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Interview with Jurgen De Wispelaere

Maciej Szlinder: 2015 seemed to be a quite good year for basic income supporters. Basic income experiments are planned to be conducted in several municipalities in Holland and the Finnish government announced that they plan to conduct a national experiment in 2017. As you are involved in the latter project, could you tell us what the current state of preparation of this pilot scheme is?

Jurgen De Wispelaere: The plan is to start the actual experiment in January 2017 which will be conducted for two years. It is important to point out that the actual experimenting hasn’t started yet because there has been a lot of misinformation in the media about that. There has also been a lot of misinformation reporting that the government has already decided which model will be tested or how it will be implemented. None of that is true. At the moment we are doing the preliminary research to prepare the experiment. By “we,” I mean a very large research group, coordinated by Kela, the social insurance institution in Finland, but consisting of teams from a number of Finnish think-tanks, social organisations and universities, including the University of Tampere where I am based. Different research teams are looking at different aspects of the experiment.

For instance, we are conducting several polls to get a better idea what kind of basic income people are supporting. So we want to have a better perspective on who would be the supporters if we start varying different tax rates to pay for a basic income. There are a lot of static simulation studies carried out now in which a database of the representative population is used. You can play around with different variables and see what the results would be. What sort of effect can we expect if we increase basic income while decreasing several other policies? We are also looking into challenges related to implementing a basic income. This is not a straightforward issue. For example, there can be a constitutional problem because the Finnish constitution has a strong equality clause. So we have to be sure that we are not going against the constitution in a randomised controlled trial, which effectively rewards people who are getting a basic income over those who form part of the control group. We also need to change social legislation. We really have to be very careful about how to proceed. Olli Kangas, who leads the research group, told me a nice example: Giving someone a basic income for two years but taking away some of the other benefits as a part of an experimental scheme might have implications on their pension entitlement because some of the policies that we consider replacing with a basic income actually increase the pension. These are just a few of the many complicated issues we must deal with when thinking about experimenting with a basic income.

So, we don’t know either the amount of basic income nor the exact model which will be tested in the experiment, do we?

No – the precise model of basic income to be tested is not fixed at all. Our job is to survey many of the problems, come up with various strategies, survey a number of different models that would be most interesting to test and then present this to the government. At the end of March 2016, the research team will write a provisional report outlining these options. The government will review this and then decide the best approach, and then we continue working on the in-depth preparations for the actual trial. In the last months, a lot of newspapers have been reporting the magic number of €800 as the target level for the planned basic income. This number is from an example that Olli Kangas mentioned in the presentation. But it is only an example; nothing has been and nothing will be decided until the Finnish government reviews the report at the end of March. Meanwhile we are exploring several models. There are the obvious full and partial basic income models. Olli Kangas is also interested in the idea of combining a partial basic income with something like a participation income and testing how both work at the same time. We are also considering something like a refundable tax credit or negative income tax (NIT), which is more an implementation model. The only problem with NIT is that it actually requires for tax records to be properly individualised. My understanding is that the Finnish at the moment don’t have this capacity – they are working towards this, but it looks like the instrument will not be ready on time.

A final area of research is something that basic income advocates don’t really think about: What is going to happen with the bureaucrats and the frontline workers, the people who are working in employment offices and social security offices, once a basic income is introduced? One of the research groups, coordinated by Pertti Koistinen at Tampere, is examining this question. Obviously, if we are implementing a basic income then these people’s jobs will change quite radically. That is not something you can just impose; it needs to be carefully prepared in collaboration with this group of stakeholders.

What about the scope of the experiment? Do we know who will be covered?

This is also to be decided. One of the ideas is to have a trial which is more or less national, using a representative sample across Finland. This can then be complemented with part of the trial focused on a specific social group and also perhaps include a couple of experimental sites where we offer the basic income to everybody. The goal of such a “saturation site” is to explore social network effects. If you have a representative sample and, say, one in 200 people receive a basic income, you can study some effects, but you can’t really study the interaction effects. This is why the municipalities are very important. And this is also why I’m very interested in the pilot studies being prepared in the Netherlands. Although their approach is quite different to ours in many ways, their focus on municipalities is very interesting.

