The instrument of freedom | Philippe Van Parijs | TEDxGhent


Translator: Michele Gianella
Reviewer: Ivana Krivokuća December, 1982. I had two problems,
two worries, two nightmares, that prevented me from sleeping,
one night after another. Problem number one, unemployment. There was then massive unemployment,
especially for young people. What was the solution? The right and the left agreed:
only one solution, growth. Of course, one expected
productivity to go up, jobs to be lost as a result
of technical change. Never mind: growth that would outpace
the growth of productivity was the only solution. But this was already a few years after the alarm call of the Club of Rome about the ecological limits to growth. And I, along with others, thought, “This is crazy!” Surely, there must be something else
to address involuntary unemployment than this mad rush for limitless growth. But what? Then there was my second problem: capitalism. Capitalism is an interesting way of organizing a complex economy, that has undeniable virtues. But it has at least one major drawback. It enslaves us. It subjects us as individuals,
and as political communities, to the dictates of the market, to the dictatorship of competitiveness. Is there a solution? For decennia, some people had said that there was one obvious solution: socialism! The replacement of private ownership
of the means of production by collective ownership. We were then a few years
before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And I was not the only one to have my doubts about that solution. Because socialist economies, for reasons that didn’t seem
to be just contingent, were not doing too well
in terms of economic efficiency. Their record was disappointing,
even with regard to equality. And as regards to freedom,
they were really disastrous. So surely, I thought,
“There must be something else as an alternative
to capitalism, as we knew it.” But what? Then one evening, as I was washing up
and looking through the window, it clicked. I thought, “I’ve got it.” A very simple, dead simple idea. I hadn’t heard of it anywhere. I hadn’t seen it anywhere,
so I had to coin a new expression for it. I was thinking in French,
so I called it “allocation universelle.” Universal benefit,
in analogy to universal suffrage. What was it, this simple idea? An unconditional basic income. Unconditional? Yes! Unconditional, in three senses. One, unconditional in the sense
of strictly individual. One doesn’t need to see who you live with in order to determine
whether you’re entitled to it. Two, universal. One doesn’t need to see how much you earn in order to determine
whether you are entitled to it. And three, duty free, in the sense
that one doesn’t need to check whether you are able or unable to work,
willing or unwilling to work, in order to determine
whether you are entitled to it. These three unconditionalities
make it clear that this is something that’s quite fundamentally different
from social assistance, as born in the beginning
of the 16th century, and still existing today in the form
of what is here called life loan, and similar schemes in other countries. It’s also fundamentally different, even
more obviously, from social insurance, which forms now
the bulk of our welfare states, born at the end of the 19th century,
and covering a number of specific risks: involuntary unemployment,
old-age pensions, etc. It’s fundamentally different from these two older models
of social protection, which doesn’t mean
that it’s not combinable with them. In fact, any serious proposal
for a basic income today consists in fitting
a modest unconditional floor under the whole
of our distribution of income, including social transfers linked to social insurance
or to social assistance. Basic income is not there to replace them, but to enable them to do a better job. Now you know more or less what it is. But that is the connection
with my initial two problems? Let me quickly ask you a question. Suppose we have such
an unconditional basic income. Will wages go up or will wages go down? Will it be necessary
to pay work more than now, or will it be possible to pay work less
than is the case now? Who among you thinks
that as a result of a basic income, wages will go up? Those, raise their hands. Who thinks that, as a result of it,
wages will go down? Those will raise their hands. Okay. 58 percent up, 42 percent down. Good news is you are all partly right,
bad news that you are all partly wrong. Why? Because a universal basic income is something that enables you
at the same time to say, “No” to certain jobs,
and to say, “Yes” to certain jobs. It enables you to accept a number of jobs which are not viable now,
which you couldn’t accept now, because they pay little or they pay in a very uncertain
or irregular way. You couldn’t accept them for that reason. But that make plenty of sense for you, because they provide you
with additional training, because they provide you
with future prospects, because they enable you
to do useful things with wonderful people around you, because they enable you
to realize your calling, whether as a future rock star or as a future smashing,
fantastic inventor-innovator. These jobs don’t exist now because you don’t have now
this unconditional floor to rest on, while doing these sort of jobs. At the same time, a basic income is something that enables you
to say, “No” to certain jobs, to the shitty jobs where you have to work with a bossy, awful boss, with boring, disagreeable colleagues, doing things that have no meaning to you, under dangerous or unpleasant
material conditions. To those jobs you can say, “No,”
because it’s unconditional. As a result of that,
certain jobs will become possible. These cheap jobs in a way will develop,
because they are meaningful in themselves. But at the same time, for other jobs, it will be necessary to pay them more
in order to get enough people to do them. This should give you enough
to have the intuition about the connection
with my first two problems. Unemployment? Yes, a basic income will enable
some people who work too much, who get sick because of working too much, to reduce their working time. To interrupt their career
for a while far more easily without any complications that are now. On the other hand, it will enable some people
who are excluded from work now to get to these jobs. Partly because they will have been vacated
by the people working too much, but also because
they can combine these jobs, part-time and full-time, provided they are meaningful to them, with this unconditional basis. That solves the problem of unemployment. What about the other problem, this radical alternative
to capitalism as we know it? Yes, a basic income is something that goes far beyond a more
effective way of fighting poverty. It’s something that’s closely related
to this old emancipatory ideal that was common to Marx and to the utopian socialists
that preceded him, and that is captured in the motto: “From each according to his capacities,
to each according to his or her needs.” Because the higher a basic income is, the greater the share of the total product
that is distributed according to needs. At the same time, of course,
the higher the basic income, the more people
will contribute voluntarily, according to their capacity, without needing to be prompted to do that by remuneration or higher remuneration. This idea is a fairly old idea. It goes beyond these 30 years ago,
as I discovered later. Why is it today, in the last years,
in the last month, in the last weeks, more popular, more talked about
than it has ever been? In my view, fundamentally, because the two problems I started with, these two worries, are perceived more widely, are perceived more acutely
than ever before. Think about unemployment. Of course, there are now these forecasts about all the jobs
that are going to be lost as a result of robotization
and automation. But this is not new, because in the past you had similar forecasts
about loss of jobs. What is new is that the skepticism about both the desirability
and the possibility of limitless economic growth has grown,
and is now unprecedented. 30 years ago, 1982, no one
was talking about climate change. 30 years ago, no one was talking, as an increasing number
of economies are talking about now, no one was talking
about secular stagnation as being inevitable
for Europe and for North America. And above all, growth, we’ve had growth. We are now twice or three times richer than we were at the beginning
of the golden 60s. Has unemployment been abolished? No, hasn’t been abolished. It’s still there, more than before. More than before. So it’s high time
that we stopped being fooled by the idea that growth
is a solution to unemployment, let alone that it is the only solution. And finally, why my second problem? More than ever today, we need something
like a mobilizing Utopia. A sort of vibrant alternative
to suicidal neoliberalism, to their murderous alternatives
that are provided for some people, even by the worldwide Islamic State. We need something
to mobilize people again. Basic income is not the whole of it, but it is an essential,
indispensable ingredient for any ambitious project, for a sane economy,
and for a free society. For a society that gives
the real freedom to say, “No,” and the real freedom to say, “Yes.” A society that gives real freedom for all. (Applause)

