BIEN is 30: Interview with Philippe Van Parijs

BIEN is 30: Interview with Philippe Van Parijs

This year, BIEN celebrated its 30th anniversary. An event commemorating the occasion was held at the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium on October 1, in connection also with the 25th anniversary of UCLouvain’s Hoover Chair of economic and social ethics and the retirement of BIEN cofounder Philippe van Parijs as its director.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Philippe Van Parijs about the past, present, and future of BIEN.


What’s the most striking difference between BIEN’s earlier years and now?

Participants in BIEN's founding meeting

Participants in BIEN’s founding meeting

The internet. It is hard for young people today to imagine what it meant to run an international network when all communication between its members had to happen through the post. The newsletter needed to be typed, then printed, then photocopied, then stapled. Each copy of the newsletter then had to be inserted in a big envelope, with a stamp stuck on it, and the whole lot had to be taken to the nearest post box. All this cost money. So, annual fees had to be collected. But bank charges were high for international transfers and would have absorbed half of these fees. We therefore asked people to send the money to Louvain-la-Neuve in an envelope in pesetas, deutsche Mark, French Francs, lire, etc. and I changed them at the bank before paying equivalent amounts in Belgian Francs into BIEN’s bank account. We more or less managed three issues per year, but given the time this cost to a tiny number of busy people, this was a recurrent miracle. To lighten the thankless burden of fee collection, we wisely switched in the late nineties to a life membership formula. And from 2000, thanks to increasing access to internet among BIEN’s members, we allowed ourselves to gradually switch from the tri-annual printed newsletter to more frequent e-mailed news flashes.


What were BIEN’s most memorable successes in its first 30 years?

The greatest success — and the first virtue of a good network —  is simply to have kept going, with a newsletter sharing intelligible and trustworthy information every few months and with a congress unfailingly organized every two years. These congresses enabled a core of highly committed people to get to know each other personally, to inform, encourage and inspire each other, but proved also a powerful instrument for making more people aware of the idea of basic income and ready to take it seriously. The first two conferences (in Louvain-la-Neuve in 1986 and Antwerp 1988) were very modest, low-budget events. The first grand congress was organized by Edwin Morley-Fletcher, with the support of Italy’s Lega Nazionale delle Cooperative e Mutue at the European University Institute (Florence) in September 1990. I thought at the time that organizing such big and expensive events would be unsustainable. But I was proved wrong by a long and so far uninterrupted succession of enthusiastic conference organizers.

Eduardo Suplicy (photo CC BY 2.0 Senado Federal)

Eduardo Suplicy (CC BY 2.0 Senado Federal)

The second greatest success — and the second virtue of a good network — is to have kept expanding. As time went on, more and more people from outside Europe attended BIEN’s congresses. Among them, Brazilian Senator Eduardo Suplicy, who started suggesting, from 1998 onwards, that the Basic Income European Network should become the Basic Income Earth Network. Guy Standing was sympathetic to the suggestion from the start. I was very skeptical at first, partly because I knew too well how hard it had been to keep our little European network going, and partly because I thought that a broad interest in basic income could only arise in countries that experienced for a sufficiently long time the perverse effects of conditional income schemes. But by 2004, 25 percent of BIEN’s life members were from outside Europe. Moreover, in January 2004, Eduardo managed to get President Lula to sign his “basic income law”. And the internet was conquering the world. My resistance evaporated. At the Barcelona congress, in September 2004, the General Assembly approved our proposal to make BIEN a worldwide network.

Can these greatest successes be called memorable? Not really. A network acts discreetly in the background. It empowers its components, thereby helping them do a number of things, including memorable ones. Would there have been a basic income law in Brazil or a basic income referendum in Switzerland in the absence of the slow maturing and dissemination of the idea made possible by the existence of a lasting and expanding network? And would they stick as firmly in many people’s memories without an efficient and influential network that confers them a memorable rather than anecdotal status?

Can these greatest successes be called memorable? Not really. A network acts discreetly in the background.

What have been the biggest challenges?

Apart from the material concerns already mentioned, I can think of two main challenges. One is linguistic. Opting for English as the sole language of a European network was far less obvious thirty years ago than it has now become. There were voices rightly pointing out the elitism involved in this choice. In most countries, only bilinguals (or more) could be involved. Yet, given the resources available, only the monolingual formula was realistic. Consequently, a constant effort was required, far from fully successful, to correct the imbalance thereby created along many dimensions: from the overrepresentation of news and publications from Anglophone countries to the overrepresentation of Anglophones among active participants in our congresses or assemblies.

