Interview: Basic income should ‘focus on people’

Interview: Basic income should ‘focus on people’

Portuguese basic income activist Miguel Horta is pushing for a basic income “for all.” Horta wants to ensure that the people control their basic income, not the government.

Horta is an employee of Portugal’s Finance Ministry, where he deals with tax avoidance issues. He originally heard about the “gratuity of life” from Agostinho da Silva. Eventually he came across basic income, and believed there was a close connection between the two ideas.

From there, Horta developed a financing scheme for Portugal.

In October, Horta was interviewed by Basic Income Korea Network’s Hysong Ahn. The interview was originally published in Korea’s The Times. The full interview can be found below.

Miguel Horta, on left. Hyosang Ahn , on right.


First, can you tell us about your previous employment, and your current role in the UBI movement?

I worked as a tax inspector for the Portuguese government since 1995.

My position in the movement Basic Income of All for All is that of a member equal to all the others. Our movement does not assign specific functions to its members, nor does it have any kind of hierarchy.

What are your personal and group activities since you adopted the basic income idea in the early 1990s?

Despite being ready for it since the 1990s, as I said before, personally I had no activity related to basic income before 2013. That’s when I heard about an organized activist group on the internet for the first time, and I joined it.

In the first two or three years of activism, my activity was essentially to participate in public discussions about basic income, especially on the internet, and to study the question of its financing.

Later, we founded our local movement in Lisbon and began to organize public events to discuss the idea; to get in touch with other organizations and activist groups from other causes, to show them the basic income proposals; and, whenever we have the opportunity, organize debates on basic income with students in secondary schools.

We are also active on the internet, with a blog, a YouTube channel and a Facebook page.

Explain the differences between the movement “Basic Income of All for All’ and the other groups or persons in the basic income movement in Portugal.

Other groups and individuals generally conceive of basic income as the demand for a “right” made by the people from the State or, if not from the State, from central banks, the financial sector, or large corporations. This is a conception of basic income as a “top-down” program, a program of power, be it political, monetary, or economic power.

In contrast, our movement conceives of basic income as a construction of ordinary people, who will emancipate themselves and make a different society happen, by their own efforts and for their own good.

So, our basic income model is different because it is a people’s program. This has important implications. One is this: we are convinced that a basic income made by any of those “powers” I mentioned will probably end up being put to the service of that same power. In a matter of time, a basic income offered by a government will eventually be used by that same government, or, if not the same, by other future governments, for their own electoral purposes or, in a worse scenario, to keep population under its control. Similarly, a basic income offered by an economic power will likely be put at the service of the economy; one offered by a monetary power will most probably be used as a mere tool to manage inflation rates, and so on. The basic income we propose, on the contrary, being directly financed and controlled by ordinary people, is much more likely to remain at the exclusive service of the people.

Moreover, the basic income models other groups and individuals advocate are often shaped to fit in and to be friendly to their previous ideologies or causes. For instance, that’s the case of a basic income financed with taxes over capital, as a way of favoring the working class; or with taxes over speculative financial operations, as a way of favoring a moralization of financial practices; or with taxes over alcohol, as a way of favoring people’s health, and so on.

Our movement is different here too. For us, basic income should not be the way to serve any other cause apart from everybody’s freedom and dignity. For that purpose, we focus only on people, not on particular population groups (such as the rich and the poor, workers and capitalists, “good consumers” and “bad consumers”, etc.), and the goal is everyone to be treated absolutely the exact same way, as equal peers, through the process of solidarity we conceived, which requires the same effort from all and gives the same benefit to all.

So, the idea that animates our movement differs from others also in this: we do not want basic income to favor one social or economic group over another. We want to benefit all individuals, and we like to see our proposal as a way to reconcile interests and promote the best for absolutely everyone in society.

Is the Portuguese government likely to accept the plan your group proposed?

The Portuguese government doesn’t seem ready to accept it at the moment. I hope that will happen in the future, but it will depend on the support we can find within the Portuguese society, and perhaps abroad.