We are examining what is possible given financial, practical and also political constraints. Ideally, as many variations should be tested as possible because that gives the best possible idea of what really works. But we can’t do 100 different things as our time and resources are limited. Meanwhile, we are encountering a host of different problems and have to come up with solutions – and that’s what we are doing right now. Unfortunately, this is very boring for the outside world who prefer to speculate about the now famous €800 figure and what will happen once this is put in place. But to repeat, this is still to be decided. Whenever people ask what is going on in Finland, the answer is “we’re working very hard and will report on results once they are available!”

To what extent you have the guarantee that after presenting your first report in March, or at the later stages, the government will not retreat?

There are no guarantees: there never really are in policy development! Of course the government has made a serious commitment and I personally don’t think they are going to backtrack from that in March. But I can’t predict which of our recommendations the government will adopt. And no-one can predict what they would go for once Kela delivers the final report and is ready to proceed with the actual trial. Certainly we can’t predict whether or not once the pilot phase is completed in 2019, whether a basic income will effectively be implemented and in what form. So we need to be very careful about speculating: we are where we are, and we are in the midst of an important step but we should not expect this to be an easy road ahead.

What’s your own role in the Finnish experiment?

I am not a part of a specific research team, but have been given the job of external consultants. Apart from the main research teams focused on a specific area, there are a number of external consultants involved who have been asked to contribute their specific expertise. In my case, this is based on my work on the politics and administration of basic income. I’ve been asked to write a number of working papers based on the work I’ve done before. In addition, I’m also looking at what we know from other policies that resemble basic income in some way and what we can learn from other experiments carried out in recent years.

What kind of former experiments do you find particularly interesting and useful?

I am particularly interested in the Dutch case for several reasons. First off, they operate on the same time frame as us, so this really does create an amazing synergy and opportunity to learn from each other. I’m happy to say our contacts with the Dutch coordinator Sjir Hoeijmakers and other Dutch researchers are excellent. They are as interested in our experiment as we are in theirs. Second, there is a lot we can learn from them in terms of their very local focus: There are basically 20 municipalities who operate independently and each have a slightly different approach to testing a reform of the Dutch social assistance that moves towards a basic income. Some propose a single change in the existing schemes – for instance, to allow claimants to keep their benefits when finding a job or working more – while others propose to pilot a scheme that is much closer to BI. We can learn a lot from this variation. A third interesting point is that the Dutch deal with many practical hurdles that are very similar to those we face in Finland and examining their problems and solutions is very helpful. And finally, I am personally very interested in the politics of what is going on the Netherlands. They have a very unique bottom-up scenario which makes coordination a massive undertaking. Kudos to Sjir and all the others for getting as far as they have. I visited the Netherlands at the beginning of March to talk in person with researchers, but also to visit some of the sites and get first-hand reports from politicians and administrators.

And what do you think about the Namibian and Indian experiments?

To be honest, I don’t rate the Namibian experiment highly. In terms of its research value, it is very limited and highly controversial. In recent weeks, we have seen that the Namibian government may consider a BIG grant as part of a strategy of combating poverty, which is a very interesting development. But in terms of its social scientific value, the design and execution of the Namibian experiment leaves a lot to be desired. By contrast, India seems to have avoided most of the problems that bother social researchers and the results are extremely interesting. Still, a serious problem exists regarding generalising the insights gleaned from a country like India into a European welfare state like Finland, the Netherlands or Poland. Context matters and in this respect, India is a world apart from Europe. The results from the India experiment are very telling for India and countries that resemble their economic and social organisation, but hard to see how much they apply outside of that. The same point applies to Namibia or the small Quatinga Velho pilot in Brazil. In fact, I think it even applies to schemes like Alaska. Many people say, that “from Alaska we now X, Y and Z”. Well, first of all Alaska is Alaska, not Finland, Denmark, Poland or Spain. Secondly, the very specific scheme that they have in Alaska is very far from the sort of basic income that we would like to think of and for that reason, our basis of comparison is limited.

We are establishing a Polish Basic Income Network. You have experience a lot of political problems encountered by similar groups in different countries. In your papers/talks, you try to show some problems connected with getting a “cheap support”. Can you explain this?

