Stuart White: “A movement is not just a network of people sharing ideas”

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An interview with prominent political theorist Stuart White in which he outlines the case for basic income.

Stuart White is lecturer in political theory at the University of Oxford. He also writes for OurKingdom, and the UK section of openDemocracy for which he is editing a series on the theme of Democratic Wealth. At a summer school dedicated to basic income that took place in July in Braga, Portugal, Stuart gave six lectures ranging across many dimensions of the basic income debate.

You were first skeptical about Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) before later becoming a supporter of UBI. What were the reasons for that skepticism  and what made you change your mind?

I first heard of basic income in the late 1980s while I was working briefly at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in the UK. The idea struck me as very interesting. Later I wrote about it in my doctoral thesis and then again in my book, The Civic Minimum, published in 2003.

Although I saw great attractions to the idea, I also saw at least one ethical objection, as many do: that an unconditional basic income allows people to receive a share of their society’s income without making a productive contribution in return. This fails – or at least looks as if it fails – an important reciprocity principle: if you willingly share in the resources generated through the productive contributions of your fellow citizens, then you have an obligation to make a contribution, if you are able to do so and have the opportunity, in return. If you claim a share of the income generated through this cooperative effort without contributing in return, when you are able to do so and have the opportunity, then you take unfair advantage of your fellow citizens; in one sense of the term, you exploit your fellow citizens. Basic income apparently allows us to exploit our fellow citizens in this way. (For a distinct but particularly compelling elaboration of this type of objection, I strongly recommend Gijs van Donselaar’s book, The Right to Exploit.)

I still think the exploitation objection is valid. But an objection can be valid without being decisive. This is because there are also ethical costs attached to making income support conditional on work or being willing to work. These costs are more morally troubling than the departures from reciprocity that basic income allows.

I still think the exploitation objection is valid. But an objection can be valid without being decisive.

I’ll try to elaborate this. In general terms, people have a very important interest in being able to avoid economic relationships – for example, with employers, with spouses, with state officials – in which they are so dependent for urgently needed resources that they become subject to domination. If I need this job to get a decent income, then the employer can use my dependency to establish power over me, a power that they can use at their discretion to influence how I act. Republican political theorists, such as Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner, argue that this kind of domination – this dependency on the arbitrary will of another – deprives us of freedom. Other political theorists, notably Robert E. Goodin, have discussed how situations of ‘vulnerability’ which have the sort of structure I have described can result in a specific form of exploitation.

Now the great merit of a basic income, I think – and this is a point stressed in particular by ‘republican’ advocates of basic income such as Daniel Raventos and Julie Wark and David Casassas – is that by unconditionally guaranteeing everyone an income in their own right, it works to limit and prevent these situations of dependency, vulnerability and domination. Even a modest basic income can give people that extra bit of financial independence from employers and spouses which can then translate into a reduced risk of dependency, vulnerability and domination. Carole Pateman makes a similar argument, focusing on the way basic income can democratise social relationships by increasing our independence from employers or, in the case of many women, from traditional male breadwinners.

The choice might be put like this. Let’s imagine a society, A, with a basic income. Because the basic income is unconditional with respect to work, this society might have some degree of reciprocity failure as some citizens choose to live on their basic income without working (though they could work if they chose to). But the basic income, precisely because it is unconditional on work, will help also to create a low level of vulnerability and domination in economic relationships. In society B, there is a much more work-conditional system of income support. There is consequently no reciprocity failure (at least from this source). But the work-test pushes people into the labour market and results in a higher level of vulnerability and domination. If we have to choose, I think A is clearly preferable as a society to B. In other words, some reciprocity-failure seems a price worth paying, ethically, to get rid of, or to reduce significantly, vulnerability and domination. This is what I mean by saying that the exploitation objection is valid but not decisive.

At one time I would have been more optimistic about evading this choice. I would have wondered whether we couldn’t design a system of social rights, with a strong degree of conditionality, but which nevertheless works to prevent vulnerability and domination as well as prevent reciprocity-failure. In essence, this was the agenda I explored in The Civic Minimum, and which I over-optimistically hoped could progressively emerge from New Labour’s social policy. I am less optimistic about this in practice now and am therefore more sympathetic to basic income.