Of course, we are aware that it will probably be easier for a government to please their citizens by offering them some sort of “helicopter money”, without requiring any active role or effort from them, than to allow a scheme that assigns such role and demands such efforts, as ours does.

Either way, we will be doing our best to present our idea and to encourage people to consciously decide the solution they will support.

What began your interest in Basic Income?

I was ready to adopt the idea since the early 1990s, when I heard an old man declaring on TV: “Men were not born to work, but to create”. The man’s name was Agostinho da Silva, a Portuguese mystic and poet, who used to talk and write a lot about a future in which machines would do all the work, while people would create, contemplate, improve themselves or do whatever they wanted. His message made total sense to me, and so, many years later, when I first heard the name “basic income”, I understood it immediately as the path to the future that Agostinho da Silva used to talk about, and I joined the cause that same minute.

What aspects of Basic Income do you focus on?

When I first started working on the idea, my first focus was on the financial question: how to finance a basic income, from what source, and what financial effects it would have, both for people and for the State sphere.

But I’ve shifted my focus since then. Now my main interest is to understand the profound implications of different models of basic income on people’s freedom, sense of purpose and attitude towards material goods.

Explain the current situation of basic income movement in Portugal. And what is your evaluation?

The movement seems to be growing slowly but steadily. The number of activists and the public actively involved in the discussion, both on the internet and in face-to-face events, have grown in recent years.

And the movement is growing not only in numbers but also in maturity, as people involved become aware of the wide variety of different things “basic income” can potentially become (being possible to classify as “basic income” not only different but even opposite schemes, in their essential features).

This is what enabled us in Lisbon to create an organized group to defend a single one of all these possibilities, something impossible two or three years ago. I’m talking, of course, about the movement “Basic Income of All for All”.

What is the political and philosophical background of your basic income scheme?

It is the conviction that solidarity among people is the right foundation for a society.

A community where people are bound by mutual solidarity will promote the best possible life for all. Although you might say that this is a mere personal inclination – in the sense that I just prefer to believe in this rather than the opposite – the idea is nevertheless reinforced by the recognition that all ancient human societies were based on solidarity. In the tribe, the hunted animal did not belong to its hunter, but to all in the group. In the tribe everybody shared the same luck and resources, and looked after each other. This is how humankind lived for hundreds of thousands of years – the most of our time on Earth – until the rise of the first sophisticated civilizations and empires, and, mostly, before the emergence of the “empire” of capitalism; which now rules everywhere, shaping human societies with the values of competition rather than cooperation, and accumulation instead of sharing. Clearly, this is not fostering our freedom or happiness as the “old” solidarity would.

Do you have any strategy to introduce the basic income scheme in Portugal?

In fact, I developed a plan for that purpose a few months ago, and together with my fellow members of the movement Basic Income of All for All, we took the plan to the Portuguese Minister of Labor, Solidarity, and Social Security.

In very simplified terms, the plan is to create a governmental pilot program, allowing small local communities to apply and, in those accepted, exempt voluntary members from national personal income tax, provided they begin to share a part (half) of their income between them.

So, this would begin to be applied in voluntary communities and, in these, by volunteer persons. In these communities, a common fund would then be created, and the volunteers would start putting half of all their incomes, of any source, in it. At the end of each month, the fund’s accumulated total would be equally and unconditionally distributed by them, creating for the participants a basic income based on local solidarity.
The government would manage the scale of the pilot program at will. It may start with one or two communities and then, if the results turn out to be good and there are other communities willing to do the same, expand the program in succession until, in the limit, it becomes a nationwide program.

In the Portuguese reality, the impact on the State budget of such a scheme should not be negative, mainly because the creation of the universal income guarantee would render a wide range of social programs useless, thus allowing savings of amounts close to the lost revenue of the personal income tax for the State.

As for the Portuguese government’s response, we are still waiting for it…In any case, the plan does not depend exclusively on that answer; it can be applied anywhere in the world.