The other challenge is sectarianism. When people sharing the same conviction form an association, there is a danger that their meetings and publications will largely reduce to a rehearsal of the common faith and a denunciation of the stupidity or wickedness of those who don’t share it. It has been crucial to the vitality and impact of BIEN that it has resisted such sectarian degeneration. It has kept inviting to its congresses speakers who spoke against basic income. It has kept reporting in a fair way on criticisms and setbacks. And it has kept insisting that its membership is open to people “committed to or interested in” an unconditional basic income in a precise yet broad sense that does not stipulate a specific funding method, rationale, level or set of accompanying measures.


Has BIEN ever run the risk of dying?

Twice, I think. First, it could have been still-born. Driven by the pioneers’ enthusiasm, the initial plan, at the September 1986 founding conference, was to hold a conference every year, and someone offered to hold the next one in Maastricht in September 1987. But the proposal fell through and instead there followed a long silence. It is only in February 1988 that BIEN’s first newsletter was sent out, announcing a second conference, which Walter Van Trier, BIEN’s first secretary, managed to put together in Antwerp, in September 1988.

The second time agony seemed close was in the mid-nineties. With my four children, Louvain’s Hoover Chair to run and my Real Freedom for All nearing completion, I was struggling to combine the jobs of BIEN secretary and newsletter editor. To my great relief, at the London 1994 congress, a founding member who was hardly involved until then agreed to become the newsletter editor. I still dealt with the first issue following the congress, but thereafter, despite many reminders and repeated promises, nothing happened for many months. I took back the editor job and laboriously published a treble Christmas 1995 issue, after a full year gap. It made me realize both how crucial a newsletter is to the very existence of a network and how important it is for the sustainability of a network that people should only commit to what they are really able to do.


Philippe Van Parijs (photo credit: Enno Schmidt)

Philippe Van Parijs (photo credit: Enno Schmidt)

What do you see as BIEN’s biggest challenges moving forward?

One big challenge is to keep track of the countless fast swelling stream of relevant developments worldwide and to make their nature and significance intelligible to people across the world. Internet is no doubt a fabulous asset for a worldwide network. But working out the right hierarchy, in terms of relevance, significance and reliability, among the mass of information to which we now have easy access is both essential and difficult. BIEN’s current team is doing a terrific job in this respect.

Another challenge is to constantly find the right balance between utopianism and pragmatism, between on the one hand an attractive, stirring vision of a better world that can boost our hopes and stimulate our actions and on the other an acute, clear-headed awareness of difficulties, obstacles, defeats and disappointments.


What do you see as most exciting?

The fact that so many different people in such different countries discover, discuss and appropriate the idea and that this helps them regain the hope they had lost in a better future for themselves and for their children.


Philippe Van Parijs has been chair of BIEN’s international board since 2004. He was the organizer of BIEN’s founding conference (Louvain-la-Neuve, 1986), BIEN’s newsletter editor from 1988 to 2004, BIEN’s secretary from 1994 to 2004. He is the author (with Yannick Vanderborght) of Basic Income: A radical proposal for a free society and a sane economy, Harvard University Press, Spring 2017.

Cover Photo: Van Parijs at BIEN’s 30th Anniversary event (credit: Enno Schmidt). 

VIDEO: BIEN’s 30th Anniversary Reunion

VIDEO: BIEN’s 30th Anniversary Reunion

This fall, BIEN celebrated 30th anniversary of its founding. Video recordings of its founders’ reunion are available online.  

On October 1, several founding members and other past and present BIEN leaders — comprising three generations of basic income advocates — united at the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium for a conference held in commemoration of the occasion in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of UCLouvain’s Hoover Chair of economic and social ethics and the retirement of BIEN cofounder Philippe van Parijs as its director. (See also a Basic Income News interview in which Philippe discusses the past, present, and future of BIEN.)  

Reflecting on the event and the history of BIEN, Belgian entrepreneur and long-time basic income advocate Roland Duchâtelet said:

What impresses me most is that during the 30 years of BIEN many different personalities expressed many different views regarding UBI models, implementation, and the way the organisation should behave… and yet, I do not believe there have been any defectors. Moreover, despite the highly diverse background of the members and their desire to succeed, the organisation managed to keep its harmony.

To me this was the prevailing feeling of the 30th anniversary event: we are a (strong) group of friends.

