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On the problems of debating with advocates of basic income

Discussing the question of basic income (BI) and social protection (SP) is a very delicate exercise. In the many debates I was involved in these past years, it was very rare to see  any convergence of ideas. Even if it should be clear for everyone who knows the social problems, that there are many points in both positions – in favour of BI or in favour of SP – that are perfectly compatible. It also happened many times that debates I myself tried to organise, could not take place because the people invited – advocates of BI – resigned at the last moment.


In this article, I will only speak about my own experience and I will try to look for explanations for the non-debates. There surely is a lot of semantic confusion, there clearly is a lot of ignorance about social protection and its mechanisms, there may also be some ‘post-truth’ elements, by which I mean that people state something they should know can never be true, and yes, I think that some people do not want to put their own beliefs into question. They are afraid of a confrontation with other beliefs.



Semantic confusion


The semantic confusion concerns mainly the difference between a guaranteed minimum income (GMI) and BI. Basic income is an allowance given unconditionally to all citizens of a country or a city, whether rich or poor. A guaranteed minimum income is given only to people who do not have sufficient income from the labour market or from pensions or for any other reason. This sounds very simple, yet many people continue to speak of BI when very clearly a GMI is meant. Just take the website of BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network – ): most of the news concerns GMI initiatives and proposals, yet they are presented as being BI. It is difficult to start a serious discussion in these circumstances. Or take the references to Namibia and India, where some villages – with a supermajority of poor people – introduced a ‘basic income’. Of course these initiatives had positive results, giving money to the poor is the best thing one can do to stop poverty, but this can hardly be given as an example for a BI in rich countries, where a majority of the people is not poor.


Another confusion follows from the fact that some people speak of BI as automatically including public/social services. A BI, as the word says, is income, it is money. Public/social services are provided by public authorities, non-profit sectors or private companies. They can be delivered for free or against payment. If provided for free, they mean a substantial contribution to the living conditions of people and can reduce the amount of money needed for a life in dignity. The funding of a BI plus public/social services can however be problematic. At any rate, it should be clear that a BI is an amount of money which can be complemented by public/social services. But they are two different things. Saying ‘The principle of unconditional basic income is not a principle of money, it is a social principal of unconditional access to ressources to ensure material existence and enable social participation for every human being – everywhere’ is highly confusing and unhelpful. It is the same as saying ‘rain’ does not mean water falling out of the sky but bad weather. ‘It is raining’ then, does not mean that it is raining …


Saying ‘basic income is a human right’ is misleading. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights states in its article 25: ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control’. These points are further developed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966. This right is universal and basic income can possibly be one way to realize it, but the amount of money as such cannot be considered a right.


These different points are important in that we need an agreement on the meaning of words if we want to have a serious discussion. If I speak of BI and I include social services in my definition, I will certainly have problems in my discussions with others who do not.




Social protection and the welfare state have a long history: they emerged at the end of the 19th century, for several reasons and with diverging philosophies. They were further developed after the Second World War and have been consistently eroded since the introduction of neoliberal policies. Economic and social rights did not fall out of the sky: they were conquered through hard social struggles in which many people lost their lives. They have seriously changed industrial relations and their situation v.a.v. capitalism is best explained by Claus Offe in his ‘Contradictions of the welfare state’[1]: capitalism does not want welfare states because it knows it will ultimately destroy it; on the other hand, capitalism cannot exist without the welfare state, so it will try to maintain it. This explains why even the World Bank today is defending ‘social protection’, even if this has a totally different meaning now than it had in the past.[2] The welfare state ensured people against labour accidents, illness and unemployment and gave them a pension in old age. It thus gave people social citizenship and made an end to labour as a pure commodity. Thanks to organisation and collective bargaining workers and their trade unions became a real counter-power opposed to capitalism. Social security systems were paid out of contributions from workers and employers, or directly from taxes. If social security contributes to the redistribution of incomes and can reduce inequalities, their main objective however is a collective insurance.


However, not all people were able to be active on the labour market, such as disabled people or people with physical or mental illnesses. Many of them got excluded from the benefits of social security and for them a non-contributory assistance was introduced. Social security was meant to be universal, but since contrary to expectations, it did not eradicate poverty, this assistance completed the welfare state and made it truly universal. (I can hear the reactions: no, no, no, many people do not even ask the assistance, the system is not universal… I will come back to this point later.)