Interview by:

Hysong Ahn, Basic Income Korea Network

Edited by:

Tyler Prochazka

André Coelho (contributed to introduction)

BIEN Celebrates Thirty Years: Basic income, a utopia for our times?

BIEN Celebrates Thirty Years: Basic income, a utopia for our times?

Original post can be found at TRANSIT

Written by Bonno Pel & Julia Backhaus

On Saturday October 1st 2016, the Basic Income Earth Network celebrated its 30th anniversary at the Catholic University of Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium). The picture shows the founding meeting in 1986, but is also quite applicable to BIEN 30 years later. The conference was held at the same location and many of the founders and their fellow militants met in good atmosphere to commemorate the early beginnings of the network. Together with other scholars and generally interested people, they discussed current developments in science and policy and ‘the way forward’ for the basic income movement.

Image source:
picture source

An unconditional income for all

First, the picture is telling for the ways in which BIEN pursues transformative social innovation, namely through the development, discussion and dissemination of persuasive “new framings” and “new knowings”. The seminar room in the picture gathers several individuals who by now have become eminent scholars in economy, social philosophy or sociology. Over the course of three decades and together with activists, politicians and citizens, BIEN members have developed a whole complex of arguments, evidence and framings around the basic income. The idea itself is simple: An unconditional, individual income entitlement, more or less sufficient for fulfilling basic needs, promises real freedom for all.

It offers individual empowerment in the form of income security and the material conditions for a self-determined existence in society, but it is also in many aspects about changing social relations: between men and women (as the conventional breadwinner model is challenged by individual income entitlements), between employed and unemployed (as stigmatization lessens when entitlement is universal rather than for the ‘unproductive’ only), and between employee and employer (the latter’s possibilities to exploit the former are decreased by the basic income security). In current institutional-ideological constellations, the idea of a basic income is bizarre and outrageous for rewarding jobless ‘free-riders’. Apparently relinquishing hard-earned social security arrangements, BIEN members met (and continue to meet) with tough press, sidelining them as ‘irresponsible freaks’. Yet the power of BIEN members’ socially innovative agency resides in showing that it is actually many common ideas about work and income that are outdated, and harmful even.

Claus Offe (credit: Enno Schmidt)

Claus Offe (credit: Enno Schmidt)

Impressive examples of outdated conceptions were provided by prof. Claus Offe, who argued that we do not earn our income, as commonly believed. Wage flows from labour that forms part of ever-extending production chains of individuals and machines. The availability of jobs fluctuates cyclically, and independently from individuals’ employability efforts. Moreover, the current productivity in highly industrialized countries is possible because ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants’. It is largely inherited from previous generations. So it is rather the current insistence on employability, on meritocracy and on ‘earning one’s income’ that is out of tune with economic reality. Production has become post-individual, and this requires a matching social security system. Harmful effects of a capitalist system that ignores its obviously collective character through individualist ideology include blaming the losers and accepting precarious conditions for some. Economist Gérard Roland outlined how the basic income provides a better trade-off between labor market flexibility and precariousness than current social security arrangements. Sociologist Erik O. Wright views the basic income as a “subversive, anti-capitalist project”. He expanded how the concept allows moving on from merely taming to escaping the globalized, capitalist system. For him, the basic income can provide the basis for numerous social innovations that also the TRANSIT project considers, such as social and solidarity economy initiatives or co-operatives.

BIEN thriving on internal differences: many streams forming a river

Second, based on the variance of people’s clothing, the picture above also visualizes how BIEN has developed as an association of very different individuals. At the conference various founding members recalled the routes they had traveled towards the transformative concept. They arrived at the idea on the search for liberalist re-interpretations of Marx, through feminist commitments, when rethinking meritocracy, as a response to the structural unemployment of the time, or as a logical conclusion of a transforming and ‘robotizing’ economy. The forthcoming case study report on BIEN by yours truly spells out in more detail how these different little streams came to ‘form a river’, as expressed by a founding member. The internal differences between the generally principled and intellectually sharp BIEN members led to fierce debates, it was recalled. According to a longstanding motor, evangelizer and lobbyist for the basic income, BIEN has only survived as a network for members’ capacity to ‘step back a bit’ from their ideological disputes at times, and to recognize what united them. BIEN even thrived on its internal divisions. It functioned as a discussion platform, and helped to institutionalize basic income as a research field. Since 2006, there is even an academic journal on this example of transformative social innovation: Basic Income Studies.

