A new book on basic income

In March 2018, Éditions du Détour published a book written (in french) by Michel Lepesant and Baptiste Mylondo, Inconditionnel, Anthologie du revenu universel  , which proposes a selection of political, philosophical and critical texts of unconditional income thinkers. The purpose of this anthology is to illustrate the diversity of approaches to unconditional income, and their origins. The conviction of the two authors is that « unconditional income is not a simple accounting issue, but, first and foremost, a philosophical question of social justice ». They consider that, « in such a debate, care must be taken to distinguish the desirable (philosophically), the possible (practically) and the feasible (politically)« . This anthology deals mainly with the first point, a little of the second, but leaves the third to future debates.

This article is a summary of this book.

It should first be noted that the choice of texts is not limited to those whose authors defended the idea. And, although not explicitly speaking of unconditional income, some authors are retained because their words seem fundamental for the reflection. They are grouped in three parts. The first is devoted to the time of the utopians, the second turns to the founders and finally the third goes a little further than the conditional income, supporting the political project in which such income should be inscribed.

With an explicitly didactic aim, each of its three parts begins with an introduction presenting the coherence of the texts, and each text itself is the subject of three developments : a first situates its context, a second expresses its interest and a third presents a committed comment, the two authors announcing that their choice is not neutral. Indeed, both authors make it clear that what they call « unconditional income is the socialist, ecological and democratic version of basic universal income; it is a cooperative version and it fits into the paradigm of degrowth as a generalist political philosophy « .

The first part of this anthology is historical

It presents the theoretical work of great utopians who saw in this idea of ​​unconditional income a measure of common sense. Thomas More (1478-1535), in his work Utopia, denounces the ravages caused by the first movement of enclosures. He has the audacity to abolish private property. This thinker is the first to offer an unconditional income, in the form of the guarantee of the satisfaction of « all the conveniences of life ». This guarantee, however, does not yet have an unconditional character, because, according to him, it must be the counterpart of a work useful to society. Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), in his book yhe Civitas Solis, describes an ideal world in which everything is put in common. The moralism that emerges from this Utopia challenges us as to the « hiatus that exists between the individual and the common », a reality that makes « competition the first of social interactions ». Then Charles Fourier (1772-1837), particularly in his work Lettre au Grand Juge, defines a true theory of social bonds as the foundation of a community socialism. He considers that the first problem is that of poverty, and suggests the establishment of an unconditional minimum, paid to the poor, in the form of benefits in kind. Victor Considérant (1808-1893) subsequently writes an Exposition abrégée du système phalanstérien de Fourier, a work in which he proposes a basic income which is « the advance of the minimum, the basis of the guarantee of the emancipation of the proletarian ». But this income would not be unconditional. Indeed, it makes work « the key to social harmony ». Pierre Kropotkin (1842-1921), in The Conquest of  Bread, brings in a radical statement, a reflection in favor of an unconditional right « to dispose of the necessary not to survive but to live well, easily ». Finally, Bertrand Russel (1872-1970) considers that for a man to live with dignity, « we must ensure to everyone, whether he works or not, a modest income, sufficient for the bare necessities ». His writings provide elements of answer to the main objections to the sufficient income without counterpart : risk of decline of the production, need of an economic motive to get to work, injustice to treat the idle as the workers, risk that the gratuity does not lead waste, and finally the risk of abandoning hard work.

The second part deals with justifications

It traces the different justifications put forward in support of unconditional income, from liberal authors to approaches based on another idea of ​​cooperation and society. The authors retain three families of justifications: a right to life, a right to freedom and a right to share in the common wealth.

The right to life is developed by Jean-Louis Vives (1492-1540), who, in his pamphlet De l’Assiatance aux pauvres, sees a divine law. Nobody must live in idleness, but no one must starve. The community has a duty to assist the poor. Jacques Duboin (1878-1976), the founder of distributism, considers that it is from a law of nature that the right to life arises. In his opus Les yeux ouverts, he advocates the payment of a « social income » to all, « from cradle to grave ». Finally, it is also a right to life expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) whose article 3 is unequivocal : « Everyone has the right to life ».

