Universal income: from desirability to feasibility

In an article entitled « Universal income : going beyond the theorem of impossibility » [1], Marc-Antoine Sabaté, a doctoral student in political theory at the Free University of Brussels, suggests that when we talk about this subject, the right question to ask oneself is not only that of its financing. It seems to him much more important to « know if the conditions under which it would be achieved would meet the expectations it raises. » He also considers that, beyond the limited nature of the lessons that can be drawn from it, the experimentations are not sufficient to decide the question of its feasibility, which makes a normative approach necessary. He then asks the question, which he considers paramount, whether universal income can form the basis of a new social security. Taking seriously the objections commonly made about the risk of dismantling the current social system, he develops the importance of the role of political theory to « bring up the terms of choice » of society implied by this reform.

As synthesis of this article, the present text tries to show how, in a rich and nuanced way, it opens new avenues for reflection and brings a real added value to the debate around the universal income which all too often privileges the question « how », its feasibility, neglecting the « why », its desirability, these two questions being in reality not only closely intertwined, but inseparable.

Philosophical debates can not be excluded from evaluation.

According to the author, the question of the feasibility of universal income is not limited to that of its financing, an aspect which is, moreover, often misunderstood. Too often, the analyzes are limited to an evaluation of its gross cost alone, whereas, to the extent that this reform is financed by a change in income redistribution, generating winners and losers, its real cost would actually be that of this modification. In other words, the real cost would be the amount of money that goes out of the losers’ pocket to get into the winner’s pocket. It should also be taken into account that universal income would be at least partially self-financing thanks to the savings generated by the replacement of certain social benefits. The impact on the rate of cumpulsory levies should therefore be evaluated on the basis of its net cost, not its gross cost.

But the question of funding is probably not the right question. « It does not matter, indeed, the budgetary sustainability of such a project, if the practical conditions of its implementation prove to be incompatible with the objectives which motivated it a priori ».

The desirability of the project must be confirmed by the assessment of the feasibility of the reform. Thus, « its acceptability depends to a large extent on the adequacy between the political orientation of the choice of its establishment and the actual reality of its economic and social consequences ». It therefore becomes indispensable to resort to the light of political theory. In other words, philosophical debates can not be excluded from reflection.

The need to reduce the gap between desirability and feasibility

It is therefore a question of reducing the gap between desirability and feasibility. In order to argue this need, an example is presented, which concerns one of the objectives of setting up a universal income, the fight against poverty. Some authors suggest a universal income of 785 euros monthly per adult, 315 euros per child and 100 euros for over 65 years. The question then is not that of financing, which, estimated at 480 billion euros gross, would be a priori possible to finance. The real question is rather that of the complexity of the reform to be envisaged, in view of the expected improvements, similar effects that can perhaps be obtained at a lower cost.

The question then is whether the reform would be as good as the current system of protection. « Can we really present the universal income as the base of a reinforced individual autonomy vis-à-vis the work suffered, the alienated work, if its amount should be, by budgetary constraint, lower than the poverty line? Would it not then be possible to arrive at « a conception of social justice at a discount? « 

The challenge then becomes to reduce as much as possible the gap between « the different promises of social justice and individual autonomy that carry it and the uncertain reality of its economic and social consequences ».

The limits of experimentation and the need for consensus around a common project

The assessment of the feasibility of universal income can not be limited to the simple collection of empirical evidence of its effectiveness that can be collected in the context of experimentations. It also depends, closely, on setting and meeting objectives. However, universal income is the subject of very disparate proposals. For example, what are the commonalities between the liberal project « Liber » by Gaspar Koenig and Marc de Basquiat and the unconditional income defended by Baptiste Mylondo as a fight against inequalities and as a tool for degrowth? [2] « The terms and conditions for set up of universal income, in an experimented or generalized way, embody and will continue to embody divergent policy options ».

These divergences therefore require a choice of normative orientation concerning « the nature of the work as well as the social rights, the sense of solidarity, etc. »  

A new social security ?

The question then is whether universal income could « form the bedrock of a new social security ». Based on the evolution of supply and demand, two scenarios emerge. The first would reduce unemployment and stimulate entrepreneurship. The second would generate more precarious jobs and reduce the bargaining power. Although empirical data, certainly difficult to obtain, including in the framework of experimentations, would be very useful for clarifying these projections, it is clear that they contain a normative dimension, particularly related to the question of whether protection, as welle as the social integration of individuals, must continue to rest primarily on the statutory role of employment.

Uncertain but necessary public membership

The feasibility of universal income depends heavily on public support for the political choice of its introduction. Philosophical debates therefore have a vital role to play in the evaluation of these choices. In order to be adopted, universal income will have to be given meaning – « new pillar of social security », « base of individual autonomy », « rationalization of the system », etc., an indispensable condition for a membership that is currently lacking.

The lack of membership is the consequence, on the one hand, of the belief of the impossibility of financing it and, on the other hand, of its incompatibility with our social model system, an obstacle that could be removed, in particular by the acceptance a « partial or total disconnect between employment and social rights ».

Bring out the terms of the choice

In order to make the universal income politically feasible, insofar as the empirical data from the experimentationss are not and will be only partial, it is therefore necessary to pursue a theoretical effort that will make it possible to identify the different normative horizons involved, and thus to  » bring out the terms of this choice  » [3].

Robert Cauneau, a basic income activist, member of MFRB


[1] Marc-Antoine Sabaté, Universal income: « Revenu universel : dépasser le théorème d’impossibilité », Revue Esprit: https://esprit.presse.fr/article/sabate-marc-antoine/revenu-universel-depasser-le-theoreme- d-41391. Citations, italicized in the text, other than those that are the subject of a specific footnote are taken from this article.

[2] See Gaspard Koenig and Marc de Basquiat, « Liber, un revenu de liberté pour tous. Une proposition d’impôt négatif en France « , Génération Libre, April 2014; Baptiste Mylondo, « Pour un revenu sans conditions. Garantir l’accès aux biens et services essentiels », Paris, Utopia, 2012.

[3] Alain Renaut, « Qu’est-ce qu’une politique juste ? Essai sur la question du meilleur régime », Paris, Grasset, 2004, p. 37.

Image: fr.dreamstime.com

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