Evolving communication: spreading the word

Philippe Van Parijs (credit: Enno Schmidt)

Philippe Van Parijs (credit: Enno Schmidt)

Third, the black and white photo immediately suggests how different the world was three decades ago. At the time of founding, network members and conference participants from various countries had to be recruited through letters. Initially, the newsletter was printed out, put in envelopes and stamped, for which members gratefully sent envelopes with pesetas, Deutschmarks and all the other European currencies, subsequently converted at the bank by standard bearer professor Philippe Van Parijs and his colleagues. Today’s e-mail, website and Youtube recordings obviously make a crucial difference when it comes to facilitating discussion and spreading the word fast and wide – especially for this social innovation that primarily travels in the form of ideas. The presentations on the history of basic income underlined the significance of the communication infrastructure. The history of basic income can be conceived of as a long line of individuals working in relative isolation, often not knowing of others developing similar thoughts and blueprints. The evolution of BIEN very instructively shows the importance of evolving communication channels and knowledge production for transformative social innovation – critical, weakly-positioned, under-resourced individuals no longer need to re-invent the wheel in isolation.

BIEN, a research community? Ways forward

A fourth, telling element the picture above is the confinement of the seminar room. There have been discussions about BIEN’s existence as a researchers’ community, with the expert-layman divides it entails (during this meeting of experts, yours truly fell somewhat in the latter category). There are in fact also other networks of basic income proponents that have rather developed as citizen’s initiatives and activist networks. BIEN, as a network that can boast such a high degree of conceptual deepening and specialization, is illustrative for the ways in which it remains confined in its own room. It is significant in this respect that the current co-chair brought forward two lines along which the network should reach out more. First, BIEN should be more receptive towards and engaging with the various attempts to re-invent current welfare state arrangements. While this may imply using a more practical language and taking off the sharp edges it may yield real contributions to social security. Often these change processes (regarding less stringent workfare policies, for example) are not undertaken under spectacular headings and transformative banners, but they involve application of some basic income tenets such as unconditional income entitlements. A second line for outreaching confirms the importance of comparative research into transformative social innovation like TRANSIT: The co-chair highlighted that BIEN will explore and develop its linkages with other initiatives, such as Timebanks and alternative agriculture movements more actively.

Basic income: a ‘powerful idea, whose time has come?’

Fifth and finally, the seminar room setting depicted in the photo raises attention to the knowledge production that BIEN has been and is involved in. The socially innovative agency of its members can be characterized as ‘speaking truth to power’. Basic income activism has taken the shape of critiques, pamphlets and counterfactual storylines (Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ being a 500 year-old example), but also featured modeling exercises, forecasts, and economic evidence to support the case. BIEN members’ key resource is their expertise. Moreover, considering the strong arguments and evidence gathered in favor of the basic income over the past decades, there are reasons to be confident in basic income ending up as the ‘powerful idea, whose time has come’. As described in Pel & Backhaus (2016) and currently considered further, it is remarkable how much BIEN seems to have developed in line with the trend of evidence-based policy. The commitment to hard evidence gives rise to an important internal discussion on the recent developments towards basic income-inspired experimentation (such as in Finland and in the Netherlands). The common stance of BIEN members is that these experiments fall short of providing any reliable evidence for their limited duration and scope, and for the system-confirming evaluative frameworks that tend to accompany them. However, there is also a somewhat growing attentiveness to the broader societal significance of experiments and pilots in terms of legitimization, awareness-raising and media exposure. It is therefore instructive for the development of TSI theory to study the basic income case for the new ways in which ‘socially innovative knowings’ are co-produced and disseminated.

