José A. Noguera – Basic income as a political horizon

José A. Noguera – Basic income as a political horizon

horizonInterview with José A. Noguera

Maciej Szlinder: Let’s start with the normative analysis. In one of your best known papers you deal with one of the most popular objections to basic income which is the reciprocity objection. The reciprocity principle using the words of Stuart White, means: „Each citizen who willingly shares in the social product has an obligation to make a relevantly proportional productive contribution to the community in return,”1 but also everyone who contributes by his/her work has a right to receive some income or wealth in return. Basic income doesn’t fulfil this rule. Why in your opinion is this objection is not as strong as it seems to be?

José A. Noguera: I think that this is an extremely radical objection. I don’t think that the defenders of this objection would defend it to the end, because that would require the implementation of multiple social welfare reform that I am quite sure they are not ready to support. For example, would they forbid living from the proceeds of capital rent? From a reciprocity point of view everyone should be forbidden from doing this. If you inherit some assets and live off the rental payments generated by those assets you are not contributing productively to society, but you are obtaining an income from it. Surprisingly, the reciprocity theorists focus only on the other side; the most underprivileged people who must do something in return for receiving a minimum income. But what about the guys at the top of social pyramid? Marxist theories are more coherent in that regard – everyone should work. This is consistent with the reciprocity principle. But the contemporary left-wing reciprocity theorists (like Stuart White and many others) don’t think like that (neither do the right wing ones, of course). So there is an asymmetry in this objection, and some hypocrisy as well. You are demanding certain behaviour from the poor, which you are not demanding from the rich. A lot of rich people get tax reliefs and no one imposes any behavioural constraints on them. But in case of poor people there are multiple behavioural conditions. That’s not consistent at all from a normative point of view. That’s one of the reasons why I’m arguing against any behavioural conditions for receiving not just basic income, but also a minimum income.

Tax reliefs for the rich are an element currently used in most of the welfare states. But the defenders of the reciprocity principle also have their own proposals. In one of his works2 Stuart White proposes a package of four measures: participation income, means-tested benefits, time-limited but unconditional benefit and universal basic capital. To what extent are those consistent with this principle?

The temporal unconditional benefit is just basic income, but given for a set period of time. So, in the end, it is a basic income, but given on a lower level. So I don’t see the point in that from the reciprocity principle point of view. The problem with the participation income is its implementation. In a very good paper3 by Jurgen de Wispelaere and Lindsay Stirton they show the so-called, trilemma of participation income. If you want to give some content to participation income, you are trapped in this trilemma: either you make it a de facto basic income, or something like a workfare scheme, or a bureaucratic nightmare that invades private lives to see whether people are complying with the conditions. All of those possibilities are far from what the reciprocity principle defenders have in mind.

Talking about implementation: in other of your works4 , written with aforementioned Jurgen de Wispelaere, you have created a very useful matrix distinguishing four types of feasibility, that have to be taken into account when considering the implementation of basic income: strategic, institutional, psychological and behavioural. Can you briefly explain the kind of problems that are related to each of them? Let’s start with the strategic feasibility.

It has to do with the relations of power in a given political context to get support for basic income. I don’t think now in Spain we have the support of the majority of main parties. Probably only Podemos would be partly in favour of basic income, but only as a political horizon. Not even United Left (Izquierda Unida, IU) or the Socialist Party (PSOE) would support it.

What about the institutional feasibility?

It is connected with the question of how basic income fits within given welfare institutions in a given country. In Spain there are many difficulties connected to this type of feasibility, that many defenders of basic income don’t want to see. We have, for example, a strong contributory pension system, which would have to be made compatible with basic income. Would a basic income include all contributory pensions? If the answer is no, then we have a big budget problem. But if the answer is yes, then we have an institutional problem, how to implement it in a system that has granted pensions on the basis of previous contributions. You would be saying something like: “ok, you have this pension, because you have paid your individual contribution to the social security system, but now a part of it is not a contributory benefit any more, but simply a general benefit funded by general taxation. So part of your contributions have disappeared somehow.” I don’t think a lot of pensioners would be happy to hear that, neither would workers who are about to retire.

