Editor’s note: The use of the term ‘basic income’ or ‘universal income’ here does not correspond to BIEN’s definition of basic income, since the payments each month will fluctuate with income. ‘Socle citoyen’ corresponds more closely to a Negative Income Tax, adjusted on a monthly basis.
On November 26 2020, the National Assembly voted on the resolution tabled by the group Agir Ensemble launching a public debate on the creation of a universal income called “Socle citoyen.” Why do you welcome this vote?
Marc de Basquiat: This vote is historic for three reasons. First of all, it was very broad, bringing together the votes of deputies belonging to five political groups close to the centre of the political spectrum: LREM, Agir Ensemble, MoDem, Libertés et Territoires, Socialists and related parties. Credit for this result goes to Valérie Petit, a northern representative, who launched and led an informal working group on the Socle citoyen project based on the platform we published in the Observateur on May 4 with the support of 80 co-signatories, including 50 parliamentarians. In-depth work was carried out, with a series of remote (because of Covid) meetings. The 48 deputies who tabled the resolution voted on November 26th really know the stakes and the key principles of the technical solution that we propose to study.
The second reason to applaud is the strong support of the La République En Marche deputies. Seventy of them voted in favour of the Agir Ensemble group’s resolution. At a time when many people have doubts about representative democracy, we can salute here the joint search for consensual solutions for our country by representatives from diverse groups, including the governing party. Let us recall that at its creation in 1988 the Revenu Minimum d’Insertion in 1988 received the deputies almost unanimous support. Yes, a reform as ambitious as the one proposed by this resolution aims to achieve consensus from all parties of the National Assembly. This is the process that Brigitte Bourguignon, Minister Delegate for Autonomy, supported with her speech.
The third reason to celebrate this advance is the fiscal nature of the Socle citoyen proposal that it is to be studied. Let us quote from the enacted text:
“The Socle citoyen is unprecedented in that it combines tax reform and improvements in social benefits. First of all, we propose to establish the universality of income tax: every French person, from the first euro of income, is taxed proportionally. This very fact constitutes being a part of and being responsible to the national community. It links one to the collective destiny and at the same time ensures assistance and solidarity.
With the mechanism of the Socle citoyen, the universal income becomes an individual tax credit, negative or positive. Thanks to tax withholding at the source, calculation and payment are now possible in almost real time. This is one of the great social benefits of this major tax reform: it makes it possible to calculate and automatically pay out the Socle citoyen, based on the universal tax, at the same time the reform achieves universality.
The fact that universal income is approached from a tax perspective revolutionizes the question of its economic feasibility. It is not a question of creating an nth social benefit that is painfully financed, but, first of all, of ensuring that all citizens are involved, in their own way, in the financing of public services. The same “right for all” is possible because, beforehand, we ensure the same “fiscal duty for all.”
Is this a sign that something is changing, at the parliamentary level and elsewhere, with regard to universal basic income?
Despite the trauma of the 2017 presidential campaign and the failure of Benoît Hamon’s project for a Universal Existence Income, many—of all political stripes, I can attest to that—grasped the importance of a transfer mechanism that would automatically guarantee a minimum of resources to everyone, regardless of the vagaries of life. But until recently, we hesitated to talk about it for fear of being suspected of providing a caution for the Hamonist party, Generation-S.
I believe that with the Covid-19 crisis, we all understand that the issues we are facing go far beyond political posturing and partisan arrangements. I am happy that the only Hamonist deputy in the Assembly, Régis Juanico, has lent his voice to the resolution drafted by Liberal deputy Valérie Petit. It is by working together that our elected officials will be able to re-inspire politics!
On the other hand, I am disappointed that no Les Républicains representatives dared to break with a conservative voting directive. The speech of LR deputy Stéphane Viry started well, but its conclusion is saddening:
“The group Les Républicains salutes the willingness of the National Assembly, the most essential forum for public debate, to address this major issue, since it touches on the fight against poverty, for work, and social cohesion. These are all foundations on which to build a social project, national cohesion, dynamism for our country. As part of our efforts, we must constantly, all together, open up new horizons. (…) You are right to put this debate on the table, and our group is very much in favour of a frank reflection on work, on activity for all, on social protection, on the fight against poverty. However, as it stands, as formulated, we will not follow your proposal.”