Some people speak of a ‘European social model’, which is correct and not correct. It is not correct if one sees the many differences between national systems. They              all emerged in specific historical, social and political circumstances. In some countries trade unions were strong, in other countries they were weaker. But it is correct if one looks at what all systems have in common: the social citizenship, the insurance principle and the structural horizontal solidarity of all with all. Even if I have no children, I pay for the family allowances for families with children, even if I am young and healthy, I pay for the pensions and the health care of those who do need them. This means two things which are important in the discussion on basic income: one, the system is universal in that everyone has the same universal rights, but the actual benefits are different according to what you need. Within a context of universalism, the treatment is differentiated. The second point that follows from this is that  the whole system of the welfare state is based on the principle of ‘from everyone according to means to everyone according to needs’, a fundamental difference with the BI.


This long explanation was necessary because I recently had some painful discussions on some of these principles. I tend to attribute them on ignorance, though I do not exclude that some statements are in fact ‘post-truth’.


What I clearly attribute to ignorance is the constant statements that a BI has to be coupled to the existing social protection. This is possible, yes, but only with a BI at a very low level, since the costs are extremely high (more than 50 % of GDP). With the calculations I made for Belgium, it would be very low indeed,  it could not replace the existing assistance system. It means one has to choose: either a BI (expensive at the level of the poverty line) or a full welfare system with social services and GMIs (less expensive).


A second element which is never presented clearly is the ‘taxing away’ of the BI given to the non-poor. Either one gives a BI which is automatically added to the taxes you pay – irrespective of other incomes and taxes - which would indeed be a possibility, but which seems to me a rather burdensome bureaucracy and also implies means-testing – give and later take away; or you add the BI to other incomes and you pay your taxes normally. But since no one is taxed at 100 %, even the rich will get part of the amount they have received, maybe even the full amount since the really wealthy hardly pay any taxes. Questions on this topic have never been answered.


The most important discussion I recently had was on ‘targeting’, which is the way the differentiated benefits of our welfare states was interpreted.


In my arguments against basic income and in favour of a  - reformed – welfare state, I asked for arguments why advocates of BI prefer to spend a gigantic amount of money on BI instead of keeping the welfare state and giving a decent assistance (GMI) to people who have no other income.  And yes, I know, the current system in most countries is stigmatizing and humiliating, so this certainly has to be improved.[3]


The answer I got was to say that this is ‘targeting’ and that targeting is bad. Well, I know this, thank you. I have been pleading all my life for universal systems, but universal systems can be applied with differentiated benefits, as they are now and as explained above.


One of the best texts on universalism vs targeting I know is from Mkandawire[4]. Targeting is precisely what the old poverty reduction policies of the World Bank implied, and what the current concept of its ‘social protection’ still means: ‘resilience for the vulnerable, equity for the poor, opportunities for all’.[5] All neoliberals want to target, since they do not want public money to be spent on non-poor people: they have to buy their insurances on the market. What targeting means for the World Bank is that you have to carefully look at which poor people can receive money, it is targeting and selecting the poor according to the old division between deserving and non-deserving poor.


This is obviously very different from the differentiated treatment our welfare systems apply. Welfare states do not mean ‘giving to everyone’. You get a pension because you are old, you get sickness allowance when you can prove to be ill, you get a family allowance when you have children, you get a special allowance when you are disabled, and you get assistance when you have no income. For each step there is obviously some kind of control, but this is not ‘targeting’ as the term is used in the social literature, since the basic system is one of collective insurance. For assistance it means indeed means-testing, though this can be very different from what is happening now. In a time when cyber-technology is following all our movements and attitudes, it cannot be difficult to organize a non-stigmatizing and non-humiliating control of the incomes we have. This is as important for tax purposes as it is for social assistance. If someone has no income, I cannot imagine this person will refuse any assistance. There is now indeed an important dimension of non- take-up, though this is due to ignorance of the rights one has, or to rejection of the humiliating conditions and controls. As I have been saying repeatedly, this can rather easily be changed.


It cannot be emphasized enough: we have universal rights, but how these rights will be realized depends on the different political, economic and social arrangements within countries. There are many different possibilities.




