Basic income experiments : limits and risks

More and more mediatized, more and more object of debate, for several reasons totally confused in the minds, the basic income, multidimensional concept and eminently complex, with unknown consequences, is often analyzed as impossible to implement without having previously experienced some of its effects. In its concluding report [1], the French senatorial mission of information on basic income set up in the fall of 2016 recommended « the implementation of an experiment, like what was done for the implementation of the RSA (Revenu de Solidarité Active)« . Experiments are emerging around the world in a variety of contexts and objectives, in villages in Namibia as well as in Silicon Valley companies, for example.

Basic income advocates generally agree on the limitations of experiments that make it difficult to use lessons learned for generalization across the country.

This article analyzes and criticizes the current projects of 13 French departments that have applied for this kind of experimentation. It has five objectives : to recall the definition of the basic income, to discuss the question of whether basic income is only a simple tool of social engineering or a real political project, to present the limits of the experiments, to question the risks they entail, and finally to present some thougts on the decision-making process for the establishment of a basic income.


« Basic Income »: a simple question of semantics?

The French Movement for a Basic Income (MFRB) proposes in its charter a definition which, a priori, seems to be unanimous:

« The basic income is an inalienable, unconditional right, cumulative with other income, distributed by a political community to all its members, from birth to death, on an individual basis, without control of resources or counterpart requirements, of which the amount and the financing are adjusted democratically [2]

This definition, however, has for some time been questionable. Indeed, insofar as the departmental projects of experimentation do not respect it, some activists reject the name of « basic income », considering it false, thus illegitimate. This is the case, for example, of a think-tank of more than 1,000 people who think about the promotion of a « Revenu Universel d’Existence »  in all respects identical to the basic income defined above, but voluntarily styled differently to avoid confusion. The concept defended by the MFRB thus sees its credibility strongly undermined.


Basic income: a simple social engineering tool or a real political project?

It is out of the question to doubt the intention of the departmental elected …

It is difficult to totally exclude the idea that these experiments are motivated, at least partially, by the desire to reaffirm the competence of departments in the social field. However, it is out of the question to doubt the sincerity of these departmental elected officials in their desire, through these experiments, to improve the situation of the poor. There are enough press articles and videos to realize how, for example, Jean-Luc Glèze, president of the departmental council of Gironde and the team around him are motivated for this project. It is also remarkable to note the very positive aspect of the broad consultation that has been carried out in this department with the aim of involving a large number of social actors, in the framework of participatory workshops bringing together beneficiaries of the social minima as well as professionals in the field of inclusion and social work.

… but the experimented object is not a basic income …

However, it is clear that these departmental experiments will not apply to income corresponding to the basic income criteria, as defined above. It will be an operation to merge certain social minima, while remaining in a logic of payment conditioned to a level of resources and towards a part of the population. Experienced income is therefore neither unconditional nor universal.

… and, the presentation that is made is much too reductive.

As they are conceived, the departmental experiments are accompanied by objectives that are quite conducive to social progress (automation thus end of non-recourse, end of stigmatization, social inclusion, etc.) [3], intended in particular to improve the situation of the poorest.

It is clear, however, that basic income can not be reduced to this type of goal. Poured to the rich as to the poor, but financially soliciting the rich more than today for the benefit of the poorest, it fundamentally calls into question the social pact.

Indeed, the basic income is not only a technical object, a simple tool of social engineering. It is rather the vector of a profound social transformation, which fundamentally challenges the social pact. It is a political project in its own right.

The amount of basic income : a reflection of the meaning we want to give it.

Within the framework of these departmental projects, the amount will be retained after analysis of the answers provided by the people who will have wished to consult the questionnaire proposed on Internet, and which will have chosen between the monthly amounts of 545, 645, 745 or 845 euros. It also states that « If the philosophical origins and political projects of these models differ, all have in common the desire to offer a guarantee of income. « [4]

As it is formulated, this sentence shows how the concept of basic income can be misunderstood, therefore misused, and thus lose its meaning. Indeed, this type of questioning would suggest that there is only one basic income, which would be transpartisan, crossing all ideological divisions, which is fundamentally wrong.

