Five International Questions for the National Basic Income Debates
Five International Questions for the National Basic Income Debates

Five International Questions for the National Basic Income Debates

Mar 12, 2008

The idea of the "national basic income" (NBI) is energizing a growing number of political theorists, campaigners, and leaders with its promise of an alternative to the welfare state that is both fairer and more efficient. The notion is that by guaranteeing an unconditional income stream to all adult individuals within a political community, governments can expect to generate a series of social benefits—not only an end to extremes of poverty and inequality, but also a new beginning for individual freedom, democratic participation, social relationships, gender equality, fair and flexible labor markets, and environmental sustainability. NBI proposals advertise their potential to achieve all this while relieving states and individuals of the expensive, intrusive, and often bewildering bureaucracy associated with welfare provision and means-testing. For the leading academic advocate of the concept, the Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs, a "basic income would serve as a powerful instrument for social justice."

NBI theorists differ in predictable ways over how to argue on its behalf, with some developing rights-based arguments—building, for instance, from land rights, work rights, or from the idea that citizens have an equal claim to society's technological inheritance—and others thinking in consequentialist terms, endeavoring to outweigh concerns about basic income's affront to reciprocity (in the words of NBI critic William Galston, "the simple but profound idea that people who receive benefits should make contributions") by compiling the ways in which it may be a very good thing regardless. Theorists are also at odds over what level of income one should want, in principle, to aim for: some would be satisfied with a universal, guaranteed income set at subsistence level, while others are convinced that we are each entitled to an income sufficient to sustain a "modest but decent standard of life," which would include the material freedom to participate in the political and cultural life of one's community.

But overall the NBI discussion is less notable for its principled disputes than for encouraging a conversation, and an expanding coalition, among a broad range of actors: on the one hand, drawing together academics from a wide range of disciplines; and on the other, connecting their work to an expanding advocacy group centered on the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). These conversations take place in the pages of the dedicated journal, Basic Income Studies, founded in 2006, as well as through an apparently relentless program of panels and conferences worldwide. In just the first six months of 2007, NBI meetings were held in France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, Slovenia, Switzerland, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, and the United States—with the seventh meeting of the US Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG), one of eleven national affiliates of the BIEN, taking place in Boston in March 2008.


This broad coalition combines intellectual and political savvy—a mix exemplified by Van Parijs himself, who, in addition to holding down day jobs at Harvard and the Catholic University of Louvain, has also worked actively as an idea entrepreneur: traveling, lecturing, and meeting political leaders in potential NBI hot-spots around the world, as well as providing organizational direction and encouragement to BIEN members. To quote this leading philosopher in a 2002 speech to the converted: "We must be cold-blooded enthusiasts, prepared to cope with countless disappointments and always ready to draw lessons for the next move."

Its "little by little" approach has allowed the BIEN to claim several recent successes, with NBI proposals finding their way onto the mainstream agenda in countries as diverse as Namibia and Ireland. In Namibia a pilot project focused on the small, eastern village of Omitara is assessing the potential of a basic income to assist poverty reduction and economic development. Project organizers began in January to distribute monthly payouts of around $13 to Omitara residents, who, faced with high unemployment, have traditionally got by on pensions and remittances. As for Ireland, analysts gather in Dublin later this year for the 12th BIEN Congress, to be preceded by a one-day event on the future of basic income in the host country itself, which in 2002 saw the publication of a government green paper on the subject.

Unlikely as it may seem, the United States is one of the leading sources of momentum and ideas for the NBI movement. Indeed, it is one of the few countries to already have a scheme approximating a true basic income operating within its borders. For three decades the Alaska Permanent Fund has distributed proceeds from mineral royalties in an annual payment to the state's long-term adult population; in 2007 Alaskans each received over $1,600, almost double the figure for 2005. Meanwhile, the leading "ideas man" in American welfare debates, Charles Murray (infamous for the books, Losing Ground and The Bell Curve) has emerged as an unlikely cheerleader for the basic income—"The Plan," as he pitches it; "America is so wealthy," writes Murray, "that enabling everyone to have a decent standard of living is easy." Other prominent intellectuals who have developed NBI arguments include Amitai Etzioni and Brian Barry.


There is much to admire in the willingness of the NBI movement to adopt a piecemeal approach. However, the "one-country-at-a-time" aspect of the agenda has a regrettable tendency to sideline international issues. The Irish green paper, for instance, discusses the global level only with respect to how a basic income might equip Ireland to compete more formidably for market share and skilled workers. The NBI agenda may be a missed opportunity in the making if such an energizing notion—one which is, in principle, both egalitarian and globalist—is allowed to gain traction as yet another tool of state competition and hoarding. National debates can detract from questions to do with transnational dynamics and the urgent demands of global justice, including the claims of individuals everywhere and not merely within one's home community, to the material conditions for freedom, participation, access to jobs, and all the other very good things gestured to by NBI theorists, campaigners, and cheerleaders alike.