About the authors:

Bono Pel (Université libre de Bruxelles; and Julia Backhaus (Maastricht University; are working on TRANSIT (TRANsformative Social Innovation Theory), an international research project that aims to develop a theory of transformative social innovation that is useful to both research and practice. They are studying the basic income as a case of social innovation, focusing on national and international basic income networks and initiatives.

INTERNATIONAL: BIEN participates in CO-ACTE meetings

INTERNATIONAL: BIEN participates in CO-ACTE meetings

(Monte Alentejano. Credit to: Álvaro Duarte @Reflexos Online)

The Co-Chair of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), Louise Haagh, and lead Basic Income News Editor, André Coelho, have participated in two recent CO-ACTE meetings, the latest of which finished on the 28th of June, 2016.

The CO-ACTE project began in June 2015, after 10 years of development of a notion of well-being, brought from the local to the European scale by civic movements. This development – based on direct consultation with populations and using a methodology named the SPIRAL approach – is now managed by the network TOGETHER, “which formally and informally gathers all participating territories”. Its main task and greatest success to date has been the “co-construction of a shared vision of the well-being of all”, following consultation with more than 12,000 citizens, gathered into 120 groups and based in 20 countries (both European and African).

In order to fulfil its aim, the CO-ACTE project is creating a citizen’s movement which can translate popular expressions of well-being for all into public policies that can, in a co-responsible way, be implemented at local, regional, national and European levels, “without discrimination or exclusion”. To achieve this, Samuel Thirion and his staff at TOGETHER (with headquarters in Odemira, Portugal) have organized several international meetings. These started in Odemira, and have since taken place in Bordeaux, Gloucester and Viana do Castelo (with further meetings planned in Romania (Timisoara) and Belgium (Charleroi and Braine-l’Alleud)).

Samuel Thirion

Samuel Thirion

These meetings gather activists and leaders from several associations and countries, which can help turn this vision of well-being for all, generated via population consultations, into policy ideas which can, in turn, eventually become a reality in our society. These activists and leaders, including Time Banks, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups, Social Pharmacies, Zero Waste organizations, Fair Trade, Basic Income and municipality leaders, among others, get together in these meetings to discuss how their own activity and expertise in innovative ways of creating, working and living could be used to turn vision into policy.

It was in the context of this effort to get different groups talking to each other and thinking about policies to promote the well-being of all that TOGETHER contacted BIEN, soliciting the participation of Louise Haagh and André Coelho in these meetings. BIEN’s participation up until now, in both the Gloucester and Odemira meetings, has mainly involved providing general information on and advocating for basic income, responding to questions and learning from other participants. The activist environment both inspires and propels discussions that get every participant a bit closer to the basic income concept, since many are not yet familiar with it.

The next meeting is scheduled for the 16th and 17th of September, to be held in Timisoara, Romania, and Louise Haagh and André Coelho’s attendance is already confirmed.


More information at:

CO-ACTE website

Lessons from Finland: think BIG but act with pragmatism

Lessons from Finland: think BIG but act with pragmatism

By Otto Lehto

People have different ideas on what society should look like, but they can still agree that a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) is a good idea. The struggle for BIG should be the struggle for a specific policy measure, not for a utopian ideal. We are trying to make BIG a reality. That’s it. We are engaged in an ambitious project with limited boundaries. We are not trying to find a panacea for world hunger, domestic abuse or global warming. All we need is for a critical mass of people, and a few shrewd politicians, to do the right thing and vote for BIG.

In Finland, nearly 70% of the population supports basic income. For the first time ever, more than half of members of parliament do too. Historically, BIG has been advocated in Finland by the Green Party, the Left Alliance and the Center Party, joined recently by the Pirate Party. Advocates are found in all political parties and across all sectors of society. The Finnish National Union of University Students has officially endorsed a universal basic income, and so have many academics and think tanks. Post and neo-Keynesians are calling for it, as are leftist intellectuals. Even the banker Björn Wahlroos repeatedly endorsed BIG on newspapers and TV shows. He is one of the richest men in the country and a free market enthusiast.