The right to freedom is defended first by Milton Friedman (1912-2006) who, in Capitalism and Freedom advocates a negative tax system based on a right of all to equal opportunities. But this system, which would allow the state to compensate for the lack of generosity of the wealthiest towards the most destitute, should increase the efficiency of market services and be a source of savings for the public accounts. Other liberal, but in the political sense of the term, the philosopher John Rawls, affirms in his major work, the Theory of Justice, that everyone must enjoy a guaranteed minimum income, but on the condition that he occupies or actively seeks a job. Philippe Van Parijs (born in 1951) will try, in vain, to convince him that only a universal allowance, which is also unconditional, can guarantee to all a real freedom, a position he develops in his famous article Why should we feed the surfers ?.

Regarding the right to a share of the common wealth, first John Locke 1632-1704), in his Second Treaty of the Civil Government, dealing with property, suggests that « the political consideration of the current overrun Ecological limits force us to reconsider the part that should belong to each for its contribution to the production of the common wealth« . Following him, the revolutionary Thomas Paine (1737-1809), in his work Agrarian justice, asserts that all production is based on a common heritage, which justifies the payment of a rent to each, as co-owner of the land and natural resources. In the same vein, the philosopher Marc Hunyadi (born in 1960), in an article entitled Une autre idée de la coopération : la philosophie sociale de l’allocation universelle, believes that only a narrow conception of cooperation can make us lose sight of the necessarily collective origin of all production. Coming to support this foundation, François Flahaut (born in 1943), in his book Où est passé le bien commun?, demonstrates the contribution of all to the maintenance of our first common good, society. Finally, Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC), especially in Politics, teaches us that this common good has only one goal, to be lived.

The third part extends the reflection beyond the simple unconditional income

This last part develops the broader problematic of inequalities, starting from texts arguing for a sufficient income, but also for the introduction of a ceiling of wealth. André Gorz (1923-2007), in a plea Pour un revenu inconditionnel suffisant, defends the idea of ​​an unconditional income which is sufficient to ensure the autonomy of the people, to allow everyone to escape misery, exclusion and exploitation. Alain Caillé (born in 1944) wondering if Un autre monde moins injuste est possible, says that it must first respond to the trends of the absence of limits that threaten the planet by simultaneously establishing a minimum income and maximum income. This ecological dimension is also supported by Les Amis de la Terre who invite, in their text Position des Amis de la Terre pour des sociétés soutenables, to define an ecological space of incomes. For his part, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), in his text Position des Amis de la Terre pour des sociétés soutenables, denounces the unjust domination of relations between rich and poor, while Montesquieu (1689-1755), in De l’esprit des Lois, stresses that a truly democratic regime can not tolerate excessive income disparities. Regarding these differences, Plato (428 BC-348 BC), in The Republic, Politics and Laws, advocates that the rich do not have more than 4 times than the poor. Finally, to conclude this anthology, the two authors wanted to widen the subject to other societal issues, particularly in the direction of the cause of women. They quote the sociologist Antonella Corsani who, in a text titled Penser le revenu garanti à travers l’histoire des luttes des femmes et de la théorie féministe, poses the question of the impact that such an unconditional income could have on the situation of women in our society.

A powerful source of inspiration and reflection

This collection of texts thus offers a very rich documentary base for anyone interested in the justifications of basic income. The reader will find there a powerful source of inspiration and reflection on its philosophical foundations, theoretical base indispensable and necessarily prior to any variation of its implementation. It is not only a question of the coherence of the proposals, but also of the durability of the basic income which, in the absence of a sufficiently solid theoretical corpus, risks knowing the fate of the welfare state, which has been regularly unraveled since the beginning of 1980s.

Robert Cauneau, a basic income activist, member of MFRB


Order the book online: here

Photo : « Au temps d’harmonie », Paul Signac, 1893-1895 (cover of the book)

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