Roland Duchalet (photo credit: Enno Schmidt)

Roland Duchatelet (credit: Enno Schmidt)

For Jose Luis Rey Pérez (Adjunct Professor of Philosophy of Law at Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Madrid), BIEN’s 30th anniversary event rekindled memories of studying with van Parijs and others at UCL years earlier:

I was in Chair Hoover [in UCL] two months in April and May 2003, while I was writing my PhD. I learnt a lot from Philippe van Parijs during that time, and I had the opportunity to read everything that was published about basic income in that time. (In those years where books and articles were not on internet like now.) I had also the opportunity to share coffees, time and discussions with Axel Gosseries, Hervois Portouis, Yannick Vanderborght, Jurgen De Wispelaere and Myron Frankman who were in the Chair at that time.

It was nice, 13 years later, to listen and learn again from some authors that I have studied deeply. I wish Philippe a very rich retirement. I know that he will continue through his conferences, books and articles to enrich the philosophical thought. We have a lot of things to learn from him yet. Because he is one of the best philosophers of this XXI century.

Two other attendees, Bonno Pel and Julia Backhaus of the TRANsformative Social Innovation Theory (TRANSIT) research project, have written an extended feature article on the event (“BIEN Celebrates Thirty Years: Basic income, a utopia for our times?), looking at the 2016 UCL event as a reflection of (a photo of) the founding meeting in 1986.


Video Footage

Belgian filmmaker Steven Janssens videotaped six conference sessions: (1) BIEN’s improvised birth, (2) Basic income implemented in the short and the long run (note: a parallel session on the history of basic income was not recorded), (3) Lessons from the Swiss referendum, (4) Promises and limits of past and future experiments, (5) Moving forward, (6) Final reflections.

(Janssens is also the driving force behind the documentary about a basic income pilot in a Ugandan village, with a planned launch date of October 2018.)


1. BIEN’s Improvised Birth: Testimonies by Some Co-founders

Featuring Philippe van Parijs, Paul-Marie Boulanger, Annie Miller, Guy Standing, Claus Offe, and Robert van der Veen.


2. Basic Income Implemented in the Short and the Long Run

Featuring Philippe Defeyt (“An income-tax-funded basic income of EUR 600”), David Rosseels (“A micro-tax on electronic payments”), and Karl Widerquist (“Sovereign funds and basic income”).


3. Lessons from the Swiss Referendum

Featuring Nenad Stojanovic and Enno Schmidt.


4. Promises and Limits of Past and Future Experiments

Featuring Yannick Vanderborght (overview), Guy Standing (on India), Jurgen De Wispelaere (on Finland), Alexander de Roo (on The Netherlands).


5. Moving Forward

Featuring Louise Haagh, Stanislas Jourdan, Roland Duchatelet, Yasmine Kherbache.


6. Final Reflections

Featuring Claus Offe, Gérard Roland, Joshua Cohen, Erik O. Wright.

Reviewed by Tyler Prochazka.

Cover Photo: BIEN’s 30th anniversary renunion , credit Enno Schmidt.


Will basic income lower crime?

Will basic income lower crime?

This week, I had the opportunity to be a guest on New York University’s Students for Criminal Justice Reform podcast. I spoke with Thurston Powers about the positive effects a basic income may have on American society.

One overlooked potential benefit is the effect of basic income on crime rates. I noted that a basic income could create more stable households and increase the likelihood of parents spending time with their children. Unstable and low-income households are linked with creating long-term issues for children that grow up in these situations.

Those that critically point out single mothers work slightly less under a basic income do not understand this is probably a good thing. Considering it is single mothers in the data that show reduced work hours, it is likely they are spending their extra time raising their child. In the long-run, raising a well-adjusted adult will produce social and economic dividends.

In fact, research shows that basic income experiments have resulted in increased social cohesion. Studies have shown increased school attendance after the introduction of a basic income-type grant. In Namibia, there was about a 40 percent drop in crime in areas where the basic income was introduced.

While it is highly probable the basic income would improve some of the factors that lead to crime, I said in the podcast there is virtually no chance a basic income could increase crime. Frankly, the conservative narrative surrounding welfare is just not true.

The problem is not that welfare recipients become lazy, it is that the structure of welfare can discourage work. This is because welfare benefits diminish sharply as low-income individuals improve their wages — which is precisely why a basic income is more effective.

I also noted that most research demonstrates that overall people will not work less, and in some cases may work more if it benefits them, under a basic income. For libertarians that are interested in creating an effective solution to deal with the upcoming wave of automation, a basic income is the most efficient answer.