It is a very simple idea. It is one of the aspects inside the basic income movement we see as the debate matures and media attention increases. The last five years have been extremely interesting with a large number of people supporting basic income. But even before, since the start of BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network) the mid-1980s, we could observe politicians or parties, even governments or government-affiliated people saying that basic income is a good idea. But what does this mean? Does it really help push the case for basic income? The idea of cheap support tells us two things. First of all, it is extremely easy for people to say that they support basic income (“talk is cheap”) when there is no pressure from them to “do” anything practical to demonstrate their commitment. So it’s very cheap, for example, for someone who is in opposition to say that they support basic income. Because at the end of the day, no-one is going to call on you and say “you are supporting a basic income, so you should institute it”. That is a task for the government. And so it should not come as a surprise to find more support for basic income in opposition than in government, even with the same parties!

The second aspect of support being “cheap” is that it doesn’t do anything for us. Cheap support without either the willingness or the ability to push policy forward is of little value. I’m not saying it has no value at all. It is great to get increased media attention so that we now talk about basic income a lot more and that other people who have never heard about basic income suddenly start discussing it. All that is brilliant. And it matters for the people who are activists to know that they are not on their own and their hard work starts to connect with a wider audience. But what interests me in the context of cheap support is the next step of moving from the debate to actual policy process. And we have a problem here, because what we need is not cheap support but strong commitment. That is easier said than done, because politicians for obvious reasons are reluctant to commit themselves to anything. That is especially true for policies like basic income, which is always taken as a radical move away from our familiar welfare state. Basic income requires social investment and today’s austerity politics is all about cutting investment. We still have a very activation-oriented approach in our social policies and policy makers worry that basic income goes against this dominant way of thinking. This explains why politicians who earlier supported basic income are keen to backtrack or ignore the policy when they get to a position where they could push for the policy. Of course, cheap support is sensitive to what is happening on the ground, and when there is a real groundswell of support, politicians will suddenly change their tune – perhaps this is what we have seen in the last 6 months in Europe.

So the main thing is to try to build a coalition of influential supporters who are able to change the situation. Among basic income activists and advocates, there is a debate whether to try to get support from neoliberals, right-wing politicians or multimillionaires in the type of Götz Werner or to reject that and present basic income as a part of a broader, progressive, leftist agenda. Which of those strategies is closer to you?

I am very worried about this simple idea put forward by quite a few very smart people over the last twenty years, namely that basic income can unify across the political spectrum because both the left and the right have reasons to support it.

Basic income is not left or right. It’s forward!”

Yes, exactly. I know the slogan which is quite clever. But clever or not, I disagree: Basic income may be “forward”, but it is still going to be “forward left” or “forward right”. It’s a little bit naïve to say that when people on the left and people on the right are supporting basic income, they are supporting the same proposal. To see my point, we should first acknowledge that when we think about basic income, we are not really talking only about a single proposal. One of the things I wrote about a decade ago is that basic income policy has many faces. Basic income is a family of concrete proposals. It consists of a couple of core principles; basic income is individual, unconditional, universal, but that leaves it open for a lot of variation on other important design dimensions.

These are not merely technical differences, they are profoundly political. Whether we talk about a basic income of €500 or €1000 a month has a major impact on the people who get it, those who support it, the tax system, and so on. But also in terms of implementation, there are some important choices to be made, some of which are more costly than others. Depending on whether you look at it as a left-wing proposal, which is mostly focused on making sure that the most vulnerable or disadvantaged are really fully protected, basic income requires a lot more administrative resources than the right-wing proposal, which is all about increasing labour market attachment, getting rid of unemployment, simplifying and decreasing the cost of bureaucracy. To my mind, those are very different and often contrasting policy priorities. To think that people who support basic income are proposing the same scheme only makes sense when you think of it on a very abstract level – as an idea, if you will. The moment you start thinking about basic income as policy, you need to start thinking about the details. And with the details, you immediately get into politics and talking about political trade-offs.

To illustrate this point, let’s go back to the Finnish context. Two decades ago, it was the left-wing parties that proposed the basic income idea and now we have a centre-right coalition running with it. Do we think that what will emerge in the future is the same proposal if a left-wing government were in a position to conduct a basic income experiment? I very much doubt it. For this left, the Finnish situation poses an interesting political dilemma: Should they accept basic income and support it, because initially they were the ones driving the idea, or should they instead resist it because they think the resulting basic income is not the kind they favour? Of course, we’ll have to see which model will be piloted and, if it gets to that, how it would be implemented. But the politics is always there and we should never forget that.

