Tough (the toughest) challenge


The ongoing migrant/refugee tragedy within and at Europe’s borders lays down a gauntlet to advocates for basic income: If the development of UBI within Europe depends on closing and (it’s always going to be) violently maintaining its borders, is UBI a policy that can take any kind of priority?

The reason for tension between immigration and UBI runs like this: The country or countries that introduces a substantial UBI quickly becomes the most generous provider of welfare. This will entice large numbers of migrants to the country, looking – quite rationally – for the best place to move. Even with the establishment of residency qualification, any time served in pursuit of belonging to such a generous system will be entirely worth it. There will be other considerations of course: presence of family, friends, compatriots; the native language spoken; the attitudes of the local population. But it is safe to say that the introduction of UBI adds one huge reason to the pile.

Bracket whatever arguments might be made w/r/t immigration’s effects on cultural collapse, the perishing of local values  – which perhaps, once the rhetoric has been sufficiently diluted, have some merit but are too often way overstated and, to my mind, of less value/importance than open borders.* But anyway bracket that. The argument to focus on here is one of more technical-economic sustainability : Open borders will undermine the ability of  the state to provide UBI to those entitled to it because of the increasing number of those recipients, i.e. those entitled to it. We have then, a race to the bottom where the notion of ‘minimally decent’ or ‘sufficient’ gets chipped away to inadequacy.+

Of course, the situation is more complex than this description grasps. Here we have a state on the one hand getting on with the business of social justice. And here we have a group of people looking for economic opportunity. This is a benign image of the state obfuscating important political realities. In particular, the hand Europe/The West has had in devastating the home countries of literally millions of people. Not only through colonialism, war and the support of genocidal dictators, but also through the kinds of economic liberalization that has been forced through in these countries (with the help of the gangsters put in charge, as well as the ideologues of IMF/WTO, etc). So the correct image is really of a gang of thieves, perhaps a gang that has had something of change in heart – they are delivering UBI after all – that has decided to mend its ways, but only so far – certainly not so far as to offer genuine salve to the historical/contemporary victims of its thieving.^ Whether we like it or not, we – and I mean that as broadly as possible – are involved with that gang – and have, in a great many ways, benefited from being, however begrudgingly, in/near/part of that gang.


To counter a possible counter-argument: That refugees and economic migrants are not the same. We can afford to open our borders to the former without opening our borders to the latter. First, the state is very good at using these kinds of distinction to its own benefit: I’d anticipate – with the evidence of historical precedence – the state shifting a great many applications into the economic half of that distinction. Second, I would also resist falling into this distinction in the first place: Not wanting to be murdered and not wanting to starve are imperatives that lie pretty close together on the spectrum of (intensely) valid reasons. Third, even with the acceptance of that distinction this still needs to be recognized as the curtailment of freedom that it explicitly represents.

I would argue then that unless UBI and open borders can be delivered simultaneously, then a decision has to be made about which should have more a more axiomatic role in both ‘our’ thinking about what to do and the decision as to what we end up doing. And with that decision the acceptance that the costs are going to be huge for some people. It will not do to point to various pilot schemes in the Majoritarian World that have proved the viability of UBI in such contexts – as things stand, those pilot schemes do not touch the sustainable material reality of people’s lives. Nor will it do to posit the notion that we can simultaneously enjoy UBI + violent enforcement of borders, alongside advocating for it in other parts of the world. This is simply a refusal to address the stark reality of the choice that is between UBI and exclusion on the one hand, or open borders on the other.Europe-without-borders-300x200.jpg

Of course, the salience of this rift between the two aspirations is especially acute as things stand. But there is no reason to believe these kinds of issues are going to resolve themselves in the short-term or mid-term. And so the question of priorities asserts itself: Do ‘we’ focus on delivering ’emancipatory welfare’ for the (to put it somewhat provocatively) the select few, which relatively speaking we really are? Or do we fight for the kind of open borders that are necessary both for the survival of a great many people and that match our affirmation of some of the most important freedoms?

Or is the calculation of an altogether different hue, one that takes seriously the quality/tragedy of political battles: Do we pick the battle that can be won?


* NB: There is an argument for example that culturally more homogeneous countries are better able to sustain generous welfare states. However, I find this way of looking at things a little reductionist. For example, the UK – which overall has a population that is 87% white/ 80% British whites – has pockets of intense ethnic diversity sitting alongside almost total homogeneity. I would like to study that takes into account this dynamic. My intuition is that the culturally heterogeneous parts, so long as above a certain socio-economic threshold, are actually far more likely to embrace a generous welfare state than the culturally homogeneous areas.

+ There is another option not covered here: Allow individuals in and cut them off in substantial ways from the welfare system for long periods of time: this would be something like permanent guest-worker status, eradicating (large parts of) the incentive effect while still keeping borders open for those who are happy with that status.

^ For doubters, see Churchill’s proclamation to much the same tune: “We are not a young people with an innocent record and a scanty inheritance… We have engrossed to ourselves an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.”


Main image: Courtesy of Eadaoin Flynn

Second image: Courtesy of Josh Zakary

Third image: Courtesy of Rasande Tyskar

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