Saturday, May 08, 2010

Some thoughts on basic income

Beside the election, the other reason I am in Britain right now is for the inaugural Brian Barry memorial symposium. Organized by Chandran Kukathas at the London School of Economics and featuring an impressive list of distinguished scholars, it is a two day event honouring a political theorist who was not only a great source of theoretical inspiration for me but also someone who shared many of my normative beliefs.

Today, I have had the privilege of listening to, among others, Philippe Van Parijs and Simon Caney. The first reminded me of a paper I long have wanted to write in order to explain why I am critical of the idea of an unconditional basic income.

While I can imagine some future state of post-scarcity and universal affluence in which we could completely decouple productive work and monetary remuneration (think Star Trek), it seems to me that for the present there is an urgent need for all of us to contribute productively to the world. With billions of people starving and formidable problems of sustainability ahead of us, this hardly seem like the right time for any of us to retire into being solely consumers, be it to play computer games or to become Malibu surfers (as the famous example goes).

What I am afraid of is that an unconditional basic income would give people, who are already alienated from society, an exit route that would further undermine the idea of society as a collective and collaborative project. While the present capitalistic system is obviously imperfect and we can easily think of jobs that are destructive rather than productive (say, marketing cigarettes), that rather calls upon us to use democratic means to better orient society towards the kind of work needed. In that process, money remains one of the most effective motivational tools in our arsenal. While I am a great defender of having a generous welfare system with extensive unemployment benefits, I think it is crucial that such benefits are seen as a temporary rather than a permanent form of income.



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