Universal income proposals that are emerging today in developed countries are supported by different intellectual groups. They all share questions regarding the legitimacy of social protection and the way it has developed since the end of the 19th century; to perfect it, to replace it, or to begin a new chapter in history.
Is the universal basic income (UBI) concept, that occupies a substantial place in public debate today, left-wing or right-wing?
Julien Damon. Advocates for UBI belong to several intellectual and political groups. The best-known form of UBI, at the core of much debate today, consists of complementing the welfare system to prevent people from slipping through the cracks. On the contrary, another school of thought considers UBI as a way of completely smashing the welfare state itself. For instance, Milton Friedman put forward the idea of a negative tax. In his opinion, further developing the welfare state is a mistake; yet, since it would be difficult to get rid of, a solution could be to establish a negative tax which would be less damaging overall. In addition to traditional liberals, there are also libertarian-conservatives like Charles Murray. He proposes to put an end to all social policies by allocating $10,000 every year to each adult to let them plan and prepare for retirement. So, as we can see, there is not only a great diversity of mechanisms for UBI, but also a lot of different ideologies about why it should exist.
All these ideologies highlight the simplicity of this concept. Is it just because the management costs of our complex systems today would be significantly reduced?
This goes much further. We’re talking about a radical simplification which questions the very legitimacy of the whole edifice of social protection. Here again, both sides of the ideological spectrum converge, though they do not include the same things in the proposal. The “socialist” side is sensitive to a greater transparency of the welfare system; it is currently so complex that the people most in need are often unaware that they are eligible to receive social benefits. This is translated by the high rate of “non-take up of social benefits”. On the “liberal” side, the objective of simplification would mainly be to limit the accumulation of financial support that can lead to state handouts. After all, the greatest form of simplification consists of dissolving everything.
The complexity of social welfare schemes stems from a very rich history, with varying models of social protection. Are we witnessing the victory of a model or entering a new phase?
Historically, collective or universal social protection is an extension of public support, which would otherwise be considered charity or philanthropy. Over time, two main models emerged. First, the so-called Bismarckian model was a contributory and professional system. Employees became “insured persons”, a.k.a covered by “social insurance”. The second, the Beveridgian system, was funded by taxes and is more universal. In reality, these two systems fused to produce the hybrid form of social welfare that we have today. The French social security system, for example, is Bismarckian in principle, but over time, peoples’ rights were expanded, and national solidarity (i.e. taxes) gradually became an important part of its funding; as is the case in other developed countries. One might consider that UBI, which is Beveridgian in essence, is an additional phase in this evolution with the completion of universalisation. But that would suggest it is a continuity of current social welfare, while there is something truly new in this proposal. In any case, UBI is not a magic wand you can wave to suddenly repair historical models.
The concept of universal basic income can also be in contradiction with a social component: social protection schemes are also social policies, and each one has a precise aim. Could introducing a universal basic income challenge this idea of actions targeted at specific social issues?
Yes, if we are talking about a replacement. No, if the goal is to complement the existing system. We must understand that in developed countries, even if we know that our social welfare systems cause many problems, they are so massive and intertwined in our lives that a complete substitution would be truly revolutionary – although, very unlikely. Moreover, the question is different in different countries, such as India or Kenya, where social protection has yet to be developed and in which UBI experiments are taking place.
It is also another way of approaching the issue of amounts, often brought up with regard to this question. In a wealthy country, it would be easy to introduce a universal income of €1 euro per year per citizen. But if we were to increase UBI to €500 per month, it would represent a considerable effort and require extensive arbitration. Specialists point out that it would have no impact for people who already benefit from existing social aids (like the RSA, Revenu de Solidarité Active, in France). At most, it would limit the rate of non-take up of social benefits. To put it simply, if the objective is to fight poverty, UBI is pointless because many tools already exist for that.
Is the objective really to fight poverty, then?
That is an excellent question which falls in a different category. The welfare state was historically created to protect people against the main risks in life: illness, penniless retirement, unemployment and so on. It is the reason why social security often takes the form of insurance. But with the UBI concept, as considered by both its most radical advocates like Philippe Van Parijs, the objective is entirely different: it allows freedom. The idea is to create a society in which everyone is free to choose between, let’s say, a boring but well-paid job or a meaningful job with low wages. It is the reason why the amounts proposed for UBI are closer to the average salary than social aids. The objective lies in the work itself. Moreover, the idea is not to even things out, but rather to offer individuals the possibility of a deliberate choice. This profoundly original vision of society raises many questions. Clearly, it does not just consist of inventing the social security system of the future, to create a version 2.0 of the welfare state. The aim is to provide everyone with a means to access freedom. This calls for reflection, doesn’t it?