Indeed, looking at how conditionality has actually developed in the UK in recent years has been very instructive. The last Labour government reformed the out-of-work benefit for disabled people, introducing something called the ‘Work Capabilities Assessment’ (WCA). As bloggers such as Kaliya Franklin (‘Bendygirl’) and Sue Marsh have argued, and as I think is now widely agreed, the WCA in practice has been a human disaster. It has placed many disabled people under a great deal of stress and caused much suffering. Conditionality is hard to get right. Its ethical costs can be huge. (On this point, see also this powerful article by Deborah Padfield.)

One reasonable response is to struggle to make conditionality rules better – fairer, more humane – and, related to this, to change policy-making in ways that give the citizens who stand to be most affected more power to shape the policy. I strongly support these goals. But an additional, perhaps longer-term response is to try to move towards basic income.

You were a prominent speaker at the Summer School on Basic income in Braga. Can you summarize the key messages you wanted to tell us?

The lectures were intended to serve as an introduction to the philosophical aspects of the debate around basic income. The first three lectures set out three ‘families’ of argument for basic income. The first family I called communist, drawing in particular on the classic article by Robert van der Veen and Philippe Van Parijs, ‘A Capitalist Road to Communism’. Communism, in their view, is not necessarily tied to public or common ownership of the means of production but is a matter of (1) how far society distributes its income according to need and (2) how far work is ‘unalienated’ (inherently satisfying). Basic income is proposed as a way of putting a capitalist society on a path towards gradually increasing communism in this sense.

The second lecture looked at the family of liberal arguments for basic income. Particularly important here is a set of arguments which focus on the fair distribution of natural resources and other scarce ‘external assets’. Fair distribution of these resources, which can be monetized by taxing and distributing their market value as a basic income, is seen as prior to the question of how we distribute the fruits of citizens’ work, and thus as lying outside the scope of the reciprocity principle.

And then, thirdly, there is the republican family of arguments, in particular the argument I sketched above that a basic income is necessary to prevent the loss of freedom through domination. I think all three families of argument have something to contribute to the case for basic income.

The republican argument connects, I think, with an important current of thought in contemporary political philosophy known as ‘relational egalitarianism’. Relational egalitarians, such as Elizabeth Anderson, argue that the demand for equality in not fundamentally about the distribution of things but about the quality of our social relations: about equality of status and the absence of relationships involving domination or oppression. In her very influential article, ‘What is the Point of Equality?’, Anderson is critical of basic income. But, for the reasons outlined above, one can see how this perspective might actually support basic income. There is also an overlap here with arguments for basic income, such as that by Pateman, which focus on how it might change power relations within the household – although, as Ingrid Robeyns has argued, there is a danger in contemporary circumstances that basic income will work to consolidate a traditional gendered division of labour in the household. She argues that basic income should be accompanied by other measures to address this risk.

Having set out the arguments for basic income, however, I then wanted to consider some challenges to it.

The fourth lecture therefore looked at the exploitation objection described above. I looked at the various ways one might try to defuse this objection. Here it is important to note that in some ways a basic income can make our society better in terms of reciprocity – for example, by providing an effective social wage for forms of productive contribution, such as forms of care work, which otherwise go unpaid in our society.

The fifth lecture considered the view that there is a better, perhaps more liberal alternative to basic income – namely, basic capital. Under this policy everyone gets a lump-sum grant in early adulthood rather than a basic income. Or else we could give people the freedom to convert their basic income into a large one-off grant. I argued that a modest degree of convertibility is desirable, though I think it should be limited in order to preserve the republican effects of basic income (in terms of preventing vulnerability and domination).

Finally, in the sixth lecture, I considered the challenge that this philosophizing is all very well but meaningless in practical terms because a basic income is just not feasible. I looked at some existing policy proposals and real-world policies and put forward the view that basic income is feasible, though it may be that we have to make use of a range of instruments and institutions to get it. I’ll say a bit more about this below.

What did you learn during these 3 days of discussions on basic income?

I was reminded firstly of some thinkers whose work I need to revisit, notably that of André Gorz. But also I learned a lot about the current economic and social context in which basic income is being discussed and the way it is connecting to contemporary needs and aspirations.

In some ways the immediate context is similar to the past. So, for example, interest in basic income grew in the 1980s in Europe in response to the return of mass unemployment. This is true today also, with some EU nations experiencing very high rates of unemployment, especially youth unemployment. Interest in basic income has also been connected to views about how to transition to an environmentally sustainable economy, and this also remains true today.