In 2016, the Senate had carried out a mission of information on basic income, in which all the political movements, from the right to the communists, took part, leading to the formulation of a consensual report that illuminated the way forward. Let us hope that the 11 deputies who voted against the resolution on November 26 will discover, moving forward, that the Socle citoyen has no other ambition than to strengthen cohesion, economic dynamism and fraternity in our country.
What are the liberal arguments to defend the proposal of a universal basic income and what form does it take in this framework?
What seems to me to be common to all liberals—whether one feels on the right or on the left for that matter—is the importance one places on individual choice. A Socle citoyen can be formulated as follows: everyone pools the same share of their income (around 30%) and benefits from the same individual transfer (around 500 euros per month). With this single rule, which is easy to implement using the mechanism of withholding tax, everyone is in the same boat and knows exactly how the income tax they pay or the assistance they receive will evolve according to the events in their lives: change of job or loss of work, marriage or divorce, etc. the impact is always easy to calculate.
Such a proposal is not really a revolution. In fact, for tax households that are subject to the 30% marginal rate, my proposal is just a reformulation of the current tax calculation, with an identical result. For 2020 income, taxpayers in this bracket pay a tax whose monthly calculation is 30% of the taxable income of the previous month, minus €498.52 per tax share (let’s say €500 for a single person and €1,000 for a couple). This would not change much.
The Socle citoyen amounts to applying the tax calculation formula for wealthy taxpayers to everyone! A single person without income who currently lives with an RSA of €497.01 plus a housing allowance would receive €500 and still receive the same housing allowance. No change in his or her case. On the other hand, all other cases of poor and low-income households would be winners, to what extent, depending on what they have today.
You have been defending universal basic income for several years, as president of the Association pour l’Instauration d’un Revenu d’Existence (AIRE) and as a Free Generation expert. Do you think that the coronavirus crisis can bring about a change in opinion?
In March, with the crisis, millions of people discovered unemployment. In restaurants, transport, household services, construction, shops… All these jobs where you work hard, where you get up early. The State has multiplied measures, first by taking over from employers to pay more than half of the wages! We can see that a hazard can bring the bravest of workers to their knees, making them dependent on the community to ensure their subsistence.
This invites everyone to question the solidity of their inclusion in society. Am I in this position only because I deserve it? Do I owe nothing to anyone? How could the country have endured a “laissez-faire” logic, where everyone was left to fend for themselves in order to make a living despite the fear of catching a virus—whose danger was not really understood at the time?
Today, everyone knows they are vulnerable. Everyone has also experienced their own docility! During the first confinement, we were happy to cheer from the windows, it gave us a recreation and a semblance of social interaction. But deep down, we really understood that we are vulnerable and that we have a vital need of others. This is why the ” Socle citoyen ” project speaks to everyone: we contribute as citizens—through taxes—to ensuring a vital base for everyone. In these circumstances, no one is spreading foolish rhetoric about handouts?
Is the Socle citoyen universel an effective response to the economic crisis that is looming with the coronavirus?
No one knows how the crisis will evolve. In the second quarter of 2020, China is the only G20 country whose GDP has grown. Germany posted -12%, France -18%, India -24%. The second wave caused us to fall back, less sharply, but global economic balances will take time to readjust. Public debt is exploding. Even if it is relatively painless in the short term, no one can predict what interest rates will be in 10 years. Our accumulated debts may weigh very heavily, preventing governments from playing their role as buffers against social shocks. At that time, we will be happy to have established a Socle citoyen, the universal distribution of part of the income among all, so that no one will be in total destitution.
We can also venture the hypothesis that our country will regain the growth necessary to adapt and face the planetary challenges. Here again, the egalitarian sharing of a portion of the fruits of growth will be a tremendous driving force for national unity, a multiplier of energies.
In the current context of a global pandemic, the universal basic income (UBI) policy has been gaining ground all over the world. Given this sudden raise of awareness about UBI, it was important for the French Movement for a Basic Income (MFRB), as well as 40 other French civil society organizations and public figures, to highlight the importance of having a real democratic debate around its implementation.