I do not exclude that some people really believe what they say and are not aware of any wrongdoing. By saying ‘post-truth’ I do not mean to say people are consciously lying, but that they are giving, often unconsciously, new meanings to words most people know differently.


Take for instance: redistribution. We mean to say that money can go from the more wealthy to the more poor in order to get more equality, a more just society. But if you give an equal amount of money to all citizens, even the wealthy, can you call this ‘redistribution’? I think not.


Another one is ‘forced reciprocity’: it is the answer you usually get from advocates of BI when you point to the importance of the structural solidarity in welfare states because of the reciprocity that characterizes all societies.  This is ‘forced’ reciprocity and ‘forced’ solidarity in the sense that you cannot choose to whom you want to show your solidarity, it is all with all. A recent answer I got was this: ‘you confuse the definitions: of course every human society [is] based on reciprocity – that means for a society without forced labour and so on. Or in other words (in sense of Marx): forced reciprocity creates an inhuman society. Free reciprocity creates the human society’.  Or this: ‘forced reciprocity is every kind of active reciprocity, which is a forced activity, for example forced labour’. I honestly do not very well know how to interpret this: what has ‘forced reciprocity’ to do with ‘forced labour’, and is this ‘forced labour’ not only to be understood  in the sense of ILO conventions, but also in the sense of ‘commodity’ labour, or ‘subordinated to capital’ as many P2P-ers say?  Or does the author mean that having a society with a labour market and employment and a welfare state is per definition ‘unfree’ or ‘inhuman’?


In the same vein: ‘unconditionality does not mean no reciprocity; it is a recognition of the productive nature of citizenship in a networked society, and that all contributions are recognized, not just the commodity form, so it is about <more> reciprocity not less’. However, citizenship has never been recognized on the basis of commodity or any other labour, but on the basis of ownership and military service and loyalty to the State. Social citizenship was recognized when workers were able to amass collective property through their first self-managed solidarity funds.[6] Women got citizenship and voting rights on the basis of their contribution to the common interest and more particularly to the war effort.[7] One may of course dream of another kind of society where citizenship is based on other criteria but I think it will always be a ‘this for that’, otherwise it does come down to unilateral charity. In my perspective, unconditionality – I give you something without asking anything in return - excludes reciprocity. If I am wrong I would like to get arguments that say the opposite.


On my demands for arguments for not giving priority to the existing social protection with a guaranteed minimum income for those who are not on the labour market: ‘your argument, whatever its merits, is the neoliberal and conservative one, and has been the key strategy to undermine welfare for all and make it means-tested and workfare-slavery based charity … a guaranteed minimum wage [sic], which is entirely compatible and a necessary complement of the basic income, is equally necessary, but unlike the basic income, does not diminish the dependency on capital and a disciplinary state apparatus, and it doesn’t allow for a massive turn to transition economies’. And the same author, one day later: ‘what I am saying is not that the guaranteed income is neoliberal, but conditionality of social support is neoliberal; I also said that the guaranteed income for work does not allow people to de-subordinate themselves from capital, as the basic income does’.


Two remarks on this. First we all agree that the conditionality today for social assistance is unacceptable, stigmatizing en humiliating. I claim, as said above, this system can easily be changed. The point is that we should not allow anyone in our societies to have insufficient income for a life in dignity. I do say that in order to have this result, which has a relative low cost, it is preferable to the extremely expensive cost of a basic income where you not only give money to those who need it but to all. BI is a faraway utopia, GMI can be given tomorrow. Furthermore, a GMI is not linked to work, minimum income is not the same as minimum wage.[8]


Two, is it wrong to deduce from what the author says that according to him, the ideal situation is one in which people do not depend on wage labour and capital? It is certainly true that this dependency is one of the main characteristics of capitalism, the question is, if one wants to abolish capitalism, if the priority should go to the abolishment of waged labour, while capitalism is still in place? I think not, since in the current situation it is waged labour that gives most protection to people, and the fight of Uber and Deliveroo workers to have this protection show that many people see the advantages of it. A basic income, so it is said, makes people independent from this waged labour, yes, but only if it is high enough and if there is sufficient social protection next to it, so here again we are faced with the problem of affordability. One might dream of a world in which people can freely choose what they are going to spend their time on, and who is going to produce the goods we all need, from food to clothing to housing and phones without any hierarchy and dependency being re-introduced. Theoretically this may be possible, I have my doubts about the practical implementation. But is it incorrect to think that those who see the basic income and P2P as freedom from capitalist dependency prefer this to the current protection of waged labour? If it is, please give your arguments. If my reasoning is correct, should we then not keep, defend and promote the current protection of workers as long as capitalism is in place, instead of giving up one of the most precious achievements of the workers’ movement?