The second big problem with basic income from the point of view of its institutional feasibility is that the political authorities who are in charge of social protection, e.g. minimum income, are fragmented into 17 regional governments. This is a competence of the government of every autonomous community. The central government would not be able to introduce a basic income without a general agreement with all the regional governments and without integrating it somehow with all those fragmented and disparate programs of minimum income that we have in each region. That is a very difficult problem in practice. If you just include basic income in the general law, you could have 17 legal complaints before the constitutional court because you are invading the competences of regional governments. If you are serious about basic income you have to take all these problems into account.

The third type of feasibility is the psychological feasibility. To what extent is it an important problem in Spain?

This is about getting the political support from public opinion. We know that a lot of people think that work is the most important thing in life. In their opinion, all rights should be linked to employment and it is not ethical to get something in return for nothing. But I don’t think that this is the main problem with basic income in Spain right now. The work ethic has never been as strong here as it is in Germany or the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the work ethic in Spain is even weaker nowadays, because of the very high unemployment rate, which is a result of a very hard economic crisis. We have so many people in need currently, that you cannot think of it as a problem of individual responsibility or an issue of individual ability to find a job. The notion that you cannot blame the unemployed and the poor for what happened is growing. It is clearly a structural problem, created by the bankers and the rich, not the poor or the working people. The idea that you have to grant some kind of minimum existence for everyone is getting more and more popular. So now the context is favourable for concepts like basic income, guaranteed income etc.

The last type of feasibility is a behavioural one. What is that?

It refers to the problem that might occur after implementing basic income. People may start to behave in such a way that would make basic income unsustainable from a social or economic point of view, for example by withdrawing from the labour market. Honestly, I don’t think that this would be a very big problem. All available evidence says that this can occur in some specific groups (immigrants from some countries, some low-educated women), but it would not be a general trend. So I think the main problem would be with the institutional and strategic types of feasibility, not the psychological or behavioural ones. But this scheme would be different in each different country.

So let’s talk about those different countries. We have various welfare regimes in Europe, according to the classic typology of Esping-Andersen, we can identify liberal Anglo-Saxon, conservative-contintental and social-democratic systems. Some other researchers identify also the Mediterranean type, the post-communist central-European type or the post-productivist type. Which of them in your opinion is more suitable for implementing basic income and in which of them could it be most difficult?

From an institutional point of view it could be easier to implement it in one type of welfare regime but for political reasons it can be more difficult than elsewhere. For example, in the Nordic, social-democratic welfare regime the main obstacles would not be institutional, but psychological or political ones. Of course, the post-productivist welfare regime, identified by Robert Goodin, would be the most suitable for basic income. But I think that right now the post-productivist situation, which we had at the end of the nineties, has vanished from all European countries, and that was probably a lost opportunity in historical terms. In my opinion it would be difficult to return to that situation. I expect that we will see a lot of discussion on basic income, even parliamentary debates, a lot of people in various political parties giving their cheap political support to the proposal, but honestly, I think we will see little real progress in institutional terms towards basic income. I hope Spain will be an exception to that, but we will see.

To which of the regimes does Spain belong?

I think Spain has fitted quite well into the continental-conservative type until quite recently. The main components of the Spanish social budgets were contributory benefits, but now it is starting to change. The main reason is this huge number of people who are out of the contributory benefits and out of social security, because they are unemployed and they have never paid contributions. Another consideration is the reforms that are likely to be introduced to the contributory pension system. This system in Spain is probably not sustainable in the medium term, if we do not inject more money from general taxation. So we will probably see a shift from a more continental welfare regime to a more typical Mediterranean welfare regime where we have lower benefits paid in a non-contributory way. That is not what I would like to happen, nevertheless I think it is happening now.

