preferred not to tell others what they should do. When asked off-stage, he said he has his own conception of the good life and was reluctant to share the details. Rather he said there was something about people helping each other for its own sake that makes for a good society. A society is not well functioning if it’s members are not interested in actively improving each other’s well-being. Working for your community takes several forms. Van Parijs drew the example of caring for the those who cannot care for themselves (such as the elderly, children and disabled). One could volunteer for various causes they care about, whether they be social, environmental, tech-related or so on.

Even if you disagree that working for your community (or giving back) is a duty, if you’re not doing anything else, why not try it? In the best case, your efforts will be appreciated. Your recognition that you have alleviated the suffering of others might make you feel like you have done something meaningful. In the worst case, you might think your efforts yielded insufficiently satisfying results, be it for yourself or your target beneficiaries, and you have wasted your time. UBI provides the opportunity for you to try contributing to your community in different ways. This freedom lets you find a way to contribute that is most satisfying for yourself.

 

Notes:

[1] This year, the topics included: ‘Imagine yourself as the other self. How do we embrace tolerance and difference?’ ‘What will be the next social contract?’ ‘Urban Angst and Stamina. What are the promising concepts to handle the rise and fall of the city?’ ‘How should we govern at the pace of economic, social and technological change?’and ‘What do you do when there is nothing left to do?’