These UBI advocates support the idea of basic income, but not at all costs. Basic income finds itself at the crossroad of two very different paths: it can either be included in a series of measures aiming at promoting a social and environmental transition, or it can be a plaster to the current neoliberal system. In the French context, where the social protection system has been strong for the past decades, but which has also been attacked in recent years, the risks of having UBI used politically to weaken established social rights are also important.
That is why the implementation of a real protective basic income must not only be about the economy, but be an outgrowth of a real democratic debate. That to make sure it will help reduce inequalities, reinforce labor rights and help create social protection systems. And to improve working conditions of the “essential jobs” that are currently underpaid and at the frontline of the sanitary crisis. It shall also be used to question the relevancy of “bullshit jobs”.
The strength of UBI has always relied on its capacity to promote debates on an extremely wide range of topics. Today, more than ever, it is crucial to debate collectively about the society we want in the aftermath of this crisis.
Bidar has started getting interested in basic income in 2015. As a defender of basic income, Bidar has tried, in the referenced book and in his speaking venues and interviews, to detach his arguments from strictly economic grounds, but to solidify a sound philosophical defence. According to him, the “how much” question amounts to an obsession, since present-day society is obsessed with money and its derived consumption habits. He doesn’t aim to minimize the economic issue, but to amplify the debate to a much larger sphere.
Because in order to mobilize people, to get them to stand up for their rights, time is needed. Most people are just too busy making ends meet, working to feed the children and paying the rent, so a basic income can come as way to provide people with the necessary time to become full-right citizens.
He says the times we live in are the “Kairos” of the age, an historical moment to act, to achieve crucial change. The capitalist system just captures and condenses wealth, leading to unprecedent levels of inequality. Our task now is to redistribute the abundance we are today are able to produce. Since we no longer need to work so much to produce wealth, in the XXI century, due to automation and computerization, we are now, or should be, able to free ourselves from the necessity to “work for a living”, and maybe start working to live…and be happy.
He cites new generations: according to him, young people are much less “docile” regarding impositions from the job market, than previous generations. They want to align their work with their beliefs and aspirations, and not only to work as a way to guarantee survival (in the midst of a hostile society). That may even include, sometimes, to stop completely from working, since everyone needs to breathe, to stop running and reflect at certain moments in their lives.
Bidar looks at basic income also as a tool that allows people to participate in their community and society at large, instead of just hoping that things arrive at their doorstep provided by a handful of politicians. He poses fundamental questions of what to do with our time: what mobilizes us? How do we choose to use our time?
Because, it seems, society is entirely unbalanced, and tilted towards work. That means that the availability of quality time will help people to re-centre their lives in a better balance between work, culture (each person’s place in society and their own choices within their social culture) and political activity (truthful, responsible and active citizens).
He says that “you cannot improvise freedom”, which in this case means that the actual societal freedom a basic income can supply must be a very concrete, planned and conscient step to take. It takes a lot of reflection, discussion and agreement to implement such conditions for freedom. According to him, children and youngsters in general should be supported in their education, so they develop self-confidence and trust in their creative freedom, rather than just being told what to do.
He defends opening up the marketplace, so people have true choice in what to do with their lives, in a sense trusting them to be responsible in living out their freedom. He also understands that suffering in the job market is rampant in today’s society, and that must end. People have little or no choice, which resembles totalitarian systems. To that end, the link between income and work must be broken. There is a social emergence, so basic income should be immediately implemented, even if in a partial form (for the most vulnerable members of society, e.g.: disabled, young people, women in some circumstances). However, he questions if people in general are ready for the level of freedom basic income allows, even though he states that such a policy is crucial to tackle the social and ecological crisis humanity faces nowadays.
To resolve the apparent paradox – that people may not be prepared for the kind of living they need to be living in order to solve the social and ecological crisis – he points to education. He believes in the human being, and that humans are capable of great things, but education and individual conscience are fundamental to evolve and transition to a new way of living.
