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Editor’s Note: This Forum is available as our spring 2017 print issue. We are pleased to make it freely available online thanks to the generous support of the Cameron Schrier Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Please help us continue to make content like this open access by becoming a member!
It was lunchtime in London. I was trying to eat my fries and get ready for my afternoon talk on “The Future of the Left” when I overheard the men next to me grumbling something about universal basic income. They were discussing the recent referendum in Switzerland, where nearly 77 percent of voters opposed the idea of giving adults an unconditional monthly income of 2,500 Swiss francs.
The two men had been loudly disagreeing on various things for a while, but they were now very much agreeing on one thing: giving cash to everyone is a bloody stupid idea!
Basic income should be asserted as a right of residency, not citizenship.
I was slightly taken aback, but mostly amused by the coincidence so I introduced myself as someone who was in town to give a talk on the subject that very afternoon. I asked why they so vehemently opposed the idea that everyone should have the unconditional right to be free from basic economic insecurity. Basic income, they conceded, is a beautiful sentiment, but completely unfeasible: any country that introduced it would get flooded with immigrants in no time.
This is a common objection to basic income. Nationals of countries without basic income, the argument goes, would have stronger incentives to move to countries with generous basic income policies, which would threaten the stability of the welcoming states and their capacity to deliver a generous basic income in the first place. An immediate solution to this pull effect “problem” would be for states to deliver a citizens’ income rather than an income for all its residents. Under such proposals, noncitizens would not be entitled to the unconditional safety net until they themselves became citizens.
But as Brishen Rogers points out, a basic income only for citizens is a troubling proposal. Insofar as we are interested in basic income because we see it as an instrument that will free people from abject economic deprivation, it is morally dubious to exclude a group that contains some of the most marginalized and deprived members of society, leaving them even more disproportionally vulnerable to exploitation. As Rogers puts it, if non-citizens are excluded, “such workers would be far cheaper to employ in menial jobs, at which point they would be permanently enshrined as a laboring underclass.”
Worse, basic income could be “designed to serve white nationalist ends,” Rogers worries. The policy could be sold as part of a package including harsher anti-immigration policies. Prisoners and ex-cons could also be denied basic income, which would further entrench basic income as a right that privileges white Americans. This concern is not specific to basic income though. Far-right populist parties often embrace the welfare state in an exclusionary and xenophobic manner, proposing reforms that would protect the rights of the “deserving” poor over the rights of migrants (and their children) unduly free-riding on benefits.
The problem here is xenophobia, not basic income. For moral and political purposes, basic income should be asserted as a right of residency, not citizenship. But in order to do that, we need to address the issues of immigration and xenophobia head on.
First, it is important to note that the pull effect phenomenon associated with basic income may be overestimated. Up to this point, too few studies assess the theoretical foundation and empirical validity of this concern. No studies show convincingly that the decision to migrate to one country rather than another correlates to social protection systems. As Àlex Boso and Mihaela Vancea argue, “Once we control for other factors, the welfare magnet hypothesis does not seem to hold.” So while it is plausible that basic income will have a pull effect, we cannot just assume that it will be huge, and we should not use the assumption to make exclusionary proposals.
A basic income has the potential to foster convergence between diverse grassroots movements.
Second, we must move beyond domestic basic income. Progressives should not be discussing basic income exclusively at the national level in rich countries when the causes and mechanisms of poverty are global and when absolute abject poverty is disproportionately found in developing countries. If we are going to talk about “the right to an income,” that conversation must take place at the international level too.
That conversation may seem (and to a large extent is) far more utopian than the debate over whether we should have a basic income at the national level. Our conceptions of wealth redistribution are still largely constrained by institutional nationalism as well as a strong sense of exclusive solidarity toward co-nationals. So we seem to be a long way from a transnational basic income. And yet, the transnational basic income debate has already started.
There has been an evolution in the field of development toward cash transfers, with many initiatives seeing great success. Give Directly, for instance, is a nonprofit that facilitates unconditional cash transfers via mobile phone. They recently announced launching the largest ever basic income pilot in Kenya. Moreover, many countries in the Global South—such as India, Namibia, South Africa, and Brazil—are actively discussing, experimenting with, or implementing versions of basic income. This suggests that developing countries are just as likely to move forward with some sort of basic income as are richer countries.
There are also a few existing regional and global basic income proposals, such as Philippe van Parijs’s EU-dividend, Simon Blackburn’s Global Pension and Youth Grant, and Thomas Pogge’s Global Resources Dividend. All of these proposals could be funded through taxes on international financial transactions. Alleviating the economic insecurity that often motivates forced migration can in turn have an important effect on population flows.
Third, if we want to make sure that the basic income proposal that gets put forward or implemented is not a xenophobic one, then groups that defend the rights of migrants should have a central place in the growing basic income coalition. The Movement for Black Lives, for instance, which regularly shows its support for migrants, has recently endorsed basic income as part of their platform. So has Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organization that represents the interests of domestic workers in the United States.
As an egalitarian theorist, I find myself in broad agreement with Rogers’s position that, from a progressive perspective, basic income is necessary but not sufficient to tackle growing inequalities. But I object to his lukewarm embrace of basic income as something that might marginally improve workers’ lives, rather than a project with a critical political goal. Indeed, in some places, his lack of enthusiasm makes one wonder why we should push for one at all since it is so hard to win and only achieves so little.
From Rogers’s basic message that a basic income is insufficient, we seem to slip into the view that it is somehow superfluous for progressive change—an avoidable part of a complicated package. Insisting that a basic income is insufficient in this manner often ends up unnecessarily sapping a rising enthusiasm for the policy for no good reason. This is unfortunate, since a basic income has unequalled potential to foster convergence between diverse grassroots movements. Few policies can help such different groups as domestic workers, truck drivers, stay-at-home moms, abused dependent partners, ex-cons, sex workers, starving artists, people who hate their jobs, people who love their jobs but need to reduce hours, volunteers, interns, students, poor pensioners, precarious workers, people who want to start an ecovillage, and so many more.
If the basic income movement is representative of all those voices, including groups that fight for the rights of migrants, we cannot only ensure the proposal is asserted as a right of residency (and avoid the dangerous drifts Rogers worries about), but the movement can also help federate those groups and be the cornerstone of a powerful alternative progressive imaginary, helping us move away from Trump’s divided America.
Each week, another magazine, book, or think tank sketches a dystopian near-future in which automation renders workers unnecessary. Is a basic income the solution?
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