Basic income: the ‘means’ to finally gain freedom?

Philippe van Parijs is Professor at the Faculty of Economic, Social and Political Sciences of the University of Louvain (UCL), where he has directed the Hoover Chair of Economic and Social Ethics since its creation in 1991. He is also one of the greatest world experts on basic income. Van Parijs will be one of the keynote speakers at the Campus of European Alternatives starting this week in Florence. We met him ahead of his lecture to discuss about the importance of freedom in the debate on basic income and other key social and political issues in Europe today.

European Alternatives: Perhaps your best known work is that on advocacy for an unconditional basic income granted to all citizens. Can you explain what this is?

Philippe Van Parijs: In a nutshell: an unconditional basic income is an income that is paid to every member of a society on an individual basis, without means test or work test. It therefore differs in three ways from typical minimum income schemes, including the reddito di inclusione introduced in Italy by the previous government and the so-called reddito di cittadinanza promised by the M5S-Lega government. The right to it and its amount is independent of whom one lives with (if anyone), independent of how much one earns, and independent of whether or not one is willing and/or able to perform paid employment.

European Alternatives: How could an unconditional basic income address some of the crises we currently see in Europe?

Philippe Van Parijs: There are many challenges commonly called “crisis” in Europe today. One of them takes the form of a growing polarization of earning power. The combination of globalization and of actual and expected labour-saving technical change generates an increase in the earning power of those who possess skills highly valued worldwide, or well protected intellectual property rights, or capital accumulated through the lucrative use of these skills, the exercise of these rights or through inheritance. At the same time, this same combination of globalization and automation depresses the earning power of people who do not possess such assets. Depending on the institutional framework of each country, this manifests itself in variable degrees of unemployment and precarious employment, and in a steady erosion of the security and bargaining power of many still in traditional employment. By offering a firm unconditional floor to all — as opposed to a safety net for the destitute —, a basic income makes it easier to say no to demeaning or lousy jobs, and also to say yes to other activities that may be paid poorly, irregularly or not at all but correspond to what people really want to do or provide them with valuable professional training or social integration. A basic income is not simply, nor even mainly, a redistribution of purchasing power. It is fundamentally a redistribution of freedom of choice in favour of those who have least of it, and thereby a redistribution of bargaining power.

European Alternatives: All your interventions focus attention on the importance of freedom in the debate on basic income. Is basic income the ‘means’ to finally gain freedom?  

Philippe Van Parijs: Real freedom, that is the real possibility — not just the formal right — to do whatever one might want to do with one’s life, is a matter of degree. And there are many ways in which the institutions of a society impact the real freedom of its members, for example by providing free or highly subsidized quality education and health care, or by promoting not just sustainable mobility but also enjoyable immobility in the public spaces of our cities. But an unconditional cash income at the highest sustainable level is an obvious instrument in the pursuit of social justice as I understand it, that is as the greatest possible real freedom for those with least of it.

European Alternatives: Is there a migration crisis in Europe?

Philippe Van Parijs: Yes, and it is there to stay. Not because of the Syrian civil war, which one can hope will end in not too long. But because of the fast increasing demographic imbalance between Europe and Africa. Africa’s population was about one third of that of Europe in 1800. It is expected to grow to three times that of Europe within the next 25 years, with a GDP per capita currently less than 10% of what it is in Europe. Managing the huge migration pressure that is the unavoidable effect of such an imbalance is a huge challenge that can be expected to generate crisis after crisis throughout this century.  

European Alternatives: Do you see a contradiction between national solidarity and transnational solidarity? 

Philippe Van Parijs: At the individual level, there is no moral or psychological contradiction between showing solidarity with compatriots and with foreigners. There is simply a trade-off between benefiting different people with a limited budget, which also exists when all potential beneficiaries are compatriots. By contrast, at the collective level, there is an avoidable tension between designing our institutions so as to be as generous as possible towards the least well off in our midst and designing them so as to be as hospitable as possible with people wishing, indeed sometimes desperate, to come in. For the Left in affluent countries, there is no more cruel dilemma.

European Alternatives: Do you think that Europeans have lost the capacity for utopian action?

Philippe Van Parijs: Some Europeans, no doubt, if they ever had it. But I am sure not all. European Alternatives proves it.


The Campus of European Alternatives arrives to Florence from July 19-22 with trainings on freedom of movement and countering the rise of far right and xenophobia. Discover more about the Campus here

Philippe Van Parijs will be a speaker at the Campus of European Alternatives


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