Listen to the full podcast below:


Neither universal nor individual nor unconditional

Neither universal nor individual nor unconditional

Written By: Pierre Madden

It is Voltaire who quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. I am convinced that Basic Income will be implemented in the next decade. By its definition, BI is universal, individual and unconditional. However, none of these features will be a part of BI as it first materializes.

A universal demogrant is just too expensive to contemplate, except in Alaska where oil revenue is distributed to every man, woman and child. Giving the same amount to everybody only to claw it back in taxes from most, while philosophically pure, flies in the face of common sense. That is why all serious proposals are structured as a negative income tax (NIT). In fact, there are already features in the Canadian federal and provincial fiscal systems that function as NIT with regular cash transfers.

The basic unit in our society is the family. Statistics are kept by households. An individual is no more than a couple divided by the square root of two. This is in part just the common-sense recognition of the economies of scale of collective living. It is not four times as expensive to live as a family of four than to live alone, only two times (i.e.: cost of living alone times the square root of four). In Québec, two individuals sharing an apartment would each receive $623 per month for a total of $1,246. At some point, the government will consider them to be living in a “common law marriage” and cut the benefits to $965 in total (the government does not follow the square root rule). The fact that you do not sleep together or that you are siblings is not a defence. Across the board individuality would raise the problem of “the banker’s wife.” The banker is very rich but his wife who benefits from his wealth has no income of her own and would therefore qualify for any income subsidies. Of course, it has been argued forcefully that these women are often trapped in their gilded cage, unable to escape an abusive marriage, for instance.

Finally, governments are reluctant to abandon conditionality of benefits, a paternalistic remnant of the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor. A liberal democracy’s commitment to providing everyone with a quality education, for example, is not paternalism but the recognition of a basic right. This right is expanding to include people in their late twenties and early thirties as jobs for this generation disappear and those that are left require more qualifications. All non-health-related government benefits today are based on the condition of job seeking. The benefits themselves must in no way compromise the incentive to work. Part of the justification for this is economic, the fear that wages will skyrocket, profits will plummet and the economy will collapse if no one is willing to work anymore. Another part is ideological; education and work are seen as developing and preserving “human capital.” Government wisdom rather than individual freedom decides how that is defined.

While I am optimistic that Basic Income will see the light of day in my lifetime, I am prepared to accept an imperfect version and leave to future generations the task of improving it.


Author biography: Pierre Madden is a zealous dilettante based in Montreal. He has been a linguist, a chemist, a purchasing coordinator, a production planner and a lawyer. His interest in Basic Income, he says, is personal. He sure could use it now!

Canada: Meet the minister who wrote the book on Basic Income

Canada: Meet the minister who wrote the book on Basic Income

Written by: Pierre Madden

On November 12 and 13 I attended a congress of the Liberal Party of Quebec, which is currently in power in the province.

The Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity, François Blais, confirmed that a joint working group, with his colleague in Finance, will issue a preliminary report on Basic Income in the Spring. Our neighbouring province of Ontario (which, together with Quebec accounts for 62 percent of the population of Canada) was just released a working paper on a pilot project to begin in April 2017. Quebec does not seem to be leaning towards a pilot project.

In his talk, Minister Blais placed much emphasis on the principles underlying the development of the government’s project:

  • The development of human capital (though education, for example)
  • The obligation of protection from certain risks (with unemployment insurance and health insurance, for example)
  • Income redistribution

The minister’s speech was highly focused on incentives to work or study (especially for the illiterate or those without a high school diploma).

The principle of unconditionality, a fundamental aspect of Basic Income, will likely not be a feature of the government’s plan.

On the second day of the congress it was the minister’s turn to ask me if he had answered my question. I described my own situation as a case in point. I am 62, three years away from my public pension which here in Canada is sufficient to raise most people out of poverty (works for me!). Why would the government be interested in the development of my human capital? The minister replies: “In a case like yours, we would have to go back in time to see what choices you made.” I have several university diplomas, which doesn’t help his argument. I am still either underemployed or unemployable.

The minister could only answer: “I would have to know more about your individual case.”

And that is what the government does and will continue to do for all those considered “fit for work.” Petty bureaucratic inconveniences for those “unfit for work” will be removed and their inadequate benefits will be improved by dipping into the funds previously used for the “fit” as they return to the workforce. The government sees no difficulty in a law it passed just last week (Bill 70: An Act to allow a better match between training and jobs and to facilitate labour market entry). The government highlights the positive measures it imposes to help participants join the job market. Those who prefer a non-paternalistic approach (“Give me the money and let me make my own decisions”) are penalized.