NBI advocates suggest that to think in terms of globalizing the basic income would be to try to run before we learn to walk. I do not disagree exactly; but one of my claims below is that not to conduct NBI debates in a way that remains alive to dynamics and justice claims at the global level may leave the agenda struggling to get going at all: How, for instance, can an NBI scheme succeed without neutralizing the "welfare migrant" effect by engaging with issues and policies connected to international freedom of movement? How, moreover, could such a scheme make headway in a developing state in lieu of institutional capacity building, if not at the domestic level, then internationally? I argue below that not only does the basic income agenda need, as a matter of fact, to think more fully and frequently in terms of international contexts, but also that the very act of building international issues into the work of NBI analysts and advocates could help—little by little—to chalk up intimations of a truly global basic income (GBI) agenda.

I develop this perspective by enumerating five "international questions" yet to receive adequate attention within the NBI debate, and on each occasion suggest that the problems they underscore invite fittingly "international" solutions. I do not by this mean to suggest that international concerns should themselves sideline the important reconsideration of domestic social justice implicated in NBI debates, nor indeed that the concerns referred to here have not been recognized elsewhere. However, the hope is that, through cataloguing and extending the list of active international concerns, NBI proponents may be persuaded of the need to reenact their agenda along partially globalist lines.


Perhaps the most easily apparent international question for the NBI debate concerns the tension between generous welfare policies and an egalitarian take on immigration: Can a state with open pockets afford open borders? Indeed—and before one even arrives at a discussion of whether welfare migration into a basic income state could be economically affordable—the immigration question threatens to make NBI proposals unaffordable politically, and perhaps a nonstarter, through the fear and uncertainty it is bound to create. This issue demands wide attention from NBI debate contributors. The reason is that Europe, often a poster-board for innovative public policy initiatives, and the site of the majority of the 2007 NBI meetings listed above, has already opted for open internal borders.

At least three plausible answers to the immigration question invite an internationalized approach to NBI discussions. A first is that the tension between NBI and immigration policies might prove, in fact, to be less powerful and destabilizing than the question supposes. Demonstrating the point would require NBI researchers to conduct empirical investigations of transnational dynamics; and the opportunity is certainly out there. Just as Europe poses the "pockets vs. borders" dilemma in its starkest current form, it also already presents a natural laboratory within which to test the relationship between non-uniform welfare levels and intraregional migration.

This first answer speaks mainly to analysts; two other responses, meanwhile, intimate a fresh strategy on the part of NBI advocates. One of these sticks with the European context, and posits that if Europe could indeed sustain open pockets in some states and open borders in all, NBI advocates would have themselves a model solution to crises of justice at several levels of international life. If NBI debates as typically conducted do a disservice to global justice claims, and if the notion of a GBI is still too wild to gain traction, then perhaps advocates should adopt a regional vanguard strategy in the pursuit of a fair and guaranteed income for all: "Normative Power Europe," indeed.

The final answer to the immigration question builds on the argument—discussed most fully by Michael Howard of the University of Maine—for the simultaneous imposition of tight borders and generous international transfers as a precondition for the just and successful enactment of an NBI. The suggestion is that by pledging monetary transfers to countries with a large pool of likely welfare migrants—in effect, paying would-be immigrants to stay at home—an NBI state might thereby lessen the unease that comes with prioritizing its own citizens, as well as make the initiative more likely to succeed politically by lessening fears of a foreign influx. The Howard argument probably makes the greatest sense if considered in the North American context. Presumably the United States could not contemplate nationalizing the Alaska model, or rolling out Murray's "Plan," without also proposing money transfers to Mexico and Central American states. As currently framed, this answer to the immigration question positions international transfers as a kind of mitigating force, designed with a domestic constituency in mind. However, from a globalist perspective, and given that it would link countries in a web of redistribution, the transfer solution, if enacted, could be viewed—and talked about by NBI advocates—as foreshadowing a basic income at the global level.


The second international question concerns whether the traditional match-up between national and political communities—such as in principle ought to be basic income zones—has been destabilized by the emergence of global civil society and intimations of global democracy: Assuming we can make sense of the notion of political participation at the global level, would an NBI in one or a handful of states threaten to re-enfranchise some while still excluding others?

Even highly erudite NBI arguments may be destabilized by the possibility of global community. Carole Pateman, for instance, argues in favor of the basic income as a precondition of liberal democracy. Pateman's position is that by its own lights democracy should be radically participatory, but is restrained from this ideal by economic deprivations and inequality that keep citizens from having full and equal standing, not to mention the free time to contribute to the community. The open, international question has to do with how "community" here should be defined—at least at the leading edge of social justice theorizing—given any stirrings of democracy at the global level and the more certain expansion of global civil society. Pateman finds an especially powerful rhetorical wedge with her comparison between the current debate over basic income and the earlier history of women's suffrage, revealing the NBI debate as yet another struggle in the history of making democracy what it claims itself to be. But the two moments in time do differ in relevant respects, not least insofar as talk of democratic themes and structures relating, for instance, to representation, deliberation, accountability, and transparency—if not yet talk of votes—is now increasingly globalized.