Basic income defenders in many countries hope that one way to tackle feasibility obstacles (mainly the strategic and psychological ones) is through basic income experiments, like those realized in India, or planned in Holland and Finland. What is your opinion about the role of such experiments in the political process of pushing forward the basic income agenda?

I don’t know much about the Dutch case, but I’m not very enthusiastic about the Finnish one. They have agreed to fund a group of experts to do a comprehensive study, exploring how a pilot experiment could be conducted in order to see if basic income works. This group has to create a report by the end of 2016, and if it is approved (which is not guaranteed), some kind of pilot experiment will start in 2017. It would last two years and at the end the Finnish government would evaluate whether the experiment’s results indicated that basic income should be implemented. But by that time, the present government may be out of office, and no one can predict their future attitude towards the issue. I’m not keen on these kinds of experiments. I think that if you want to put basic income in place, you should start some initial measures now. You don’t need to wait two years for the results of the experiment, and in the end such an experiment will never be conclusive. Once again it will be a political issue whether the results of the experiment mean that it is advisable to implement basic income, so the experiment serves only to postpone the political discussion. I prefer to start to take some steps towards basic income, than to wait for the experiments. Some people think that with positive results everyone would agree that we should implement it in one move. I don’t think it is realistic. But I wish them luck, of course.

You have been one of the best known defenders of basic income, not only in Spain but also worldwide, and yet, when joining Podemos before the last elections, you chose to promote your version of guaranteed minimum income. What are your main reasons for that?

When they asked me to collaborate with them, I had already been supporting them, because I thought that our country needed a new political movement in order to get out of the political and social mess. When they started to talk about basic income I was really interested in the ways that it could be implemented immediately in Spain. Let’s assume that you are in office, what would you do to make basic income a reality? The first thing, of course, is the budget, which is the first question you will have to answer, not only with basic income, but with every social policy measure. Do we have the necessary money for basic income? This is an abstract question. In an abstract sense, of course, we have money for anything providing we can gather the tax in order to afford it. But, of course, not all tax reforms are feasible. I did the numbers, which should always be the first task, and realized that a full basic income at the poverty level right now in Spain means raising income taxes. There is no other way, even when you fight against fiscal fraud, include all benefits that are under the poverty level (which is now around 600 Euros per equivalent person per month) etc., and even if you raise the taxes only for the upper deciles it means that you have to gather more taxes from the people currently earning 18,000-20,000 Euros per year. These are the people that are in the low-to-middle class. This is not politically feasible, because these are the people that, in many cases, vote for the left, including Podemos. Of course, you can say that income tax is only paid by the workers, and that is true – 90% of income tax is paid from salaries. The problem is that there are no other taxes in place which we could use to raise the money required for basic income. We could start a tax reform and conduct it through the whole governing period, to create those resources in the future. But we cannot go to elections saying: “If you vote for us, in the next four years we will deliver basic income” – that would not be true. The leaders of Podemos were very clear and realistic about that, when they asked me for a detailed proposal. They explicitly told me: “Don’t propose anything that we cannot comply with during the next four years.” So we can say that basic income is a political horizon, that we want to make steps towards it, but we cannot promise it in four years. That is out of the question, because of money, the tax reform, as well as all the other institutional reforms we have to implement: issues about regional governments, contributory pensions etc. So instead, let’s go for something that is politically attractive and ambitious, and which would eradicate poverty in Spain – at least extreme poverty, and something that we can reasonably afford. That thing is a guaranteed income, that would cover everyone – or almost everyone – below the poverty level.

This is a means-tested benefit.

Of course, it is. We could implement means-testing in a way that is not humiliating, not stigmatising, not invasive in private lives – all those bad things connected with the means-testing in the Anglo-Saxon countries, for example. We, the defenders of basic income have always talked about means-testing as a devil, but it is a very wide group of completely differing elements. It is not the same as in case of non-contributory pensions where they only have to give a document to the bureaucrats (certifying that you have no income and you have paid no social security contributions). Anglo-Saxon style means-testing involves people going into your home and checking what you are doing, do you have television etc. So, of course, we can think of some more friendly types of means-testing, which would make a guaranteed income cheaper than basic income. Additionally, a guaranteed income would be a family or household benefit, not an individual one, because otherwise the costs would be too high.