Among those who agree about a certain package of measures, which can be called the leftist or progressive one, there are differences in regard to the ways of implementation. Some supporters propose a gradual, two-step strategy because for some sort of reasons (political, administrational, financial), they think it is not possible to implement full basic income in one go. One of the proposals of the first step is Tony Atkinson’s idea of participation income. In various places, you criticised this proposal quite harshly. Can you explain why you are against it?

Sure – let me briefly explain the background to Tony Atkinson’s participation income. In principle, Atkinson is quite happy with an unconditional basic income, but he worries that in its radical form, it is not politically feasible because people don’t like the idea of giving money for free. To address this problem, he came up with a neat idea: Let’s get rid of formal employment as the main contribution requirement and expand that requirement to other socially useful activities. This way, we keep some sense of reciprocity and obligation while nevertheless massively expanding the coverage of the policy in a universal direction. A mild form of conditionality remains in place, but with the exception of maybe 5% of die-hard “free-riders”, everyone would easily be eligible for a participation income. This looks like a workable proposal. Philippe Van Parijs then builds on that by arguing that a participation income would get us to basic income in the end, because we’ll soon realize that we still have this unnecessarily large bureaucracy even when we have almost everyone covered. The obvious next step would be to simply drop all the bureaucratic requirements and let basic income emerge quite naturally. This is a bit like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat: In this case, we put the participation income in the hat and pull a basic income out of it.

In a paper1 that I wrote with Lindsay Stirton, we go into a lot of detail over the administrative requirements connected with participation income. Our review strongly suggests it is extremely hard to implement if you want to take the participation requirement seriously. If you don’t want to give free money but do effectively check if people participate, you face a huge practical problem. For instance, suppose you want to leave your job for a couple of years to take care of your elderly grandparents. You claim participation income to allow you to perform this socially valuable activity. Then the government has to be sure that you are really taking care of them. That is easier said than done, so expect the “Grandparents Care Control Unit” to do regular house visits. Volunteering is the same thing – clearly, not everything can count as volunteering, so presumably we need to start checking which volunteering activities support a person getting a participation income and which don’t. The same with education. The United Kingdom’s former Higher Education Minister Margaret Hodge used to talk of “Mickey Mouse courses” designed to get students registered but that have no real education value. You could get a degree in using crayons on stick-ons or painting silly willies on the pavement, etc. Now we have a real problem: Who decides whether an activity is really socially useful or not? How do we check if someone is really doing what s/he says? Once you appreciate these difficulties, participation income becomes a bureaucratic nightmare.

So what are political implications of our view? This is where it gets really interesting. Philippe Van Parijs would say, “Yes, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare and the moment we realize this, we get rid of participation and move to a fully unconditional basic income”. This would resolve the bureaucracy problem, but it is only one way to do so. Here is another: We narrow the range of approved participation activities down to the familiar policy categories of education or employment. These we know how to implement and control, but of course now we’ve moved from participation income back to workfare. Basic income advocates think that participation income will naturally transform into basic income, but people who come to participation income from an obligation/ reciprocity perspective will resist this and instead try to narrow it down to a workfarist scheme.

Putting all these points together, my co-author and I came up with what we called the “trilemma of participation income”. The trilemma means you either a) accept the massive bureaucratic costs and complexity of implementing a participation income, or b) you try to avoid those costs and complexity by moving to an unconditional basic income, or c) you reject basic income and bureaucracy and narrow participation to workfare. So we have three different routes you can take, but in terms of building a large political coalition, this is a problem. What started looking like a political coalition in favour of participation income divides itself into three different factions once the practical problems become visible. Anyone who believes we can carry out a gradual implementation of basic income through participation income has no good reasons and so has no understanding of the politics involved in this option, and certainly has no empirical basis for thinking that policy will develop in this particular direction. Participation income is a non-starter for the basic income movement!

The other gradual proposal of implementing basic income is to give a smaller (partial) basic income first and then when people see the good results of it, they will be more eager to accept increasing the amount of it to a full basic income.