We need a broad consensus if we want basic income to become reality. As recently reported in mainstream news across the world, a basic income experiment is about to be implemented, under the new center-right government headed by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä from the Center Party. The experiment is set to begin in 2017. Hopefully, this is just the prelude to a nation-wide implementation of a universal basic income.

There is nothing wrong in being utopian and in favor of radical solutions. But utopianism is not a necessary condition for engaging in the struggle for BIG. Sometimes it can be a hindrance. As basic income supporters, we may disagree on how high a basic income should be. We may have different views on whether to use the tax system, as in the case of a negative income tax, or social welfare instruments, as with most other forms of BIG. We may see basic income as a socialist principle or a free market mechanism. But we all acknowledge the need for a universal, unconditional and simple solution. We do not have to agree on anything else. We believe that BIG is important, because it does three things:

1) it eradicates absolute poverty;

2) it reduces bureaucracy;

3) it lays the foundation for a new, sustainable relationship between states and markets.

In order to achieve this, we need to build alliances between utopians and realists of different persuasions. At BIEN-Finland, our national branch, we are confronted every day with the various political leanings and aspirations of our members. Our diversity is something we celebrate, even if sometimes it causes friction and animosity. A one-sided approach to basic income would seriously hurt the prospects of BIG becoming a reality.

We should learn from popular struggles that have rallied mass support, such as the campaign for extending the right to vote to women in the late 19th and early 20th century. Universal suffrage was advocated by various classes and social groups. Driven by the same goal, farmers and workers marched together. Women were joined by their husbands. Newspapers representing different interests endorsed the idea. After some time, opposition to it was frowned upon. It was not the exclusive battle of Marxists, or trade unionists, or social liberals, or enlightened aristocrats. It was a struggle owned by the whole population. From a marginal idea, universal suffrage became common sense. The opposition did not disappear overnight. But it gradually lost steam, until it became a remnant of the past, deprived of any real power. BIG will succeed when it will achieve the same broad consensus. Our goal is to make opposition to BIG unfashionable and a little reprehensible.

The danger is not that the “wrong people” like the idea. Rather, the problem is that some people want to appropriate the name to implement different policies. If a proposed basic income is not high enough to cover basic human necessities, like food, shelter and clothing, then it cannot be called basic income. BIG should also not be confused with means-tested grants or workfare schemes. We need to be clear about this. In Finland, the government’s position oscillates between a real basic income and austerity or workfare policies, but public pressure and intellectual debate are creating a space for a BIG experiment.

A universal basic income should gain the support of Marxists, trade unionists, neoliberals, businessmen, teachers, farmers, feminists, tech nerds, American billionaires and Nigerian chicken farmers. The alliance must be broad and deep, and focus on common human needs. The emerging domain of populist politics, increased media attention and the growing intellectual debate around BIG, provide an unprecedented opportunity to further our cause.

Of course, we should not kid ourselves that humanity would finally overcome its differences under the guise of a BIG campaign, nor that left-wing and right-wing interpretations would lead to the same result. BIG organizations should be democratic forums for people from different backgrounds. Some of them are naturally inspired by a variety of utopian visions. Broad-based BIG has the potential to act as a true meeting ground for popular struggle, in which conflicting visions of the good society can strategically talk to each other and put forward a shared, simple solution. People should be able to set aside their differences – at least for a short while.

We may not like all our friends in the movement. Some of our allies are horrible people. (By the way, they probably think the same about you.) But we still have to live together in the same house. If people can, for the time being, agree on basic income, then we have already won. Bickering partisans can still keep on fighting over other issues. Trust me, there will always be something to fight about.

Otto_LehtoSo bite your nails and be wise about strategy. Smile to your enemies. Shake hands with the most awful people. The smiling basic income activist is a silent, deadly assassin. If we want to think BIG, we need to act stealthily. We do not have the luxury to choose our political allies.


Otto Lehto is a philosopher and a political activist. He is the chairman of BIEN Finland.