But a guaranteed income scheme would still encounter institutional problems connected with fragmented power between 17 regional governments.

Yes, that’s true. What can we do about it? We discussed it with many experts, some of them connected with other parties on the left, such as Izquierda Unida and PSOE. We could start by telling all the regional governments: “Look, we want to have a countrywide minimum income floor. If you include your benefits within this central program, you can top-up the benefits as you see fit. We will provide the minimum income floor, and give you the resources to operate it as long as you use them for that purpose. If you want to, you can use your own resources to make the benefits higher.” We think that it could be an attractive way of negotiating this proposal with the regional governments. For example, the Basque regional government is already doing something like that. They top-up the non-contributory pensions or the non-contributory unemployment benefits to a very high level. So we thought that expanding the Basque system to the rest of the country would be a sensible option.

The Basque Country and Navarre are not inside the general Spanish tax system, are they?

The Basque country and Navarre have their own tax office and each year they have to reach an agreement with the central government about the amount of money they have to pay. It is the opposite system to the rest of the regional governments, where the central government gets the tax and gives some part of that to the regional governments. Of course that is why the minimum income program in the Basque country is the best one in Spain, because they have a lot more resources. But to be honest, it is not the only reason. The other is that they are much more efficient than both the central government and the regional ones in collecting taxes, they really make a good job of it.

If the regional governments do not accept your proposal, do you have any plan B?

Yes, another way to implement guaranteed minimum income would be to operate through social security. Most social security benefits are contributory, but there is nothing in the constitution or other laws that prevents social security from paying non-contributory benefits. So we could use this to provide a country-wide income floor and use part of the resources – which we currently pay the regional governments for minimum incomes – to fund that program. And the third way to do it would be through some kind of negative income tax, which you can operate from the central government. It would be more difficult to operate because we would need an income tax reform. We already have some small elements of negative income tax in the tax system, so we could expand those. Again it would imply getting money from the regional governments that is currently earmarked for funding minimum incomes.

What do you think about the proposal of Arcarons, Domènech, Raventós and Torrens to finance basic income in Spain? They show that 70-80 percent of the people would gain from their reform.

I know this study very well. I was the one of the guys that made the first study of this type with Dani Raventós and Jordi Arcarons in the case of Catalonia. But in that study we interpreted the results differently in political terms. They interpret it as proof that basic income is possible. From a mathematical point of view, of course, that is right. But this is not only about accounting, my interpretation is what I have already told you: The results show that the upper 30% in the income tax distribution who would pay for basic income starts at 18,000 Euros per year. Try saying to a person who earns 18,000 Euros per year that now s/he has to pay more in order to be a net contributor to the basic income scheme. I don’t think that any government would do that. I don’t think even the authors of this study would do it either if they were to find themselves in government one day. Furthermore I think that they know and understand this perfectly. Privately they admit they can’t fully achieve this, at least not right now. Nevertheless, the study is very useful, because it shows that basic income is not some crazy proposal. The only problem is that we don’t have the resources for that it now. But it is possible in the future, there are many ways to do it, it is not completely out of the question, and that is the point of the study. But you cannot go to a political party or social movement and say: “We have a way to implement basic income right now in Spain”. The income tax reform proposed by them is not possible right now. And Toni Domènech, who is a very intelligent guy, and from whom I have learnt a lot in terms of political philosophy and social theory and methodology, said in the interview in Sin Permiso, that of course it is not a political program.

Talking about social theory and your own methodological approach, you defend the necessity of developing the Analytical Sociological Theory. What do you mean by that?