Several international pathways for the NBI agenda are opened up by this brief discussion, some of which are in line with my claim that NBI theorists ought really to engage with the international dynamics impacting the plausibility of their arguments; and others, meanwhile, are suggestive again of the gathering force behind the GBI concept. For one thing, theorists could explore the "problem" of global community, not only with respect to whether one can build a Pateman-style case for GBI, but also in order to interrogate whether state level NBI arguments, including Pateman's on participation, need patching up in light of global developments. Equally, advocates could explore whether ideas of full and equal standing in global society can contribute to a workable case for international aspects of the NBI agenda, from money transfers all the way to global level guarantees.


The third and fourth international questions refer respectively to comparative state capacity and the distributional effects of international institutions. The overall insight here is that unless NBI advocates put international as well as state-based institutions on the table in terms of being possible conduits for NBI initiatives, they are in effect agreeing to postpone discussion of basic income solutions to social justice problems in states with low resource and infrastructural capacities. The questions are as follows: What does the NBI agenda have to say about the justice and practice of state capacity-building? And what information do we have about the distributional effects of existing international institutions?

To be sure, many developing states do have sufficient wherewithal to make NBI schemes viable. Namibia is a prime example, where a universal pension manages to make it out to 98 percent of the scattered elderly population. But other countries—lacking in essential infrastructure, from records to railroads—would find questions to do with the exact number and locations of the population an overwhelming challenge. One thing we might say to the question of the justice of state capacity-building is that surely an NBI state should regard the shoring up of foreign government institutions as an equal or complementary priority to monetary transfers: such transfers can hardly be a disincentive to migrants if receiving governments do not have the administrative resources to distribute them widely. But again to put a globalist spin on things, it is plausible that the more just and actionable way to proceed would be to invest instead, or in tandem, in institutional capacity at the international level—an expanded international banking regime, for instance.

An immediate problem here, to which the fourth international question is a reaction, is that we know little about the actual distributional effects of the international economic order. This gap in understanding presents another opportunity for NBI researchers to engage with international dynamics. Researchers—and in this one would include all empirically-minded scholars interested in questions of global justice—would benefit from the results of a systematic survey of the current trade regime and international financial and banking structures. NBI analysts would need such data not only to set reasonable benchmarks for international capacity-building, but also to make general sense of the intersection between NBI/GBI principles and the international realm.


Is it responsible to exhaust vision and energy pursuing long-shot domestic justice reforms that do nothing directly to eliminate the severest, and distinctly "international," forms of inequality? In the terms of the current argument, the challenge here is twofold: first, that global justice claims might destabilize talk of radical redistribution at the state level—not unlike the potential political impact of the "welfare magnet" effect—by providing NBI's political critics with a powerful rhetorical wedge of their own: "If your overriding priority is equality, then why focus on conditions at home?" And second, the issue of whether NBI advocates should make a run toward the idea of a basic income at the global level.

NBI theorists have certainly struggled with how to balance this final, but hopefully also "prior," concern. Van Parijs, for one, intervenes in the hope of stabilizing the debate's predicament over the claims of global justice with the argument that not only are these claims compatible with state level basic income proposals, but also that the latter may hold the key to the former. He holds that by upgrading welfare states in rich countries to NBI systems we foster political conditions conducive to global justice insofar as we "soften the understandable resistance to the dismantling of protectionist policies that hinder the reduction of international inequalities."

But are we convinced by the implication that, as things stand, the goal of guaranteeing a good standard of life to citizens in developed and successfully developing countries is doable, but that the parallel goal of enabling everyone—really everyone—to have a modestly acceptable standard of living is out of reach?

Given that, as discussed, basic income arguments for more comprehensive international redistribution may already be near at hand, we perhaps ought to feel uneasy about following Van Parijs' nationalist route to internationalism—leaving other narratives hanging, from the European model to the thickening of international democratic institutions. We might add to these intimations the position of Thomas Pogge, who argues that the enormity of international inequality does immediately warrant something like a GBI, but one that makes a priority of protecting the least well-off, and so puts the unconditional element on hold. Many political actors could surely be persuaded that such a proposal would bring us closer to a just world, even by the lights of NBI advocates, than the enactment of a modest but decent income guarantee in, say, a dozen comfortably-off states. Even while still learning how to walk at the national level, the basic income agenda might surprise itself with a sudden burst of athleticism internationally.

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