Grand Conference : Basic Income, a Major Social Innovation for the 21st Century

13 August 2016

Basic income: the idea that giving an amount of money from birth to death could help eradicate extreme poverty

For the last day of the Grand Conferences, the WSF 2016 presented a discussion on basic income at Concordia University. During an hour and a half, the panel of three speakers and a moderator addressed the conference “ Basic Income, a Major Social Innovation for the 21st Century”.

The first one to speak was Rutger Bregman, author of the bestseller Utopia for Realists, where he defends the need to have a basic income. His intervention was filled with humour, as well as being rich in content. He began by explaining that following his five years of study in the field of history, he was able to summarize everything that he learned in 5 words: “everything used to be worse”. He then went on to offer a critique of the media, which only talk about disasters, terrorism, and economic crises; in brief, we are too pessimistic. During the 1800s, 94% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. During the 1980s, this number went down to 40%, whereas today it is at 10%. The most important objection to basic income is fundamentally moral as the majority of people believe that in order to make money, one must work for it. The problem is that we apply a definition that is too limited when it comes to work. People are paid for working “ bullshit jobs “, while being frustrated at their jobs. We are not creating a society that is happier or more productive.

Karl Widerquist, professor at the University of Georgetown, continued the discussion by presenting the history behind the importance of a basic income. He presented the three waves of basic income. The first wave began at the beginning of the 20th century and emerged from the idea that “basic income is the base of social justice”. A certain income, just enough to be able to pay for necessities, needs to be guaranteed to everyone, whether one works or not. A larger income should be given to those who wish to work within their communities. The second wave continued during the 1960s, accompanied by social movements in which civil society participated and encouraged, like the Welfare Rights Movement for example. Widerquist concluded by presenting the third and most important wave of the movement which is going on today.

Marcus Brancaglione presented a concrete example of the application of basic income in Brazil. Brazil is moreover the first and only country to have introduced the concept of a basic income in its constitution. In 2008, Marcus Brancaglione initiated a pilot project in a small village in his motherland. In the beginning, people believed it as a trap, but in the end, all beneficiated from it.

Instead of spending enormous amounts of money on war and corruption, why not use this money towards programs of basic income from which all can take advantage of? However, it is important to remember that “to every right, a duty”. Although governments do their part in giving populations such a right, populations have a duty to use this income in order for everyone, including future generations, to take advantage of this income and to potentially eradicate extreme poverty.

To conclude the conference, a period of questions allowed the debate to carry on. Bregman and Widerquist mentioned that a system of international assistance – where the rich and the poor can benefit – is less costly than a targeted system. Some may say that a system of international assistance is more costly than a targeted system. However, Widerquist demonstrated that the required costs to determine which populations need this basic income are greater than a simple system where all are targeted and benefit in the end. During the second wave of the movement, Reagan and Thatcher demonized poorer social classes and retreated the work that was previously done by activists for basic income. Both speakers explained that by including all social classes when it came to social benefits, this allowed to eliminate the demonization of other classes in the debate.

Finally, Bregman closed the discussion with the example of women’s suffrage, which was considered for quite some time as a utopia. We must not forget that “every milestone of civilization started as a utopian thought”.