April 3, 2017 / 4 comments
Philippe Van Parijs on Universal Basic Income and the imagination.
Philippe Van Parijs is a philosopher, social scientist, and co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network. He is co-author of the just-published book ‘Basic Income’, and is one of the leading proponents of the idea. We met in a noisy pizza restaurant in Exeter to discuss Basic Income, and in particular, I was interested to know whether he felt a Basic Income would free people up to be more imaginative.
“There are two important connections here. The first, and also the way that I came to the idea of Basic Income back in 1982, is that mass unemployment and precariousness are the problem, and we can’t ignore that.
It’s important. The grand coalition of the past between the right and the left was that the only way was to grow, to have growth of production that was faster than the growth of productivity, and because we expect all this productivity growth, it must absolutely grow faster, so that if one person instead of five can make a car in one hour, then you need to produce five more cars. Five times more product. So we need an alternative to that. This is a problem.
One solution is the right to an income. Basic Income can be seen as a smart way of sharing work. One of the very early advocates of basic income was a Dutch Professor of Social Medicine at the Free University of Amsterdam. The way he came to the idea, he said it’s crazy, among my patients, I have two categories.
I have the people who come to me because they are sick, and the reason they are sick is that they work too much. And then I have another category, who come to me because they are sick, and the reason they are sick is because they can’t find good work. This is just crazy, and that’s why he said give an unconditional income that will enable people to slow down when they need, to give up or interrupt their work, to take a three day week, sabbatical or similar breaks, and then the others will be able to access these jobs. Not only because some of these jobs will be free, but also because they’ll be able to combine a job on a part-time basis with the benefit that they receive.
Many of the people who are currently excluded couldn’t cope with a full-time job, but they can enter if the job they get can be combined with the kind of support a Basic Income would provide. It’s a way of addressing the real problem of unemployment and precariousness through means other than ever faster growth.
As I put it at the end of ‘Basic Income: a radical proposal for a free society and a sane economy’ (co-authored with Yannick Vanderborght), that Basic Income is utopia, but there’s something very special about that utopia, which is that it makes many more utopias possible. It enables people in many cases to follow their calling, their vocation, to do what they’d really like to do, even if the income is very low initially, or extremely uncertain.
The artist, the people doing start-ups, they think what they do is really important but it won’t pay very much at the beginning. A Basic Income frees your mind. Of course it depends again on the level, but even at the lower level, it makes a difference because you can then combine it with a part-time job. One of the forms it takes and I saw with my children how important it is, is that it democratises access to internships and apprenticeships.
You can do things that correspond to what you study, to what you really want to do in your life, despite the fact that you’ll be paid very little. When you have parents who are willing after your studies to keep giving you your basic income you can do it, and in the end after maybe two, three years without being able to survive on your own, then you finally get into a real job and so on.
But the people who don’t have that, then they end up working in a bank or a supermarket. So that’s the connection, and that’s giving the power to do something that corresponds to what you imagine for yourself.