I think that’s an extremely controversial view that is not really backed-up by the evidence from other policies. The fundamental problem with this kind of partial basic income is that, compared with a full basic income, the number of people who would benefit remains small and those who are better off nevertheless benefit a lot less. Think of this not in terms of beneficiaries, but in terms of building a political constituency. A constituency is a group that benefits objectively but also accepts this benefit subjectively, which is not so straightforward. Take the example of health care in the United States. A lot of people benefit objectively from the health care reforms initiated by President Obama, but they simply don’t accept the reform. Even where we find people who benefit objectively and subjectively, the idea of a constituency means we need to identify a group of people willing and able to invest political effort in promoting basic income. This requires political support in the form of voting, canvassing, protesting, writing letters, debating and all other forms of engagement.

Now, let’s go back to partial basic income. This is putting a system in place from which, as said, only a small amount of people would benefit. Moreover, the beneficiaries would mainly belong to social groups that unfortunately have little political capital – the worst-off in society. I happen to be one of those people (like Guy Standing, Philippe Van Parijs or David Casassas) who think one of the reasons why we should have a basic income is to protect these people. But if it only protects them, then that may be too small a constituency to have any serious political impact. So I doubt that you will get increased solidarity after implementing only a partial basic income. In fact, a lot of evidence suggests the opposite, evidence where people in different constituency groups insist on drawing boundaries between them and the worst off. So do we have any reason to think that the move from a partial to a full basic income would be very straightforward? That argument requires other groups to buy into the policy; other groups who already might be pushing against basic income as we speak. I don’t think it’s that straightforward at all and believe that a partial basic income might not be stable enough to build a pathway towards a full basic income.

Against this argument of instability of partial basic income, you could find counter-arguments showing the case of Alaska Permanent Fund, in which the acceptance for the scheme continuously arose and every politician who wanted to remove it lost or were forced to change their minds in that case. The people accepted the yearly benefits as their right and now defend it.

That is very true. There is a very interesting chapter2 in one of Karl Widerquist and Mike Howard’s Alaska books3 by James Bryan and Sarah Lamarche Castillo, in which they are looking into the political side of the Alaska model and they actually found that it is a lot more complicated than you might imagine. One of the reasons of this support in Alaska is that they’re not paying any taxes; all is financed by the Alaska Permanent Fund, which is a sovereign fund. As it is funded through these external resources, there is no redistribution: It is a very unique way of funding it. Would the same political stability apply in a situation where a partial basic income is funded through the regular income tax system? I doubt it. Recently there have actually been some challenges to the Alaska Fund. These challenges are serious enough that one of the representatives in Alaska has tried to promote a constitutional amendment in the state constitution to protect it from any political interference. That didn’t go through, but there’s more and more pressure to repurpose the Fund as Alaska itself is running into some financial problems. So we will see if the Alaska model remains as stable as it has been the past decades.

Relating to the subjective acceptance of basic income – there is an almost complete agreement that one of the advantages of basic income is that, in contrast to means-tested benefits, it is not stigmatising because it’s universal. You seem to question that belief. Why?

Yes, I have serious doubts about this line of argument. I sympathise with it, but I doubt it really holds true. We really need to make a fundamental distinction between the design features of basic income (the fact that it is universal by design) and the policy and political effects that this brings about. The fact that basic income is designed as a universal scheme does not mean that people accept it as being universal in the way we think of universal health care, for instance. In fact, what we observe in comparative policy is a fundamental trend for certain groups not wanting to be associated with other groups. This is why we often have different types of income support programs. There is some interesting literature about different target populations, different groups of beneficiaries in social policy that have a different status. Pensioners are regarded as good, formerly hard-working people who deserve their benefits. On the other extreme are the homeless or drug users who are regarded by many as a burden on society. One of the problems with basic income might be precisely that it is too transparent. It is very clear who wins and who loses. There is a famous argument formulated by Peter Baldwin in the 1990s, which says that one of the reasons why the welfare state came about was because of its complexity which makes the distribution of benefits and burdens deliberately opaque. All those complex arrangements make a large amount of groups think that they benefit, even when they don’t (or not as much as they think) and this is what keeps the welfare state operational – the belief that we are all getting something out of it if we pay into it. Solidarity rapidly breaks down the moment who is net contributor or a net beneficiary becomes visible. This unfortunately counters the argument of a lot of basic income proponents and instead shows that its universalist character might actually lead to a decline in solidarity.