9 thoughts on “The instrument of freedom | Philippe Van Parijs | TEDxGhent

  • Global economic enfranchisement may be achieved by requiring sovereign debt to be backed with Commons shares, that may be claimed by each person on the planet, for deposit in trust with their local bank, as part of an actual social contract.
    In this way each person will receive an equal share of the interest paid on global sovereign debt, directly from their bank, while sovereign entities will simply make their debt payments.
    This simple change provides the structure to recognize, distribute and secure the value of the Commons for the benefit of all people.

  • It should be administered to all adults 21 and over. Non millionaire and non billionaire. I feel it needs to be at least 36,000 a year. It needs to replace all welfare programs though including SS. We would use all the money we used from the old welfare programs as well as SS and implement a low 10% Tariff on imports. Pretty straight forward and simple.

  • An article stated a low 10% Tariff would literally raise 3 trillion a year. Raise that money and give it to the people of this country.

  • Everybody sign for UBI petitions wherever you find them. Mass demand is the only way to make it sooner happen. UBI FTW:)

  • Thats not how money works. There is no such thing as public money, only taxpayer money. In the "best" case you might be able to postpone this kind of debt for a couple of generations. People think you can just print money out of thin air, because that is what we have been doing for the past 100 years. In reality, at some point, some generation will have to pick up the bill.

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