Converging liberals as socialists, the right as the left, this membership of all political edges undermines the credibility of the concept. Indeed, calling into question the social pact, the basic income should be elaborated on the basis of a national debate leading itself to real social choices. It must indeed question fundamental options such as that of a Bismarckian system versus a Berevidgian system, a primary income versus a transfer income, a distribution of wealth versus a redistribution of income, a tax levy that would be either proportional or progressive, a possible goal of fighting inequalities, etc.). However, experiments will not be able to discuss these issues.

The presentation of the basic income made in these projects, obscuring the diversity of the proposals, could be interpreted positively as a search for consensus on the part of its advocates. In reality, it is not, and it is likely to become ultimately completely counterproductive. Indeed, it is clear that this vision encourages us to reason only at a technical level, without a real search for the meaning of this reform, by focusing on the question « how », while obscuring the essential, the question « why »

There are at least 2 versions of basic income: a liberal and a « left ».

The basic income amount is in no way neutral. It is much more than a simple technical data. So, what can there be in common between (i) the liberal project of Gaspard Koenig and Marc de Basquiat, strongly influenced by the thinking of the very liberal Milton Friedman, aiming to fight against poverty but in no way reduce inequalities, accompanied by an unwritten but real desire for « liberation », hence deregulation of the labor market, financed by a proportional and non-progressive income tax, the amount of which is close to that of RSA for adults (around 500 euros monthly), and (ii) the unconditional income defended by Baptiste Mylondo as a tool for decreasing inequality, proposing a maximum ratio of 1 to 4 between incomes, and the amount of which would be « sufficient », approaching the poverty line [5] ? Nothing, absolutely nothing, except the fact that it would be an individual, universal and unconditional income. It should also be borne in mind that, if we remain in a logic of income redistribution, it is obvious that the redistributive effects will be upset at 1,000 euros, while they will be much less at 500. Political feasibility therefore presents itself in totally different ways.

In addition, the question arises of the coherence between the objectives sought and the means implemented. Thus, what is the meaning of giving an objective to fight against poverty with a basic income proposal below the poverty line [6]?

The amount of basic income: a reflection of the employees’ bargaining power vis-à-vis their employer.

It seems important to remember that the choice of the amount would also have consequences on the evolution of the relationship between employees and employers. Indeed, as André Gorz mentions, an insufficient amount may result in a premium paid to employers. He suggests « An income that is » enough « , because a minimum income, below a subsistence level, would be a kind of subsidy to employers that would turn against employees. Not being assured of a sufficient basic income, they would be continually looking for a vacation, an acting assignment and ready to accept any job and for any salary. » Gorz’s proposal is thus in total opposition to the liberal version. [7]


Experiments carry many limits …

Experiments can not be financed by a specific tax system.

One of the most obvious limitations of the experiments is that they can not be financed by a specific tax, since the Constitution forbids it. They will be an ordinary expenditure, a financing coming from outside of themselves. This raises the question of the evaluation of funding. Indeed, applied throughout the territory, the universal income would imply very important income transfers, variable according to the amount retained. Its implementation would therefore require a substantial increase in tax rates, probably from the first euros of activity income. All taxpayers would be concerned by the inseparable couple « universal tax-universal income » that is not experienced as such, some financially winners, other losers. However, for this reason, the experiments can only contains winners.

They are limited in space and time

Another limitation is the consequence of the fact that the experiments take place over a short time, of 2 or 3 years maximum, whereas the individuals do not react in the same way in the presence of temporary or perennial measures. Also, they only concern small populations, which does not allow to observe the effect of mimicry that is commonly found in the decisions of individuals. For this reason, the tested populations are very culturally and socially homogenous.