The third way of a gradual implementation of basic income is not to resign from its unconditionality or the sufficient level but to make it less universal and, in the first move, only give it to some parts of the society: only to the elderly (under the name of citizens’ pensions) or only to children (sometimes presented as a part of pronatalist policy in countries with demographical problems, like Poland). What do you think about this way of getting closer to basic income?

So this is what most people in the basic income movement these days think is the most promising route – to go sector-by-sector in a sequential strategy. In Ireland, Sean Healy and Brigid Reynolds were the people who were the first to put a lot of work into that. And there is also a very nice paper4 by James Mulvale and Sid Frankel, in which they prepare a sequential scheme for the Canadian province of Manitoba. The advantage is that you can identify the groups very easily so you can figure out who should get what and decide on the sequence in terms of how the scheme fits with existing categorical policies. The problem is again with the political dynamic. Is there any reason to think that we can easily move from one group to another? Do we think that expanding basic income this way is going to create its own support? Again I have my doubts, in part because of the reasons I mentioned before. The constituencies don’t necessarily have strong solidarity with other groups they regard as less deserving. They are going to protect their own interests in the first instance.

Think about a scheme that starts with providing a basic pension. Pensioners are perhaps not going to have a big problem if this is expands into child benefit. Those are two very obvious groups that are regarded as deserving of such support. But now it gets more difficult: You can still try to identify some acceptable groups – maybe students or the disabled – but eventually, we get down to the controversial category of working-age adults. Why would pensioners, who believe they are entitled to a basic pension because they worked their whole life, support any move that encompasses everyone? There are several reasons to resist such a move. First of all, they might be thinking strategically that the expansion of an unconditional benefit risks decreasing the level of the pension because of more pressure on the financial system and the better-off pensioners would end up paying higher taxes. Self-interested considerations of costs play a big role. The second problem is the idea of cultural contamination. Pensioners like to see themselves as a deserving group. They do not want to share a policy with people who they may regard as free-riders. Putting these two arguments together, you can’t assume that if a basic income is accepted for a group like the pensioners, these pensioners are going to push for it to be expanded for others. Even worse, my prediction is that they are going to actively resist such a development especially when it comes to the case of working-age adults. If this argument is correct, the sequential approach again may not be as promising as many think it is.

So basically you have denied three methods of gradual approach. Where does it lead us?

My argument is that a basic income will not be put in place by trying to play clever games, use back-door strategies, or otherwise try to get basic income on the agenda without owning up to what we have in mind. To my mind, we need to do exactly the opposite and to create support for basic income first. The bottom line of that is that we are going to have to do a lot of work to convince people (including those who are sceptical) that basic income is a really good policy to have and that’s when we can think about different routes to implement it. But maybe then we could even implement it in a more direct and faster way. I’m not saying to implement it right away, because there are good reasons to start with a trial on a smaller basis to see how the scheme works in practice. But in terms of support and the politics of it, you really need to have the support in place first. And that is hard, that is the difficult part of the job but at the same time, we can’t avoid it. All these strategies we have come up with to institute a basic income through the back door hoping the support will emerge as it rolls out – I just don’t buy that. I think that this is more wishful thinking than solid political strategy.

Which strategy is more needed to build this support – getting and showing data and facts or appealing to values, to the normative sphere?

Both are helpful, neither is sufficient. We know from political research that people are not convinced to adopt or change a position by being introduced to facts. The politics of facts and evidence is complicated and often it works the other way round – people select facts to fit their preconceived ideas. This is what political psychologists call confirmation bias. There is some truth in the idea that people are not supporting basic income because they don’t understand the policy, but that’s not all there is to it. And in the normative spheres, we have a problem of competing moral accounts – there exists not one, but several moral stories. Even if all of them were to support basic income, they are not going to support the same model of basic income. So this too causes problems.

