Skip to content Skip to navigation

Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy

Philippe Van Parijs
Courtesy of Christine Baker-Parrish
Apr 20 2017
Sara Button

On Wednesday, April 12, Philippe Van Parijs, the founder of the Basic Income Earth Network and Professor at the University of Louvain, presented on his latest book, co-written with Yannick Vanderborght, entitled Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy. His talk, which focused on the “free society” and “sane economy” elements of the book’s subtitle, was the second in a series sponsored by the Ethics Center and the Basic Income Lab, a new initiative housed within the Center that aims to provide a platform for the growing interest in basic income. For readers unfamiliar with the term, basic income is an unconditional, individually allotted and regularly delivered cash payment. “I’ve listened to criticisms and questions about basic income in five continents and seven languages,” Van Parijs told an audience of more than a hundred in Cubberley Auditorium. He’s still convinced it has no fatal flaw.

He would know. Van Parijs wrote his first book on UBI more than twenty years ago, and has been an ardent supporter of the idea for even longer. When Van Parijs first started thinking about the idea, he “wanted to produce a good, reliable toolkit” for supporters and critics; he also discovered he wasn’t the first person to come up with the concept. In fact, Van Parijs was surprised to learn that another native of Brussels by the name of Joseph Charlier had proposed basic income as early as 1848.

“Many [supporters of basic income] were dead, but a few were still living,” Van Parijs quipped, and those living advocates, along with Van Parijs, became the first members of BIEN (Basic Income European Network, now Basic Income Earth Network). At first they started small, with biannual conferences. But Van Parijs and his co-founders didn’t want them to be pat-on-the-back sorts of ordeals; rather, they expressed a commitment to remaining open to objections and critics in order to strengthen their arguments.  

Van Parijs’s explication of “free society” revolved around experiences he had early on in his work that forced him to consider freedom’s role in our conceptions of justice. In particular, he wanted to show that basic income was compatible with freedom and justice. To do this, Van Parijs turned to the difference principle in John Rawls’ pivotal work, A Theory of Justice. The difference principle essentially says that inequality can be just only if it improves the fate of the worst-off. Dissecting the principle, Van Parijs felt like basic income checked all the boxes: it cedes some bargaining power to workers; it promotes self-respect on a social level; it provides both wealth and an income. Much to his dismay, Rawls himself did not agree that the difference principle aligned with basic income, which Van Parijs found out over a breakfast they shared one morning. Despite that, his conversation with Rawls motivated him to articulate a conception of justice that made “room for the importance we attach to equality, the importance we attach to freedom, and the importance we attach to efficiency.” Although basic income could be a great tool to fight inequality, it’s “not exclusively concerned with the abolishment of the reduction of poverty,” Van Parijs clarified. “It’s really concerned with freedom of all. The idea of a really free society.”

Van Parijs argued that the “sane economy” part of the subtitle related to the future of work. Automation is the greatest threat to unemployment; though we’ve been worrying about this for a long time, today it’s not as easily dismissed. Van Parijs contended that UBI could be a possible solution to support the displacement of workers, both in terms of allowing a financial cushion to allow them to retrain, or to support them as our global economy transitions. He envisions a redistribution of work, a more “intelligent form of work-sharing” that could even help prevent burnout, a costly problem that impacts people’s health as well as our economy. Van Parijs acknowledged that the success of UBI depends on a lot of factors. Hope, though, rests in the fact that 2016 saw what seemed to be the highest volume of coverage about UBI in its combined previous years. A Swiss referendum last summer brought the concept to the fore, and a Finnish experiment launched in January of 2017.

Rob Reich, Ethics Center Director, asked a few questions of Van Parijs after he finished his talk, namely targeting the idea of incentivizing leisure. How can we make the moral case for UBI when that’s a concern? Van Parijs pointed to the data, much of which had also been corroborated by the first UBI event Stanford hosted in February. In Canada, Van Parijs said, when they experimented with a negative income tax, most people ended up spending more time with their families or doing professional development. Idleness is not the only result of UBI (though Van Parijs was sure to point out that it wouldn’t work if everyone started working part-time jobs). On the whole, UBI could be considered both a social and economic investment.

The audience had a chance to ask questions, too, and many of their concerns hinged on the practicality and equity of such a plan. Van Parijs fielded them with aplomb. Why should the rich receive UBI, too? (They’ll pay it back through taxes; it’s better for the poor to also give to the rich.) How can UBI address the idea that some people aren’t validated solely with money? (It can’t, exactly, but it can provide more flexibility to pursue passions or retrain if your field is disappearing.) Does the BIEN have to pick a side between what appears to be a libertarian faction of UBI supporters and the progressive side? (Why should it?)

Though he considers himself a “globalist” and would prefer for everyone to have the highest UBI possible, Van Parijs knows basic income won’t work without institutional support or a pragmatic approach. Certain conditions might be necessary in its real-world implementation, like recipients having residency of the city or country distributing a basic income. For the whole concept to work, Van Parijs said, the world needs a few groups to work together: visionaries, enraged activists, and opportunistic thinkers. “I am sure in this room there are the three types of people,” he smiled.


Interested in learning more about the Basic Income Lab? Sign up for the mailing list.

In case you missed our February basic income event, full video, a recap and photos can be found here.


SARA BUTTON is a writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.