Many of you live from day to day, without any type of legal guarantee to protect you… You have no steady income to get you through this hard time… This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out… It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.
—Pope Francis, Easter Letter, accompanying his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” address from the Vatican on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020
Pope Francis is the latest convert to the idea of a basic income as an economic safety net to provide a floor for the most marginalized in society. The idea of the state providing a guaranteed minimum wage has been kicking around since the time of Thomas Paine in the 18th century. Now, the idea has resurfaced with a vengeance as we face the 21st century’s global pandemic, which has shuttered and shattered markets worldwide, socialist and capitalist alike. The Pope, as he typically does on Easter Sunday, was preaching a global message, this year to the “invisible” global poor on the peripheries of societies, unreached by market solutions or state protection.
The target of the Pope’s appeal is not the sophisticated urban office worker in the developed world who can now work “remotely” from home with a guaranteed paycheck until the pandemic is over; it is, instead, the grassroots economy, the large population of informal workers on the margins who live from day to day without any guaranteed income or wage protections.
Nevertheless, since we live in a society that contains all these heterogeneous levels of employment and compensation, all the way from the corporate CEO to the street beggar, the Pope challenges us to face this pandemic not as individuals in our own private little worlds, but as fellow human beings striving for the kind of common justice and dignity owed to all God’s creatures.
In sum, Pope Francis is reiterating one of his frequent universalist themes: the adequate provision of the three Ls — “land, labor, and lodging” — which are fundamental to justly-ordered modern, industrial societies. It is no coincidence that these themes are also hot items in the 2020 presidential campaigns in the US, with candidates Warren and Sanders particularly fierce advocates for justice in jobs, housing, education, and environment.
The nuggets of wisdom in the Pope’s Easter address have preoccupied economists, political scientists, and sociologists for decades. One of the major proponents of the idea of a basic income, for instance, is Belgian Professor Philippe Van Parijs, author of Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy (2017).
Building on the work of European colleagues Claus Offe and Jurgen Habermas, Van Parijs offers a very simple proposal to improve the human condition: namely, that “everyone should be paid a universal basic income (UBI), at a level sufficient for subsistence.” That is, “an income paid by a government, at a uniform level and at regular intervals, to each adult member of society. The grant is paid, and its level is fixed, irrespective of whether the person is rich or poor, lives alone or with others, is willing to work or not.”
Making arguments of inclusion used by both the Pope and Senator Sanders, Van Parijs thinks that modern western nations have the resources necessary to support a UBI: “a basic income would serve as a powerful instrument of social justice: it would promote real freedom for all by providing the material resources that people need to pursue their aims. At the same time, it would help to solve the policy dilemmas of poverty and unemployment, and serve ideals associated with both the feminist and green movements.”
As a libertarian, Van Parijs wants not only to foster and protect the three L types of rights, but also to add real worth or value to those rights in the form of increased access to the material or financial resources needed for their practical exercise. He therefore favors a Rawlsian interpretation of equality of opportunity, such that “the distribution of opportunity… be designed to offer the greatest possible real opportunity to those with least opportunities…” In other words, having an abstract right to jobs or housing needs to be instantiated by giving people the financial wherewithal to be able to exercise those rights meaningfully.
Some ambiguities in Van Parijs’ definition of the distribution of opportunity need to be resolved to understand whether he is talking about rights or options. A right to a minimum wage is admirable but one would still need to have a job to make it meaningful; similarly, for affordable housing, one would still need enough cash to pay the rent. As for health coverage as a basic right, we are only too familiar with the American practice of chaining health insurance to employment wages. No job, no coverage.
Therefore, UBI enhances the distribution of opportunity by enhancing options: it promotes the dignity of choice versus the indignity of coercion — i.e. being forced to live in a slum or work in a menial job because you have no other options. Van Parijs would agree with this liberating role of a UBI which is to be preferred for giving “every person the possibility of taking up gainful employment in which she can find recognition and accomplishment…”
Thus, UBI provides an economic cushion that confers the privilege of choice on those otherwise too poor to have that luxury. The whole concept of the state providing basic income for its citizens raises all kinds of political, economic, and moral questions about its implementation and goals. For example, what should be its scope, size, and timing? Should it be universal (Van Parijs’s preference) or targeted to only the most needy? At what age should it begin, and how long should it last? How much should it be, and should its provision be conditional or means-tested to make sure that only real cases of need are addressed to minimize abuse. Who decides?
Boston Review hosted a Forum on Basic Income to give other academics a chance to debate Van Parijs’ proposals. On the question of scope and timing, Claus Offe weighed in with his opinion that the implementation of a UBI “should be governed by principles of gradualism and reversibility.” Offe likes the idea of a “participation income” as a “gradualist strategy” that could support non-market labor activity (e.g. child-rearing by single mothers), whilst he also proposes a “sabbatical account” as a form of temporary basic income which would have a draw down period, in chunks of time, over ten years, beginning after age 25. Offe argues that this would help “humanize” work by allowing employees to resist “particularly undesirable jobs and working conditions,” while providing “opportunities and incentives to restore skills and other aspects of human capital.”
World-famous French economist Thomas Piketty has proposed a comparable solution of basic income to current inequity dilemmas. Piketty’s latest book Capital and Ideology (2020) is a sequel to his blockbuster thesis on the roots of inequality, Capital in the Twenty-first Century (2014), and continues his incomparable analyses of the dynamics of wealth and inequality around the globe.
Like another prestigious economist, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Piketty argues that we can no longer rely on capital market discipline as an organizing principle for the whole of society. Instead, he proposes an alternative paradigm of “social federalism,” or “participatory socialism,” built around three concepts.
First, we need “educational justice” as the main channel for reducing inequality and creating economic prosperity. Next, “social property” invokes progressive taxation to make wealth circulate equitably across society. Third is “participatory socialism,” which would permit conditional capital markets whose functioning is contingent on binding and accountable obligations to social, economic, and environmental justice.
There are noteworthy parallels between Piketty’s proposals and those of both Stiglitz (“progressive capitalism”) and Sanders, whose signature agenda calls for a similar re-ordering of society based on justice. In fact, Piketty recently endorsed Sanders’ platform in Le Monde, claiming that “Sanders has come to the aid of democracy in the USA.”
A major component of “participatory socialism” is Piketty’s UBI proposal to use wealth and inheritance taxation to provide a grant of 100,000 Euros to everyone at age 25, as a way of re-distributing wealth more equitably across society to achieve a transformation and rebalancing of bargaining power.
Thus, once again, UBI is invoked as a remedy to optimize life options and choices. It could promote social justice and egalitarianism in lop-sided societies whose asymmetries of wealth and income create such a gulf between the haves and have-nots as to make them unstable and dysfunctional. And nothing has exacerbated that instability and inequality in the US more than the current pandemic, which has led the federal government to create what I would call “faux UBI” by injecting stimulus checks, increased unemployment benefits, and massive amounts of capital liquidity into the economy, akin to throwing a lifebelt to a drowning person.
Only time will tell if the survivor will recover, but it is safe to say that we will never be the same again. The time is ripe for a social, economic and cultural metamorphosis to change us back into the egalitarian country that we once had the potential to become. A guaranteed basic income might just be the dusting of pollen needed for that beautiful new flowering.
Photo credit: Gabriel White / Flickr