I think that eventually, basic income will come about the moment our system is broken (or perceived as broken) to such an extent that basic income becomes almost a natural solution. The moment that everyone basically sees that the food banks are overrun, that pensioners are living in squalor or children are falling systematically behind, that a ridiculous amount of money is being spent in making sure a relatively small number of people are kept in unnecessarily silly jobs, that people stuck in those jobs have no means of building a real life while being prevented of taking on socially useful tasks that have not been officially approved, and so on and on. This is the time when basic income can present itself as a solution. A cheap and easy solution at that is the best option given the alternatives. So the moment the other options become too expensive, too problematic, too much at odds with our basic human values, that is when basic income will come about. And in the last years, it seems “we” (or rather our governments) are doing our best to get there, unfortunately.

So you propose to sit and wait?

No, not at all. In terms of strategy, there are two important things that should be done and that in fact we, in the basic income movement, are already doing. The first one is making sure that basic income is firmly planted in people’s minds. This is one of the reasons I support the recent media explosion, the many debates, group discussions and actions across Europe and beyond. The more people talk about basic income, the more basic income becomes a plausible solution to be considered when the time is right. And related to this, we need to do a lot of work thinking through the many aspects of basic income policy. We need to do the real work, not just hypothesize and dream about fairytales and unicorn stories in which basic income will single-handedly transform the world. We need to be a little more serious about the real impact of basic income and neither underestimate nor exaggerate its importance. Basic income will have many interesting effects but we need to try to find out as much as possible about the details of those effects, which is where the different pilot schemes come in. The second strategic task is that we need to continue our social critique of what is going on in the world; in particular, the disastrous effect of austerity politics. And we are actually doing that, so we have to do more of it, do it better, more professionally and so on. But we are on the right track here too.

Let’s concentrate for a moment on one of the moral stories that you are connected with, which is the republican story. With David Casassas, you wrote the article “Republicanism and the political economy of democracy”5 . Do you define yourself as a republican?

No. I’m not ready yet to think of myself as a full republican, partly because I don’t like being pigeon-holed and I see no need to fully subscribe to one particular theory. But in part, it is also because I think there are some aspects of the theory of republicanism that I’m not convinced about. That said, I have an enormous amount of sympathy for the idea of freedom as non-domination. And I think this can be defended in a way that brings about strong egalitarian outcomes. Freedom and equality are the key values for me, and I think republicanism has a lot of interesting things to say about both of them.

How does republicanism think about basic income? Here it gets a little more complicated, in part because it depends on what basic income can deliver. A lot of people talk about the “exit option” that basic income is supposed to guarantee. Karl Widerquist has written a whole book6 about that. He doesn’t define himself as a republican, but his “independentarianism” is quite close to the republican position, and we share a lot of intuitions. One of the things that Karl believes, and argues for in the book, is that everyone should have the freedom to say no, which he understands as the option to exit from the labour market. I have quite a few doubts about that. I’m not sure if withdrawing from the labour market is as desirable an option as many suggest. I’m also not sure whether basic income can give us what we need in order to make it a real and desirable option. I accept the fact there are a lot of jobs that are really atrocious and demeaning and I have no problem thinking that under certain conditions, basic income can give you an important alternative route. But I also think we need a lot more to make basic income a real exit option from current labour markets. In line with Albert O. Hirschman’s famous division between “exit” and “voice”, I think what we need to develop in the labour market and other economic institutions is more “voice”, that is, more collective democratic involvement. I don’t accept the general free-riding argument in case of basic income, but there exists a sort of free-rider argument in regards to the exit option that does pose a problem. The more people take the exit option from the labour market, the more work for creating voice – putting real pressure on employers to turn the labour market into something more egalitarian and republican – has to be done by a smaller group. Now, the relation between basic income and “voice” is a very interesting field to research. One of the points that people connected with in the Indian experiment is that making is that basic income is conducive to promoting “voice” and participation more generally. But of course this argument applies to a very specific context. So the question now becomes how basic income could promote “voice” in a mature welfare state and the labour market.

An important point here is what you have mentioned before, namely the so-called “package of measures”. Basic income’s effects depend crucially on the policies that surround it, the broader institutional configuration if you like. One of the things we have to do is to think about basic income as one item within a configuration of policies that together will produce important social effects. But we have to do the systematic work: Many accept that basic income is not self-contained, but we haven’t really done the work yet to figure out how it really interacts with other policies – from health to housing to education, and so on.