Experiments are also limited in space. They can only be applied in small areas, which makes it impossible, in particular, to observe their macroeconomic implications. The result of the observations will therefore be irrelevant, due to inevitable methodological bias, thus limiting their interest for generalization.

Lessons learned from past or current experiments are of little relevance.

With regard to the experiments carried out or in progress, the defenders of the basic income often use them in their argument the positive effects that were observed there. But this kind of reference is not solid. Indeed, it does not take into consideration the fact that the economic and social context of these countries is fundamentally different from ours. Thus, the lessons learned from experiments carried out in poor countries, which do not have a social protection system as developed as in the northern countries, are difficult to exploit. Similarly, the differences in culture between Americans and Europeans make difficuly comparisons with the lessons learned from experiments across the Atlantic.

The reference to the experimentation of the RSA is biased.

Finally, it is important to note that the reference to the experimentation of the RSA as it is made in the report of the senatorial mission mentioned above, does not seem relevant. Indeed, this measure do not imply a major tax reform as the basic income would do and, in the case of the RSA, it is clear that the government, even before launching the experiment, decided to implement it. In fact, the failure of this experiment did not prevent the government of the time from implementing the reform. The vision of the policy on this reform project was therefore fundamentally different from the current ones. There was then a strong political will to implement this reform of the RSA, which is absolutely not the case for the basic income.


… as well as real risks.

  Experiments are limited to an improvement of the social minima …

So, while it is beyond our scope to doubt the progress underlying the objectives pursued in the context of these departmental experiments, we can nevertheless suggest modifying the statement of their purpose, which would no longer be «  basic income experimentations », but rather « automatic RSA experimentations », or « reform of social minima experimentations ». This would have the merit of clarifying things, putting an end to amalgams, putting an end to this untimely use of a concept much wider than the object of these experiments, and thus of giving back to the basic income all its meaning.

… which generates an image more and more blurred in the public mind.

As a consequence of the way in which this reform is presented, the general public, for the reasons mentioned above, has only a blurred image, because it is incomplete and erroneous, of what can be a basic income applied throughout the territory. .

The media undoubtedly bear an important responsibility in this situation. For example, they attribute this expression, indiscriminately, both to the « universal income » proposed by Manuel Valls during a trip to the Gironde in January 2017, and to the « income of citizenship » proposed by the Italian coalition that came to power just recently, while these revenues are not universal or unconditional. This misuse of the terms « basic income », « universal income », blurring the image of the concept, has disastrous consequences for opinion. Because nobody understands anything anymore. [8]

Experiments : a way to bury forever a project forever?

The question may also arise whether the experiments do not represent a way to defer the political decision itself for a reform of such a scale on the whole territory, and thus to putt off indefinetely the decision or worse, to prepare a first class burial.


Social experiments: symptoms of technocratic omnipotence ?

Does not the political vision fade away in favor of technology?

The question arises as to whether basic income experiments, as part of this recentpolitics vanishes in front of technocracy movement that makes it necessary to test public policies prior to their application, would not be the symptoms of an omnipotent technocracy. It is certainly not a question of condemning in a block all that underlies social experimentation. But one wonders if there is not, with scientific evaluation, and behind the legitimate concern for a better understanding of the effects of public action, a drift leading policymakers to fade in favor of the experts. It is important that knowledge feeds the decision, but there is a real risk that it will destroy it. It therefore seems essential to draw the limits not to be crossed in order to avoid the absorption by scientific logic of the logic of political action [9], as well as to avoid a « shift towards a conception of politics as a experimental policy « [10]. Any innovation now risks being interrogated for itself, not according to a more general horizon, configured in advance, that it would allow to reach or to glimpse.

The risk, then, is that the « why » becomes marginal, that politics effaces for the benefit of technocracy, and that the vision disappears in favor of technology.

Time is not to experiments. It is to public debate.

