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“The basic income approach is absolutely essential, but it is not part of the social democratic tradition. Think about it. The post-war consensus was all about national insurance, it was not about basic income. Now, either we are going to have a basic income that regulates this new society of ours, or we are going to have very substantial social conflicts.”

— Yanis Varoufakis, The Economist, March 31st 2016



[Ed note: Eduardo Porter of the New York Times recently wrote a column entitled “A Universal Basic Income Is a Poor Tool to Fight Poverty,” based on dodgy accounting and weak rational choice reasoning. Matthew Yglesias addressed the dodgy accounting over at Vox. On Porter’s argument that UBI would provide a “disincentive to work,” innumerable sociological studies have demonstrated how work can provide a fundamental source of meaning, purpose and intellectual stimulation; UBI would empower workers in the labor market so they feel less financial pressure to accept bad jobs and can thus pursue more meaningful work.

Porter also seems to think that the idea for UBI was created by Silicon Valley tech gurus and he argues that the idea is “poorly thought out.” In response, I reached out to an early and long-time champion of UBI, Belgian philosopher and political economist Philippe Van Parijs, professor at the Faculty of Economic, Social and Political Sciences of the University of Louvain. He kindly allowed me to repost this article from Social Europe. For more in-depth arguments, readers may consult the following works on basic income by Van Parijs: A Basic Income for All,” Redesigning Distribution, Real Freedom for All, and What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch-Matt Vidal]

by Philippe van Parijs

The idea of an unconditional basic income is in fashion. From Finland to Switzerland, from San Francisco to Seoul, people talk about it as they have  never done. Twice before, basic income was the object of a real public debate, albeit briefly and limited to one country at a time. In both episodes, the centre left played a central role.

The first debate took place in England in the aftermath of World War I. The Quaker and engineer Dennis Milner managed to get his “state bonus” proposal discussed at the 1920 Labour Party conference. It was rejected, but prominent members of the party kept defending it in the following years under the label “social dividend”. Among them were the Oxford economist and political theorist George Cole and the future Nobel laureate James Meade.

The second debate took place in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Another future Nobel laureate, James Tobin, advocated the introduction of a “demogrant”, along with Harvard economist and best-selling author John Kenneth Galbraith, also on the left of the Democratic Party. Persuaded by them, Senator George McGovern included the proposal in his programme during his campaign for the nomination as Democratic presidential candidate, but dropped it in the last months before the 1972 election which he lost to Richard Nixon.

The current, far longer and increasingly global debate originated in Europe in the 1980s. Interest in basic income arose more or less simultaneously in several countries and prompted the creation of a network (BIEN) that now has national branches in all continents. This time, however, the social democratic left is not exactly at the forefront, far less than the greens, for example, or than some components of the liberal right and the far left.

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