Fear to debate?


It is clear that if your mindset is framed for thinking on a basic income and a totally new world in which people can freely choose how they are going to organize their lives, a world without capitalism and subordinated labour, it is difficult to hear the arguments of others who share the criticism on the current system, but I think that the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater.


There certainly is semantic confusion, there is a misunderstanding on basic income itself and its compatibility/affordability in conjunction with social protection, there are conscious and unconscious shifts in the meaning of words and, as far as I can see, there is a lot of ignorance on  what the existing social protection systems mean, how they came about, what they have changed in the capital to labour relationship and what social struggles have been necessary to achieve what we have.


Another difficulty certainly is that much of the thinking on basic income and even more on commons is unfinished, there are no absolute truths, it still is a search for clarity and shared meanings. This is a positive development to which we should all be open.


In that light it is particularly regrettable that the debate is so difficult and very rapidly falls into blaming, reproaches and accusations. If you say and repeat that you are in  favour of universal social policies, why do you have to be blamed for wanting targeting? We may use different definitions, but in a serious debate it is good to use the terminology and the meanings of current academic thinking, if one wants to deviate from it, one should clearly say so.


One of the problems clearly is that many advocates of basic income and commons do not work within an academic perspective of searching for clarity and shared meanings, but start from a strong belief in the correctness of their views. They firmly believe they have the alternative for the future and once you start questioning these beliefs, they retract as if their personal integrity were threatened. Hence, what I feel to be very often a fear to start the debate.




Based on my research on social development, I am still an advocate of a strong comprehensive universal and transformative social protection system. I think this is where movements have to start if they truly want to change the system. When truly pursuing the aims of social and climate justice, it rapidly becomes clear one has to tackle the current economic policies and the practices of some multinationals. What it is all about is the caring for people and the caring for nature, the sustainability of life. I do think there is a lot to learn from the ideas on basic income, and I do believe we could substantially improve our social protection systems by conceptualizing them in terms of social commons. This is what I have proposed in a book three years ago. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get a real debate going on this, and the advocates of BI have not even tried to convince me of their superior ideas, they just say I did not read their texts, or that I am only given general ideas about welfare, and that, since advocates of BI do not agree with me, I must have misinterpreted them. This is not only rude, but most of all a rejection of any serious debate. I can only regret it.


Hence this article has to be read as another attempt to get serious answers to simple questions. You may blame me for being ignorant, not for not having read the literature on BI and SP. I do want to try and get clarity, clear definitions, a reasonable margin for meanings, and a solid base to further discussions.




Francine Mestrum, PhD


P.S. I was so kind as to not mention any names in this article. If people are interested, I can provide the names and dates of their statements.


[1] Offe, C. (ed. by Keane, J.), Contradictions of the Welfare State, London, Hutchinson & Co, 1984.

[2] Mestrum, F., Global, European and national: on the neoliberalisation of social policies,

[3] In order to see the different proposals for change I am thinking of, see book and synthesis in four languages  on

[4] Mkandawire, Thandika, 2007. "Targeting and Universalism in Poverty Reduction," in Policy Matters: Economic and Social Policies to sustain equitable development. Jose Antonio Ocampo, Jomo K. Sundaram and Sarbuland Khan eds. Hyderabad/London/Penang: Orient/Longmans/Zed Books/TWN.

[5] World Bank, Resilience, Equity and Opportunity, Washington, The World Bank, 2012.

[6] Castel, R., Les metamorphoses de la question sociale. Une chronique du salariat, Paris, Fayard, 1995.

[7] United Nations, Report of the CSW to ECOSOC on the first session of the Commission, held at Lake Success, New York, February 1947, Doc. E/281/Rev.1, 1947.

[8] Moreover, in the EU, we even have legal instruments on which to base a GMI: two council recommendations of 1992: 92/441/EEC and 92/442/EEC.


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