The irony is that before he entered politics Minister Blais actually wrote a book in support of Basic Income for all. He confirmed to me that he still believes what he wrote 15 years ago.

In Canada, both the federal and the provincial governments partially reimburse sales tax. Here in Quebec, the Solidarity Tax Credit refunds part of the estimated sales tax paid by consumers. The higher your income, the lower the monthly payout, so it works like a negative income tax. The minister was asked about this as a stepping stone towards Basic Income. He simply said it would be “a more radical approach.” Of course, tax credits don’t impact on “human capital.”

You can be sure I will be rereading François Blais’ book when his work-group’s report comes out next year.


About the author: Pierre Madden is a zealous dilettante based in Montreal. He has been a linguist, a chemist, a purchasing coordinator, a production planner and a lawyer. His interest in Basic Income, he says, is personal. He sure could use it now!

Netherlands: Thirty years of Basic Income

Netherlands: Thirty years of Basic Income

By Alexander de Roo

The discussion about basic income has changed completely.

Thirty years ago, it was a very principled debate. High unemployment. No future. Thus, give us a basic income, because the system cannot give us paid work. The counter argument was you must do paid work to receive an income. A basic income is morally unacceptable.

How different is the discussion now: when we go out and hand leaflets in the streets, 50 to 90 percent of the population takes our leaflets (50 percent in rich area’s and 90 percent in poor neighborhoods). The most common reaction is: basic income is a good idea, but how do you finance it? Who pays for it?

A very pragmatic discussion no longer principles banging against each another.

Alexander de Roo at BIEN's 30th Anniversary event (credit: Enno Schmidt)

Alexander de Roo at BIEN’s 30th Anniversary event (credit: Enno Schmidt)

The confidence in the present social system in The Netherlands is shaken compared to 30 years ago. Previously you got five years’ unemployment money and one could easily look for another job. Now even middle class people lose their well-paid job and after two years of unemployment money must ‘eat up’ (meaning sell) their own house to get social assistant money…. five million people have a steady, normal contract. That is ten percent less than ten years ago. Two million people have flexible contracts for bull-shit jobs, two million people live from social benefits (in different forms), one million people are independent professionals without access to unemployment money (ZZP or freelancers), the pension age keeps going up (now 67 years), while people above 50 years have zero (or realistically around 1 percent) changes on the labor market.

But the Netherlands is still one the five or ten richest countries in the world!

The two biggest newspapers held polls about basic income! About 40 – 44 percent comes out in favor. A reliable national poll measured 40 percent in favor, 45 percent against and 15 percent do not know. The majority of the electorate of the green and left parties are in favor. With the two right wing parties it is the opposite: their electorate is against: “we are working hard and do not want to pay a basic income for these (lazy) people that just want to have a basic income”.

Most interesting is that the voters for the Freedom party of Mister Wilders (our local Trump) are divided: 37 percent in favor and 46 percent against, 17 percent don’t know. Almost the same as the national average! Politically we must use this.

But the leaders of the green and left wing parties do not take up the issue of a basic income. They stick to repairing /amending the old social system. They think (and hope) the economy is recovering, unemployment will fall and then this basic income discussion will go away like it did around the year 2000.

But they are wrong we have now one year economic recovery: the result 12,000 new steady jobs and 78,000 flexible low-value jobs. The flexibility of the labor market keeps growing. We will turn back the clock on these flex jobs; providing more jobs is the answer of the green and left wing leaders.

Our answer is to increase our support for the basic income alternative in the upcoming national elections March 15, 2017. Around 60,000 people signed a petition for a basic income in 2018. Demonstrating that 800 € for every citizen in the Netherlands is easily affordable and that even 1,100 € is easily financed.

After the elections, we will work with respectable institutions to come up with a transition route from the present situation to a full basic income.

Annotation: A basic income of 800 € requires 10 billion € more per year then the present situation, 1,100 € will cost around 30 billion euro more. The present government (Conservatives + Social democrats) have cut the state expenditure with 30 billion € and raised indirect taxes with 16 billion euro’s: in total 56 billion in the last 4 years.

Alexander de Roo is a founder of BIEN in 1986, former BIEN treasurer (1986-2004), and now Chairman of the Dutch branch of BIEN.