That’s a good question, because probably the only thing that it has in common with all the people that consider themselves as analytical sociologists is some family resemblance, to use the term of Wittgenstein. By „family resemblance” I mean we all think that sociology should be a scientific endeavour, but it is not something that all sociologists would agree with currently. We are all committed to intellectual clarity and precision, clear analytical distinctions, clear concepts, testable and informative hypothesis. We are all committed to modelisation in social sciences, trying to find empirical support when you comment on the social phenomena. We don’t like social theory in the style of Zygmunt Bauman, for example, who writes a lot about society without a single piece of empirical data to support his words. That’s a strange way to conduct sociology, it is more like a bad kind of social philosophy. There are many examples of a good social philosophy connected with social ontology, like the works of John Searle, Francesco Guala and many others. Some of the analytical sociologists are also committed to the use of some methodological approaches and techniques, for example the social mechanism approach utilised with a strong sense of causality in the social realm. Some, like Peter Hedstrom and Gianluca Manzo, try to substantiate that through a method of creating agent-based models. But not all analytical sociologists have been so enthusiastic about it, some, for example Jon Elster, have distanced themselves from it.

What do agent-based models add to the standard neoclassic rational choice theory, the insufficiencies of which we all know? Could you explain the sense in which this approach helps us to understand some social phenomena better?

I think they add a lot. First because they allow us to have agents with any motivations, rational as well as irrational. Also they make it possible to test the effects of the complex interactions between various agents, which is something you cannot do using the standard, neoclassic rational choice models. The latter are formally very nice and clear but also linear and static. With agent-based models you can let various differing agents interact and you can get unexpected, emergent effects, which are so important in all complex systems, including obviously the social systems.

Do you think that agent-based models can be useful for basic income proponents?

I think so. They probably cannot be used to prove anything about basic income in a scientific sense, because there is no way we can calibrate such a model empirically, mainly because a basic income system doesn’t yet exist anywhere in the world. So we don’t have the values of the parameters required to calibrate the model correctly. But we can use the model theoretically, for example, to show that it is not obvious that a lot of people would stop working after starting to receive basic income. Some of the predicted effects on labour behaviour by some of the critics are merely possibilities among many others, and depend on the value of many parameters connected to characteristics of a concrete labour market, working conditions, type of jobs, motivations of the workers etc.

Do you think that the empirical data gathered from the basic income experiments could be used to calibrate such models?

That could be helpful. You can use the behavioural data from large field experiments in such a models.

So you don’t appreciate the experiments as a political tool, but you do from the scientific point of view?

Yes, because all the knowledge that we could learn is important. If you have the money I’m the last guy to say you shouldn’t spend it on conducting such experiments. I would like to do them myself, if I had funding. I’m just not convinced by the political strategy that is based on them, I don’t think they could be a political weapon that could make the position of the proponents of basic income stronger.

jose_antonio.nogueraJosé A. Noguera – Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and Director of the Analytical Sociology and Institutional Design Group (GSADI). Co-editor of Papers. Revista de Sociologia, an editorial board member of Basic Income Studies. Member of the International Network of Analytical Sociologists (INAS), and serves on the International Advisory Board of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN).

The Polish translation of this interview can be found here.

Former interviews about basic income:

Jurgen De Wispelaere, Exciting Times Ahead: Experiments and the Politics of 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. Stuart White. The Civic Minimum: On the Rights and Obligations of Economic Citizenship, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 18. []
  2. Stuart White. The Civic Minimum…, 170-175 []
  3. Jurgen De Wispelaere and Lindsay Stirton. “The Public Administration Case against Participation Income”, Social Service Review 81, no. 3 (September 2007): 523–49. []
  4. Jurgen De Wispelaere, and José Antonio Noguera. 2012. “On the Political Feasibility of Universal Basic Income: An Analytic Framework,” in Basic Income Guarantee and Politics: International Experiences and Perspectives on the Viability of Income Guarantee, ed. Richard K. Caputo (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 17-38. []