The French Parliament house. Picture credit to: Refresh
A law proposal, named “experimenting over the territory in order to implement a basic income”, was presented to Parliament (Assemblée Nationale), on the 31th of January, 2019. Although government had announced the will to promote such experiments, a majority of MP’s from the party in power rejected the debate before it even started. Concretely, the proposal was rejected by a majority of MP’s mainly from LREM, LR and UDI (Note 1).
The proposal was presented by the party Groupe Socialistes & apparentées, a minority group in Parliament whose history goes back to 1893, and supported by other 17 socialist groups. This almost three-year-old project has been initiated by Gironde’s president Jean-Luc Gleyze, building upon a growing national debate on basic income. In a twisted tint of irony, the discussion of this issue is being blocked by the same party which has declared its openness to amplify its debate in France. Specifically, a “preliminary rejection motion” has been presented, momentarily cutting the avenues for discussion in Parliament.
Although most MP’s have agreed, over time, that direct cash transfers would eliminate social benefits non-take up (in France, 36% of all eligible beneficiaries for social benefits do not take them up, due to ignorance and administrative complexity), the unconditionality feature of basic income was rejected by most. To them, it is the responsibility of the citizens to search for jobs, which are seen as “a cornerstone in individual liberty“. In other words, most LREM MP’s believe that people will be idle if they receive an unconditional basic income, which boils down to the most frequently held criticism over the policy (and a pessimist-laden view on human nature).
On the other hand, the Movement Français pour un Revenue de Base (MFRB) (French Movement for a Basic Income) sustains that it is precisely the basic income that allows people to acquire rights, in such a monetized society. Furthermore, the MFRB has declared full availability to work with MP’s in order to establish the possibilities for experimenting with basic income in French regions.
As for the law proposal itself, before rejected it was subject to several change propositions, sixteen in total. These changes aimed to shift the universal grounds of the proposal to an age cohort of 18 to 25 years of age, and to erase all mentions to unconditionality. Even the title was targeted, with a change proposal from “un revenue de base” (a basic income), to “une prestation d’accompagnement à la vie autonome” (a benefit to support an autonomous life).
A new series of demonstrations have erupted in France: the “gilet jaunes [yellow vests]”. This movement started in 2018, from an online petition which had grown 300 000 signatures large by October. From there, massive street demonstrations have followed, with some violent eruptions, particularly in France (but in other regions of the world too). The causes for discontent have been mainly economic, related to taxes on fuels, income taxes, minimum wage and the monopoly of large retailers in villages and cities (which end up asphyxiating small businesses). However, the list of claims grows larger, including demands like eliminating homelessness, financial incentives for home insulation, protecting national industry (in France) and a cap on salaries (at 15000 Euro/month). It even includes the controversial claim that the production of hydrogen vehicles should be incentivized, instead of electrical ones (even though hydrogen for vehicles is produced using electricity).
The basic income movement in France (MFRB – Movement Français pour un Revenue de Base) has written on the “yellow vests” phenomena. In this article, it is suggested that demands from the “yellow vests” movement are aligned with the basic income idea. However, the list of demands above mentioned do not refer basic income, and do not question the conditionality of the present system of benefits and taxation. These do contain the immediate call for taking people off the streets (ending homelessness), but no further ideas on how to do it.
On the other hand, these social events and demonstrations have spurred discussion and public appearances voicing the basic income concept. Public figure and philosopher Abdennour Bidar, has defended basic income as a way to “stop strangling citizens with economic constraints”, on France TV (C La Suite). Cyril Dion, a known French filmmaker and environmental activist, has also supported basic income, alongside Bidar, as a way to both reduce acute inequalities and bring forward true environmental protection. According to him, there can be no ecology without social justice, which is also the opinion of other French thinkers and activists, such as Guy Valette. Also, on the political ground, Benoît Hamon (individually and under his recently formed Génération.s. party) has been defending the basic income policy in France, ever since the beginning of the last presidential elections.
BIEN’s 2022 Congress will be held in Brisbane, Australia, from Monday 26th to Wednesday 28th September 2022. This will be a hybrid face to face and online event. The main face-to-face event will take place in Brisbane.
Call for papers: Abstracts (250—300 words) due by Friday 1 April 2022; please click here for more information.
A Basic Income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. Read more