One of the proposals of the package of measures that include basic income is of course “A Precariat Charter”7 by Guy Standing. Do you think it’s a good attempt?

It could be, but I would like to see more specific proposals from different countries, even different regimes in the classic terminology introduced by Esping-Andersen. If you think about the different welfare regime types – the social-democratic, conservative-continental or Anglo-Saxon models – it rapidly becomes clear that basic income could fit in with each of them. But what is of interest is not that each regime is compatible with basic income, but rather to think through how basic income in each regime would interact differently – produce different effects because of variation in the “package of measures” that make up the policy background. That is the part where I think a lot of interesting work can be done. And this is quite different from Guy Standing’s more general Precariat Charter.

You’ve been living in Barcelona for some time and you know very well the work of members of Barcelona Republican School of Basic Income, that is, Antoni Domenèch, Daniel Raventós, David Casassas, Edgar Manjarín, Bru Laín, etc. As an outsider with an insight, you could look at its role from some distance. How would you assess the importance and input of this branch of republican thinking in the basic income debates (as distinct from e.g. the branch of Philip Pettit)?

I think the main thing that differentiates them from the mainstream republicanism is a very strong emphasis on property. I think that is fascinating historically, philosophically and sociologically. I think the idea of property is indeed a key concern in the republican tradition and is crucial for thinking about basic income, but of course the idea of property can be fleshed out in different ways. I’m not entirely sure whether basic income should be thought of as a type of property, as many in what you call the Barcelona Republican School argue. The relation between their approach and Pettit’s work is also quite complicated. There is a lot that Pettit himself has left underdeveloped in his own proposed theory, so that leaves room for constructive input. At the same time, Pettit very much resists the notion of independence as a form of non-domination, whereas the Barcelona School takes independence through property as a central feature of republican freedom. Perhaps one other important development is that the Barcelona School thinks very institutionally and I share that perspective. Pettit developed republicanism primarily as a philosophical idea. The next step is to explore how republicanism works in different policy areas.

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Jurgen De Wispelaere is a former occupational therapist turned political theorist and policy scholar. He has completed a Doctorate in Social Sciences at the University of Tampere (Finland) with a dissertation on the political analysis of basic income. Having returned to Europe after several years working at McGill University, he currently works at the University of Tampere as part of the team that is preparing the Finnish basic income experiments and where he also coordinates a course on basic income (with Antti Halmetoja). He has published many articles on the politics of basic income and is a co-editor of Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research (Wiley 2013), which compiles key writings on basic income from the last couple of decades. He co-founded and edited the journal “Basic Income Studies” for six years, was a former member of the Executive Committee of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), and is a Board Member of the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN). You can download (for free!) and read most of his published work here.

Polish translation of this interview can be found here.

Former interviews about basic income:

Erik Olin Wright, Sociology and Epistemology of Real Utopias

Daniel Raventós, Basic Income in the Spotlight in Spain

Guy Standing, The Strategy for Basic Income

The interviewer received funding for preparation of PhD thesis from Polish National Science Centre as part of PhD scholarship decision DEC-2015/16/T/HS1/00295.

  1. Jurgen De Wispelaere and Lindsay Stirton. “The Public Administration Case against Participation Income”, Social Service Review 81, no. 3 (September 2007): 523–49. []
  2. James B. Bryan and Sarah Lamarche Castillo, “Politics, the Preservation of Natural Resource Wealth, and the Funding of a Basic Income Guarantee,” in Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend: Examining its Suitability as a Model, ed. Karl Widerquist and Michael W. Howard (New York & Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 65–83. []
  3. Karl Widerquist and Michael W. Howard, eds., Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend: Examining its Suitability as a Model (New York & Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). []
  4. Sid Frankel and James P. Mulvale, “Support and Inclusion for All Manitobans: Steps Toward a Basic Income Scheme,” Manitoba Law Journa 37, no. 2 (2014): 425–64. []
  5. David Casassas and Jurgen De Wispelaere, “Republicanism and the Political Economy of Democracy,” European Journal of Social Theory, September 13, 2015, 1–18. []
  6. Karl Widerquist, Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income. A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No (New York & Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). []
  7. Guy Standing, A Precariat Charter: From denizens to citizens (London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014). []
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