However, there are newer technological and economic developments, particularly around the internet, which arguably add something new to the context, and I am still struggling to get my head around these aspects of the current situation. The basic claim is that technological change, which is inherently liberatory in its potential, threatens a long-term loss of employment and increased precarity – unless a basic income is introduced to provide everyone some underlying economic security. There is, for example, the emergence of the sharing or collaborative economy. This seems liberatory in some ways, but also to carry great dangers in terms of loss of jobs and, as Guy Standing would perhaps point out, increased precarity. So there’s a need to ask whether we can get the liberatory benefits without the precarity or with less precarity. And maybe this is where a basic income fits in. (Good articles on these themes include that by Lui at the Simulacrum blog, and these by Alex Hern and Aaron Peters.)

I found the School very helpful in getting more of a grasp on this cluster of issues, though I am still very much at the start of the learning curve.

Your last lecture was on the feasibility of UBI. Do you think it is, and if so are there any chances for UBI to be implemented in Europe in the coming years? And what should be done to grow the movement?

Roughly speaking, in my sixth lecture at the Summer School, I distinguished three roads to a basic income.

The first, very direct route is through reform of the tax-benefit system. The Citizen’s Income Trust in the UK have put forward one interesting proposal here for redirecting the existing public spend on cash benefits and tax reliefs into a basic income. It gets you a basic income which I think is about 50-60% of the UK poverty line for working age households.

The second, more indirect route is to establish some kind of public investment fund and pay citizens a share of the annual return on this fund. The Alaska Permanent Fund, discussed by Karl Widerquist and Michael Howard, is a familiar model here.

Thirdly, and even more indirectly, we might try to get at something like a basic income by promoting a wider dispersion of private wealth. Insofar as private wealth is more widely spread, more people are able to enjoy an income from such wealth, an income that is independent of the sale of their labour-power. Many governments subsidise the accumulation of private wealth, but often in ways that benefit the more affluent (e.g., through tax relief). There are, however, other ways of supporting asset accumulation that are more inclusive such as the Child Trust Fund policy under the previous UK government.

One might think of these, respectively, and with a nod in the direction of James Meade and John Rawls, as the welfare state, liberal socialist and property-owning democracy roads to basic income. My view is that we should be open-minded about using any of the roads, and that achieving a generous basic income, or equivalent, might require us to use two or even all three of them.

In terms of political feasibility, I think the liberal socialist and property-owning democracy routes are currently easier in nations like the USA and the UK, though I am not sure about elsewhere in Europe. This is because they work with and through the dominant ideology of ‘property rights’ rather than through the tax-benefit system.

However, I suspect that getting a reasonably sized basic income requires substantial use of the tax-benefit system. Here we come back, in a political context, to the anxieties I discussed above under the heading of the exploitation objection. There is a lot of work to be done, at least in the UK, to prepare the ground for basic income via the tax-benefit system given how hostile many of the public seem to be to people getting ‘something for nothing’ through the benefits system. The way forward is to publicise basic income and to try to re-balance the public debate by increasing awareness of the ethical costs of conditionality (and of means-testing).

Also, it is possible that basic income looks more compelling when presented as just one part of a new, different vision of society – if it is offered as part of a qualitatively new way of living. This can perhaps help shift the discussion out of the domains of fear and resentment, where so much discussion of benefits is today in the UK, into a space that is more about hope and confidence in the future.

In terms of growing the movement? I am not en expert on that, but all I would say is that you are right to put it in terms of developing a movement. A movement is not just a network of people sharing ideas, crucial as this is. It is also a network which campaigns for its ideas. This campaign has to be directed, moreover, not only at elites, but, for the reasons just given, at the wider public, at fellow citizens.
I think since 2011 we have seen, in Europe and elsewhere, the start of an attempt to move beyond a reactive, anti-cuts movement to one that is constructive – a movement that talks in terms of creating a world better than the one we had before the crash rather than just stopping cuts (important as this is). Basic income is a powerful idea that can contribute to this movement for an alternative.

In the EU context in particular, Philippe Van Parijs has made an interesting argument that a ‘Eurodividend’ – a modest basic income financed from a value added tax – could function as a new, much-needed form of solidarity. The European Citizens’ Initiative on Basic Income is very welcome, and provides an excellent focus for developing an EU-wide campaigning network.


1st Photo courtesy Stanislas Jourdan

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