Given these limits and all these risks, which make us doubt the relevance of the experiments, it seems to us that it would be much more effective to move towards public debates, involving not only politicians, experts and activists, but the entire population, and that would at least test the desirability of the reform. These debates should ideally focus on the topics addressed as part of the preparation of departmental experiments, but also, and perhaps most importantly, on much broader issues. It is a matter of defining a global vision of what the society of tomorrow should be (more social justice, the fight against inequalities, the preservation of the planet, etc.) So it is not time to experiments. It is rather to deepen its justifications and public debate.


Basic income will not be introduced « from above ». It will come « from below ».

When one asks the question of the necessity of experimenting with a reform as important as that which would constitute the establishment of a basic income, it is interesting to refer to the past, in order to try to understand how the conditions for social reforms of a similar scale have been able to emerge. We can then realize that neither Bismarck at the end of the 19th century with regard to health care system, nor the French Social Security designers in 1945, needed experimenting  to implement their reform. Bismarck aimed to anticipate the risk of social riots that threatened. As for Social Security, like many major social reforms, national solidarity in response to past horrors, in this period immediately after the war, was the main driver.

In their recently published book, Michel Lepesant and Baptiste Mylondo [11] quite rightly question the relevance of experiments: « … no experimentation can avoid the bias of being an abstraction. An absurd way of blaming ourselves that our ideas without putting them into practice are just dreams. « . Anyway, a dream, especially that of a more just society, which one sees the possibility of realization, an utopia that can be described as « realistic », does not have to be experimented. It is lived out, or it is forgotten.

The idea of ​​basic income is fashionable. Great … we will not complain. It remains to be hoped, however, that this beautiful concept will not remain a fashion, dedicated to a duration of existence limited to that of its own gestation.

But the decision needed to implement such a project will require such political courage that one can easily imagine, as André Gorz foresaw, that it can not be introduced « from above » [12] . It can come only « from below », the political decision-maker, under pressure, playing the role of simple executor of the sovereign will of the people.

And yet, in any major political project like this, is there not an unknown part, which requires an important risk-taking, consubstantial with the political action, its truth and its grandeur?

Robert Cauneau, activist citizen


[1] Information report n ° 35 (2016-2017) by Daniel PERCHERON, made on behalf of the fact-finding mission, filed on 13 October 2016:


[3] Five objectives: to reduce extreme poverty and ensure a minimum standard of living, reduce the non-use of social benefits promote autonomy of the life project, reduce stigma, simplify the social system and facilitate the return to work.


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

[6] According to the adopted poverty line, an individual is considered poor when his monthly income is less than 846 euros (threshold at 50% of the median income) or 1,015 euros (threshold at 60%).

[7] Antonella Corsani, « Économie et politique du Revenu Inconditionnel d’Existence. Un hommage à André Gorz », Mouvements 2013/1 (n° 73), p. 11-18. DOI 10.3917/mouv.073.0011

[8] Fortunately, with regard to experimental projects in the departments, some media are well aware of the conditional and non-universal nature of the income that will be tested. Thus, we can read in the East Republican: « But from the outset, it should not be confused with the universal allowance, which is the payment to all citizens of a country, regardless of their income, their heritage and their professional status, a single income enabling each of them to meet their basic needs (food, housing, clothing, basic cultural goods). At the county council, the definition is different: « The basic income principle is to pay a sum to all those who need it with automatic affiliation. No action will be required, and this in order to fight against the non-use of basic allowances.

[9] Avis du COMETS sur « l’éthique de la recherche dans l’expérimentation sociale »

[10] Quet Mathieu, « La politique, c’est l’expérimentation », Hermès, La Revue, 2012/2 (n° 63), p. 215-220. URL :

[11] M. Lepesant et B. Mylondo, « Inconditionnel – Anthologie du revenu universel », Éditions du Détour, mars 2018.

[12] See in particular: A. Gorz, « Richesse sans valeur, valeur sans richesse », entretien réalisé par Sonia Montano en 2005 publié in Ecologica, Galilée, Paris, 2008.


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